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Dakota Carson sensed danger. A fragile pink dawn lay like a silent ribbon along the eastern horizon. As he exhaled, white clouds congealed for a moment in front of him, telling him it was below freezing on this June first morning. Standing on a small rise at the edge of an oval meadow, he studied a football-field-long swath of willows that ran through the center.
His left arm ached in the cold, reminding him why he'd been discharged from the U.S. Navy and his SEAL team. He'd suffered permanent nerve damage during a firefight. Never mind the posttraumatic stress disorder he coped with 24/7. Now his hyperalertness was telling him something wasn't right. But what was wrong? Eyes narrowing, he scanned the quiet, early morning area. To his right rose the majestic Teton Mountains, their white peaks taking on a pinkish alpine glow.
It was quiet. Too quiet. He'd been a SEAL for ten years and at twenty-eight, he was no stranger to threatening situations. He knew one when he felt it. To his left, he saw a gray movement. It was Storm, a female wolf he'd rescued a year earlier. Thus far, she treated him like her alpha mate, but he was sure she wouldn't hang around as she matured. There was every possibility she'd leave him and join the Snake River wolf pack that ruled this valley in Wyoming. Storm was loping at the edge of the forest, ears twitching back and forth, nose in the air, picking up scents.
Yesterday Dakota had laid five rabbit traps out in these willows. It was one of many places he trapped in order to live outside society and the town of Jackson Hole. Since being released from the hospital and months of painful physical therapy to get his shoulder working, Dakota wanted to hide. He didn't look too closely at why, only that he had to heal up. Ten years spent in the SEALs had been the happiest time of his life, but deployment into Iraq and Afghanistan had taken their toll on his body and emotions.
Sniffing the air, he tried to locate the source of the threat. Grizzlies had their own odor. So did elk. No stranger to studying the land and vegetation, Dakota could spot things few others could. His sniper SEAL training had taught him stealth and tracking.
Storm had disappeared into the tree line again. The months of May and June were prime elk birthing season. It was also the same time when hungry grizzlies came out of hibernation, starving for anything to eat. Elk babies were the number-one food source on their menu. Storm always hunted her own meals. She was looking for smaller prey. One wolf could not take down a baby elk. A pack was needed, instead.
Dakota studied the willows, his hearing keyed, but he heard nothing. Had an elk mother calved a baby in there? What was he sensing? Just because he could sometimes feel a threat didn't mean he knew what the threat was. If a new elk calf was in there, a grizzly could be skulking around, out of his sight, trying to locate it. The bear could have picked up on the scent of the afterbirth before the mother could eat it and destroy the odor. The thick, naked willows reminded Dakota of a porcupine with its back up, the crochetedlike needles raised skyward. The problem was they grew so high and thick, he couldn't see through the grove. There was no movement. No sound.
The air was still. Nothing seemed to move, which was odd because dawn was the busiest time of the day for nocturnal and diurnal animals. The pink along the horizon deepened and the sky above lightened. Dakota could no longer see the myriad stars above his head; they were diluted, having disappeared in the dawn light. It would be a long time before the sun would rise, however. He heard a raven cawing somewhere off in the distance. Other than that, it was as if the earth herself were holding her breath.
For what? He rubbed the back of his neck with his gloved hand, but his old shoulder injury protested with the movement. After allowing his hand to drop to his side, Dakota shouldered a .300 Win Mag Winchester magnum rifle with a sling across his right shoulder. He'd been a sniper in the SEALs and had used this rifle to hunt down the bad guys. Out here in the wilds of Wyoming, where grizzly were the predator, Dakota never tracked or hunted anywhere without a big rifle. Grizzlies, especially this time of year, were hungry, irritable and mean. All they wanted was food and they'd kill anything and anyone to protect their carcass or find.
Dakota wasn't foolhardy. Patience was his best protection. A bear would move eventually, and the willows would tremble and wave back and forth. But if it was an elk calf?
Dakota waited on the rise. He was downwind, something he made sure of because he knew the grizzlies were hunting in earnest. Dakota didn't want his scent to inspire one of those bears to hunt him, thinking he was a posthibernation meal on two legs. His mouth pulled at one corner over that thought. He'd seen enough mayhem and killing.
After his discharge from the navy, his medical issues as fixed as they were going to be, he'd located a cabin high in the Tetons on the Wyoming side of the mountains. He'd cleaned it up and started living in the ramshackle, abandoned structure. Never mind that it didn't have electricity or running water. He'd spent the past year in hiding and needed the solitude. There was so much grief and loss in him, he didn't know what to do with it or how to discharge it. Sleep was a luxury. He rarely got two or three broken hours of sleep at night. His heart sank as he considered all that he'd lost since he was seventeen years old and then more losses in the navy. Wounded in a field of fire deep in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, he found his life repeating the nightmare cycle of his teen years.
It's too much pain
Too damned much. Purposefully, Dakota lasered his attention on the willow stand. This was the present. When his mind wandered into the past, it was nothing but a mire of serrating grief, rage and helplessness. He didn't like feeling those turgid emotions. His stomach growled. It had been one day since he'd last eaten. The winter had leaned him down considerably, but he wasn't starving. Dakota set out enough traps to keep meat on his table, but a sudden, unexpected snowstorm yesterday had stopped him from walking his traplines and gathering up the rabbits he'd caught. A cutting, one-cornered smile creased his face. In Afghanistan, his SEAL team endured days without food, water or resupply. So twenty-four hours without food wasn't a tragedy.
He had the traps set up in those willows. Rabbits were plentiful in the wide valley through which the Snake River wound lazily. Had a starving grizzly already found his traps and gobbled up the rabbits? Was that the reason for the sense of danger he felt?
He had to take a chance. Shifting the Win Mag to his left shoulder, he looked down at the P226 SIG Sauer pistol strapped low on his right thigh. The two black Velcro straps around his thick leg held the pistol at just the right angle in case he needed to quickly reach for it. All SEALs were given this particular pistol after they graduated from BUD/S. The .40-caliber pistol was specially made in Germany for them. And it had stopping power. One slug would take a human's life.
The wind had piled up the blizzard snow. Patches of long yellow grass peeked out here and there. As he walked, the grass in the meadow crunched beneath his boots. Each yellowed blade of grass was coated with thick frost. With each step, Dakota tried to stay as silent as possible. The sound could possibly alert the elk mother hidden in the willows. He moved down the gentle slope toward the center of the meadow. Dakota knew from experience an elk mother would defend her calf with her life. And an elk weighed a good thousand pounds, its hooves sharp and dangerous.
Dakota brushed the butt of his SIG Sauer with the palm of his gloved hand. It was an unconscious habit honed in the badlands of the Middle East. He'd unsnapped the retention strap across the pistol so that if he had to reach for it, his palm could fit swiftly around the butt and his fingers could wrap around the trigger. He could draw it up in a single, fluid motion in order to protect himself. He had no wish to shoot an elk. His meat needs were far less than that.
Slowing, the light increasing, Dakota inhaled the scents on the frosty air, his nostrils flaring. He halted and searched for tracks. Some of the grass was clean, shaken free of the frost and snow, about twenty feet south of where he stood. It had to have happened earlier this morning. Craning his neck, Dakota evaluated them. Big print? Little print? Something in between? He had keen eyesight, honed by years of hunting as a teen and, later, as a SEAL. The tracks appeared to be that of an elk.
Dakota stood, debating whether to enter the willows or not. He was used to being afraid but didn't let that rule him or blot out his logical thinking processes. As Dakota turned his head, he could see Storm was trotting the other way along the tree line above him. Her long pink tongue lolled out of the side of her mouth, her gray body blending in to the surrounding shadows. He stared back hard at the willows in front of him. He'd placed the rabbit traps deep within them. Rabbits weren't stupid; they were not going to hop around on the outer perimeter of the willows. Something would quickly spot them from air or ground and they'd be dead in a heartbeat. No, they lived deep within the willows and could thrive.
Just as Dakota took a step forward, the willows exploded in front of him. A cinnamon-colored male grizzly bear roared and crashed through them and launched himself at him. The roaring vibration ripped through him. Dakota took half a step back, seeing the bear's small dark eyes filled with rage. In an instant, Dakota knew the grizzly had been in the willows all along. He'd probably eaten all the rabbits he'd trapped and was snoozing until he heard Dakota approach the stand. Startled and provoked, the bear charged him. The attack was so swift, all Dakota saw was the grizzly's thick rust-colored body hurtling toward him at the speed of a bullet.
Dakota's shock collided with his survival training. It would take too long to pull the rifle off his shoulder and fire off a shot. Without hesitation, as the bear flew toward him like a flying tank, his hand moved smoothly in an unbroken motion for the SIG Sauer on his right thigh.
The bear's spittle, his roar, surrounded Dakota. As he lifted the pistol, he shifted his weight to the right to try to stop the grizzly from fully striking him. If he hadn't moved in a feintlike maneuver, the bear would have slammed him flat on his back, leaned down and ripped his throat out with those bared yellow fangs. At the same moment, Dakota saw the female wolf come out of nowhere. Storm snarled and flung herself directly at the grizzly, her jaws opened, aiming for his sensitive nose. In her own way, Storm was trying to protect him. The valiant wolf was a mere forty pounds against a thousand pounds of angry bruin.
Everything slowed in his line of vision. Whenever Dakota was in danger of losing his life, the frames of reality intensified and then crawled by with excruciating slowness. The grizzly saw him shift, but Storm latched onto the bear's nose. The grizzly roared, swiping at her. The wolf yelped and was flung high into the air. The grizzly tried to make a midcourse correction. As he raised his massive paw, the five curved claws flexed outward, the blow struck Dakota full force.
The SIG Sauer bucked in his hand. Dakota held his intense focus, aiming for the bear's thick, massive skull. The grizzly roared with fury as the first two bullets struck his skull. They ricocheted off! Dakota felt the grizzly's paw strike his left arm. Pain reared up his arm and jammed into his already torn-up shoulder. He grunted as he was struck and tossed up in the air like a puppet. The massive power of a pissed-off thousand-pound grizzly was stunning.
As Dakota tumbled end over end, all of his SEAL training came back by reflex. He landed and rolled, the cold glittering frost exploding around him on impact. He leaped to his feet. The bear roared, landed on all fours, whipped around with amazing agility and charged him again. Only ten feet separated them.
Dakota cooly stood, legs slightly apart for best balance, hands wrapped solidly around the butt of the SIG Sauer. This was not a bear gun, but if he aimed well, he'd strike the charging grizzly in one of his eyes and kill him before he was killed himself. His breath exploded from him as the bear leaped upward, its jaws open, lips peeled away from his dark pink gums to reveal the massive, murderous fangs. Dakota fired three more shots and saw the third one strike into the right eye of the bear.
As he threw up his left arm and spun to avoid the grizzly pouncing on him, the bear's massive teeth sank violently into his forearm. There was instant, red-hot pain. The bear grunted, fell downward. Dakota was flipped over and dragged down with the bear, his arm still locked in the animal's massive mouth.
The grizzly landed with a thud, groaning heavily as it sank into the yellow grass. Dakota wrested his forearm out of the bear's teeth. Breathing hard, he staggered to his feet. There were fifteen cartridges in a SIG Sauer.
He held it ready and stumbled backward, stunned by the ferocity of the attack. He watched the bear breathe once, twice and then slump with a growl, dead.
Dakota gasped for breath, felt the warmth of his own blood trickling down into his left glove. Would the bear move? No, he could see the eye socket blown away by his pistol, the bullet in the animal's brain. The grizzly was dead. Wiping his mouth, Dakota looked around, his breath exploding in ragged gasps into the freezing air. His heart hammered wildly in his chest. The adrenaline kept him tense and he was feeling no pain.
Once he was finally convinced the grizzly wasn't going to get back up and come after him a third time, he created distance between him and the beast. He saw Storm come trotting up to him. She whined, her yellow eyes probing his. She was panting heavily. Dakota looked her over to make sure the grizzly hadn't hurt his wolf. There were some mild scratch marks across her left flank, but that was all.
"We're okay," he rasped to the wolf.
Dakota holstered the pistol and drew up his left arm. He always wore thick cammies. The bear's fangs had easily punctured the heavy canvas material, sunk through the thick green sweater he wore beneath it and chewed up his flesh. There was no painyet. But there sure as hell was gonna be.
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