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Eager was trained to alert on human scent.
And that's exactly what his handler, June Farrow, was hoping to find as she worked her four-year-old black Lab in a zigzag pattern across the wind, the glow from her headlamp casting a pale beam into blackness. It was 4:00 a.m. Cold. The cloud cover was low, and rain lashed down through trees.
As June and her K9 worked their way up the thickly forested slope, the terrain grew treacherous, with steep gullies and hidden caves. June prayed that Lacy Matthews and her three-year-old twins, Bekka and Abby, were holed up in one of those caves, dry and safe from the storm.
Safe from Samuel Grayson's men.
Because if Samuel's men had found them, they were as good as dead.
Swaths of mist rolled down from the peaks and June's hiking boots began to lose traction. More than once she had to grab onto brambles to stop from slipping down into one of the ravines hidden by the darkness and bush. Sweat prickled under her rain jacket and moisture misted her safety glasses. Water ran in a stream from the bill of her hat and it trickled uncomfortably down her neck.
While Eager was able to barrel like a tank through the increasingly dense scrub, the twigs began to tear at June's clothes, hooking into her hair, clawing at her backpack, slowing her progress. This, she thought, as she stilled a moment to catch her breath, was why search-and-rescue teams used dogsthey could access places with ease that humans could not, especially a dog like Eager, who, with his stocky, deep-chested frame and thick coat, was impervious to the claw of brambles. And, having been bred from gundog stock, he was able to remain calm in the presence of loud rescue choppers and the big excavation machines often present in urban rescue.
June listened carefully to her surroundings, hoping to catch the faint sound of a woman's cry on the wind. But a forest was never quiet, and in a storm like this, trees talked and groaned and squeaked as their trunks and branches rubbed together in the wind. Pine cones and broken branches bombed to the ground, and rain plopped from leaves. The pine needles in the canopy above swished with the sound of a river.
She could detect no cry for help amid the other sounds of the stormy night.
Tension coiled tight in her stomach.
Working solo was foolish, particularly for an experienced SAR tracker who knew better. But a desperation to find those three-year-old twins and their mother burned like fire in June's chest, outweighing all caution.
Her own son had been three when he'd died.
If June had managed to dig deeper into her own reserves, search harder, faster, sooner, all those years ago, she might have arrived in time to save Aiden. Now she had to save Bekka and Abby. The reason they were lost in the woods was partly June's fault, and they'd been missing for two nights now. The clock was ticking and guilt weighed heavy.
"Eager!" she yelled over the wind. "Go that way, boy!"
Eager more sensed than saw his handler's directional signal, and he veered in an easterly direction, moving across the base of glistening-wet rock. All June could see of him was the pale green glow of his LED collar, and every now and then the wet reflection of his coat as he cut across the beam of her headlamp.
The moisture was actually working in Eager's favorit enhanced his scenting abilities, but the wind was confounding. It punched down through holes in the canopy and swirled in eddies around the forest floor, carrying any scent that might have been pooling on the ground or in gullies with it.
June saw her dog hesitate a moment, then suddenly the green collar bobbed as Eager went crashing off in a new direction across the flank of a cliff.
He had scent.
June rushed after him, heart pounding as she shouldered through bushes and skidded over wet deadfall. Then she lost sight of the fluorescent light. She stilled, catching her breath as she wiped rainwater from her face. Her hand was shaking, and June realized she was exhausted.
She was going to make a fatal error like this.
She willed herself to calm. Life depended on it, and not just hers.
But as she dug deep for self-control an image hit her hard and suddenly of a search gone wrong five years ago. A search that resulted in the dramatic deaths of her husband and son. She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to shake the accompanying and familiar sense of sheer and utter desperation.
It had happened because of a cult.
Her husband, Matt, had been sucked in by a religious organization, and when June had pressured Matt to leave, he'd kidnapped Aiden from day care, planning to take him to live on the cult compound.
Thunder crashed and grumbled in the mountains and another gust of wind swished through the trees. June's nerves jumped. She braced her hand against the trunk of a tree.
Focus. You're doing this for them. Everything you do now is because you messed up that time.
That devastating incident was why she now worked for EXIT, a national organization quietly dedicated to aiding victims of cults. June's life mission had become running halfway houses for cult members who wanted to "escape." If she could rescue others, if she could get them into safe houses where they could access exit-counseling, it might give meaning, somehow, to the gaping maw of loss in her own life.
It might help assuage her guilt for not having understood how to help Matt back then.
And it was because of Samuel Grayson and his dangerous cult of Devotees that June was in Cold Plains, Wyoming, now. She'd arrived on behalf of EXIT three months ago. Right now she had five Devotees in the safe house. Lacy and her children were supposed to make the number eight.
But something had gone wrongLacy and her girls had failed to meet June at a designated meeting place in the woods on Monday evening, from where June was to have escorted them to the secret safe house.
June had searched the area, tracking Lacy and her twins back along the trail that led down the mountain toward the town. Around 11:00 p.m. that night, Eager had alerted on a small, sparkly red shoe belonging to one of the twins. The shoe had been lying just off the trail. From that point the footprints had gone into the forest. June and Eager had followed Lacy's trail deeper into the woods where more footprints appeared, and it looked as though two men had started following Lacy and the twins. June put Eager on the tracks, but the storm had broken and they'd lost the scent.
Before heading back to the safe house to grab an hour or two of rest that night, June had first hiked over to the southeastern flank of the mountain where she dropped the red shoe as a decoy. She knew Cold Plains Police Chief Bo Fargo would be mounting a search party and calling for SAR volunteers as soon as Lacy was reported missing, and she didn't want the official SAR party anywhere near the safe house or the area where Lacy had actually vanished.
Chief Fargo was bad news. He was a Devotee and one of Samuel's main men. June needed to find Lacy and the girls before the cops did, or they'd end up right back in Samuel's clutches.
On Tuesday morning when Lacy had failed to open up her coffee shop, she and her children were reported missing. By Tuesday afternoon, Chief Fargo had called in SAR volunteers and a search had been mounted. Fargo had asked June to see if she and her K9 could track any scent from Lacy's house.
By Tuesday evening, June and Eager had led the search crew to the decoy shoe on the east flank. A command center had been immediately set up on the flank of the mountain and the area divided into grids. Teams had searched until dark, volunteers agreeing to regroup at first light Wednesday.
Instead of grabbing a few hours' rest like the others, June and Eager had hiked straight back to the west flank, where they were now in the dark predawn hours of a stormy Wednesday morning. And, as the hours ticked by, June was beginning to fear the worst.
Suddenly, Eager started barking excitedly somewhere in the dark. Energy punched through June.
He'd found something!
She clambered up the slope into blackness, making for the sound of his barking. Rain beat down on her, branches snapped back against her glasses. She felt pain as something cut across her face, but she kept moving, faster. Then she heard her dog come crashing back through the woods in her direction.
He leaped up against her, his breath warm against her face, and he barked again before spinning around and bounding back to his find.
"Where is it, Eager? Show me, boy!"
June reached him standing over something in tight scrub under the cliff face. She crouched down, and with the back of her hand she edged aside dripping leaves. And there, in the halo of her headlamp, was a handgun in black loam.
Tension rippled through June.
"Good boy, Eager!" She tried to pump enthusiasm into her praise as she pulled out his bite toy and began a rough game of tug, rewarding him for his success before anything else. Eager lived for his tug game and June's praise. It was what kept him focused for hours at a time on a search.
She let him yank his toy out of her grip. "You win, boy.
You got it!"
He clamped his jaws over the bite toy and shook it wildly, mock-killing it, then he gamboled around like a puppy, as goofy in his big Labrador heart as he'd always be. While he played, June turned her attention to the weapon.
In her line of work articles found on a search could become evidence in a crime, so she was careful to preserve any prints as best she could in an environment like this, with no equipment. At the same time she knew that handing this weapon over to Chief Fargo would be as effective as throwing it into a black hole. The FBI, however, might want to see this. Special Agent Hawk Bledsoe had been watching this town for some time, and his noose was slowly closing around Samuel.
June shrugged out of her backpack and located her digital camera. She snapped several pictures of the guna Berettathen recorded the location of her find on her GPS.
Using her bandanna to pick the weapon up, she aimed the muzzle to the ground, released the clip. Three rounds remained inside the eleven-round magazine. She racked back the slide, popping another round out of the gun chamber. Once she was certain it was unloaded, she wrapped it in her bandanna and secured it at the bottom of her backpack.
June carried her own handgun in a holster on her hip tonight.
Anxiety whispered through her as Eager brought his toy back, snuffling like a happy pig. June took it from him, told him to be quiet. She listened intently to the forest, and an eerie sense of a presence nearby rolled over June. With it came a sharp stab of vulnerability.
She and her dog were in the dark, surrounded by miles of Wyoming wilderness, and even if she wanted to call for help, there was no cell reception on this side of the mountain. June's sole backup was a two-way radio connection to the safe house in the next valley. Even so, the current occupants of the safe house were ill-equipped to help her out of a pickle. And the radios were for serious emergency calls onlythere remained the possibility that Samuel's henchmen could be in the area and pick up a broadcast should they manage to tune in to the same frequency.
Inhaling deeply, June got up from her haunches. She took hold of her dog's collar, which made him look up into the glow of her headlamp, his eyes reflecting the light like a zombie beast.
"Eager, are you ready?" she whispered. "You want work, boy?"
His muscles quivered as he waited for the release. She let go of his collar, swinging her arm out in the direction she wanted him to work. "Search!"
And off he went sniffing the air, left to right. She followed, fighting down fatigue and despair as the first gray light of dawn fingered through the leaves and rain.
Eager suddenly got wind of fresh human scent, and his head popped sharply in a ninety-degree angle to the left. His tail wagged loosely as he zeroed in on the scent cone.
"Not too far, Eager!" June yelled, trying to keep up, but suddenly he vanished.
She stopped in her tracks, breathing hard, heart hammering. Then she heard the crash of breaking brush, followed by wild barking. Quickly, she scrambled in the direction of the barking, but as she pushed through low scrub, the ground suddenly gave out under her and she realized too late that she'd overshot the lip of a ravine hidden by a tangle of brambles. Groping wildly for purchase, June tumbled down a steep bank.
Her fall was halted as her shoulder whumped into a log. She gasped in pain and lay still for a moment, mentally regrouping as sweat and rain dribbled into her eyes. Tentatively she edged onto her side and with relief she realized she wasn't badly hurt, just bruised. She kicked the toes of her boots into the loam on the steep slope to find purchase, and she began to inch down to the ravine floor. Eager came gamboling and crashing back up the slope, oblivious to the precariousness of her situation, and he hit her body with his front paws, as if to say, "Come, come, I found it, Mom, I found it!"
"Good boytake it easy," she said a little shakily. "I'm right behind you, buddy."
It was dark at the base of the bramble-choked gulley as June pushed branches aside and saw what Eager had found.
A man lay on his side. Big. Maybe six foot two. His face was hidden from view and his dark hair glistened with rain. His denim jacket and jeans were soaked through. June noted he wore serious hiking boots, and the bottom of his left pant leg was soaked in what looked like blood.
"Good boy, Eager," she whispered, tossing his toy to the side for him to play with as she crouched down beside the man.
June carefully rolled him over. His head flopped back, exposing a mean gash across his temple. She felt his carotid. He was alive, but unconscious, his skin cold.
Her peripheral thought was that he was devastatingly good-looking, in a rough, tanned, mountain-man kind of way, and maybe in his early thirties. She hadn't seen him around Cold Plains beforea guy like this would be hard to miss.