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Ryder McKay leaned his back against the rough bark of a tree in the middle of a sparse South Texas mesquite grove, surrounded by darkness and silence. He'd been shot before. But this time it didn't look as if he would be walking away. He figured he had about another ten minutes to live.
He pressed his blood-crusted hands onto the gaping bullet wound in his thigh. If he let go to push himself to standing, he would bleed out on the spot. No point in standing, anyway. He wasn't going to make the long mile to where his pickup waited.
He grabbed for his belt and unbuckled it as blood gushed from the wound. Black specs swam in front of his eyes within seconds. He had to slap his hands back on the injury long before he could have tugged off the holster, the Taser, phone clip and all the other stuff he carried.
The amount of blood he'd lost already If he let go again, he'd pass out before he could make a tourniquet.
He needed another plan. He ignored the light-headedness, the sweat trickling down his neck and the ants crawling over his legs. Think. He didn't believe in failed missions. He believed in never conceding defeat until you were six feet under.
He had to come up with a solution, and he had to do it on his own. Nobody at the new SDDU Texas satellite office knew where he was. When he'd driven off, he'd simply told Mo that he would be checking the border. He hadn't meant to come this far.
Normally, a dozen or so people worked at the Special Designation Defense Unit's Texas satellite office. Half of the top secret commando team was currently off on various missions in South America. Ryder and five others were on location here to address credible intelligence that a South-American drug lord had sold both weapons and smuggling services to a terrorist organization that planned on infiltrating the U.S.
The smugglers would cross at this section of the borderwithin a fifty-mile stretchsometime next month. The recon team's job was to know the border area inside out by thenknow the trails, know the players, and find assets who would be able to pass on useful information.
The rest of the team would be returning as their missions ended. Together, they would take out those terrorist the second the bastards set foot on U.S. soil.
He wanted to live long enough to be there for the takedown. Except, when his teammates realized he'd gone missing, hours from now, they would have a thousand acres to search. And a search like that could take days.
He only had minutes.
He gritted his teeth, casting a dark look at his cell phone that lay in pieces on the rocks a few hundred feet away where he'd first fallen.
He could have used his flashlight to signal for help, but, for that, too, he'd have to let the pressure off the wound. And nobody was around, anyway, in the middle of the abandoned South Texas borderlands. The light might even bring back the drug traffickers who'd shot him.
He hadn't squeezed off any shots into the air for the same reason.
He knew of only one ranch close enough so if someone was there, they might hearbut the one time he'd checked, the old house had looked abandoned. Nothing else for miles around but dust and heat.
He looked up to the sky, wondering if he had enough time to confess all his sins. Not a single star showed, nor the moon. A dark storm was gathering.
Grace Cordero sat back in her grandfather's old re-cliner and rubbed her fingers over a spot of dirt on her jeans. She'd spent most of the day walking around the ranch, then cleaning the house to make her stay a little nicer.
"I don't like the idea of you out here alone." Dylan put his feet on the coffee table, work boots and all. The pose seemed relaxed, but the muscles around his eyes were drawn tight, and tension stiffened his shoulders. He had a number of businesses, at least two dozen employees, the kind of stuff that came with a lot of headaches.
She frowned at the boots on the table, but didn't tell him to mind his manners. He rented the ranch from her so technically he had a right to do whatever he pleased, even if he never used the house, just the land.
He watched her with those pale blue eyes she'd written poems about back in high school. She'd been pitifully smitten. Now she could barely remember that carefree, always-grinning-like-an-idiot teenage girl she'd once been, let alone relate to her.
"Why don't you go over to Molly's? She loves you to pieces."
Warmth spread through her. "I'll stop by." She loved Molly, too. Dylan's sister had been her best friend back in the day. But social visits would have to wait. She looked through the window for a second, into the blind night. "I came here for a reason."
He gave a slow nod, casting a sideways glance toward the brass urn on the fieldstone mantel above the ornate fireplace her great-great grandfather had built. "I want to go with you when You know."
He wanted to be with her when she finally spread her brother's ashes on the ranch, as Tommy had requested during his long, losing battle to live.
"I appreciate that, Dylan. I do." She tried to think of a way to say the rest without offending him. "But I'd rather do it alone. I'm just still not at peace with this." She wasn't at peace with a lot of things. Unease and anxiety were her ruling emotions these days, along with a good dose of anger and resentment.
"Of course." Dylan reached for her hand. "You take whatever time you need."
A faint clap sounded in the distance, almost like a gunshot. She pulled her hand away. "What was that?"
"Probably thunder. A storm is moving in." He looked around the living room. "You cleaned."
"I hope to stay a couple of days."
A frown creased his forehead, then disappeared the next second. "You know you can stay with us. Molly would love to have you."
She gave a tired smile as she shook her head. She needed time alone.
"Then stay at my place in Hullett." He kept an apartment in town, a two-bedroom bachelor pad where he took his dates. Molly was a single mom with an impressionable eight-year-old. And Dylan liked to keep his private business private, anyway.
She thought she saw a glint in his eyes, some emotion she couldn't identify. Was he remembering how it had been between them more than a decade ago? They did have good times.
Seemed as if a lifetime had passed since. The hotshot young football player had grown into an attractive man. A successful man. His pale blue eyes watched her with interest.
"How is business?" she asked to change the subject and the train of her thoughts. "I hope the ranch is good to you."
She and her brother had inherited the place after their grandfather's death. Tommy's illness had been bad enough by then that he'd had to leave the army. But he'd still had enough left in him to work the land for a couple of years before he had to move into Edinburg, closer to medical care, and then around the clock help toward the end.
Dylan renting the place was a tremendous relief. She needed the income to pay the taxes on the property, plus Tommy's medical bills. She'd even wondered, at times, if Dylan only rented because he knew she needed the money. Maybe it was his way of helping. For old time's sake.
"Business is fine," he said, with a look that told her he wasn't done with trying to talk her out of her solitude yet.
"I drove around when I got in. Doesn't look like you have any crops planted." It didn't look as if he'd planted anything last year, either. The land hadn't been worked in a while, scraggy weeds taking over the endless fields.
"Can't make a living from farming anymore." A hint of sadness settled on his face. "I have a deal with a company who does corporate retreats here. Survival training for business managers, a team building thingthey come from all over the country. They sleep in tents, learn how to get from point A to point B without GPS, deal with the elements, make their own food over an open fire. They even climb up and down the ravine."
Unease flashed through her at the thought of the steep ravine on the remote south edge of the property. "Somebody could get hurt."
"They're fully insured. They rappel up and down in hundred-degree heat, lose a couple of pounds and pay me a load of money for setting it all up, clearing bush when needed and trucking in supplies."
He grinned, and she could suddenly see the old Dylan in that smile. A wave of nostalgia hit her, for a time when everything was so much simpler, a time when she still had Gramps and Tommy.
The dull, ever-present ache in her chest intensified. Think of something else.
"I hope they're not hunting." She'd spent considerable time years ago posting signs to make sure everyone knew that absolutely no hunting was allowed on the property. She had a safe-haven agreement with Wildlife Protection. The ranch included over two hundred acres of dense brushland that gave home to some ocelots, a highly endangered species slowly disappearing from South Texas.
She liked the idea of saving them. Saving something. She sure hadn't been able to save her grandfather or Tommy.
"They wouldn't know what to do with a rifle. Bunch of city slickers. But the trainers like to keep that sense of isolation for them, to better develop interdependence or whatever. So if you wouldn't mind "
"I won't go anywhere near the ravine." She wouldn't have, anyway. She had a nice meadow picked for Tommy's ashes, not far from the house, a place where her brother had taught her horseback riding back in the day. Good memories. Focusing on those was the key.
Dylan settled deeper into the couch, apparently comfortable. "My offer to buy the ranch still stands."
A fine offer. And she had no intention of moving back here. Yet something held her back from agreeing to the sale. "I'm thinking about it."
"Good." He gave a quick smile. "How is work?"
She perched on the edge of her chair and felt guilty for wishing him gone. He'd always been a good friend to her, but she wanted to be alone tonight, her first night back.
"You got your own practice yet?"
"Almost." She put a smile on her face. "I have my last batch of veterinary exams coming up soon." For which she'd brought some books. Not that she had it in her to drag them out tonight.
"Could have gone to med school with the same effort and be a human doctor. Pays better. You were a medic in the army. You already know half the stuff."
"Couldn't afford med school if I sold both my kidneys." And the truth was she couldn't handle any more people dying in her arms.
A yawn stretched her face against her will. "Sorry. I spent most of the day driving and walking around. I guess I'm not used to all this good country air anymore."
"A shame," he said as he stood, taking the hint. "Come back to Hullett with me. At least I have a working air conditioner."
"Thanks, but I'm fine here. Really."
He opened his mouth but was distracted by a mangy old cat that padded forward cautiously from the laundry room.
"Came scratching at the door as soon as I arrived," she said, maybe a little too defensively. "Might be one of the descendants of Gramps's batch of barn cats. I'll find her a good home before I go. You don't have to worry about her." The cat had had some badly infected thorns in her hind leg, which she'd taken care of already.
"You know why they call them barn cats, right? Because they're supposed to stay in the barn." He shook his head with a look that said he thought she was hopeless. "Whatever you do, don't name her."
She would leave that honor to whoever was going to take the cat. "I've managed to resist."
He looked skeptical.
"Say hi to Molly for me. I'll stop in to see her, I promise."
She walked him to the door, where he hesitated for a second before giving her a quick hug. She hugged him back then watched him walk to his brand-new Chevy truck, glanced up at the clouds that were rushing in to block out the moon. She hoped he'd get home before the storm hit.
The cat meowed behind her, but didn't step a foot outside. She didn't seem to want to get too far from the bowl of milk in the kitchen. Grace passed by her then closed the door and went around turning off the lights, alone at last in the old house that brought back way too many memories.
"Focus on the good," she told the cat, but meant the words for herself.
She picked up a box of Twinkie snacks from the counter, something she'd grabbed at the last gas station she'd stopped at on her way here. "Straight to the hips," she said to the cat as she opened the box.
She had the Twinkie halfway to her mouth when another clap in the distance stopped her. This time, she recognized the sound.
The gunshot came from the vicinity of the mesquite grove behind the fields.
Maybe she had a lost hiker on her land, or a birdwatcherit had happened before. Then another shot came quickly, and another. Nine altogether.
Bam. Bam. Bam. Pause. Bam. Pause. Bam. Pause Bam. Pause. Bam. Bam. Bam.
Morse code or coincidence? If it was Morse code, the pattern spelled SoS.