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Morning sunlight sliced into the rocky alcove where he had taken shelter. A blinding glare hit his eyes. The sun was a laser pointed directly into his face. He sank back into the shadows.
If he stayed here, they'd find him. He had to move, to run to keep running. This wasn't the time for a nap. He shoved himself off the ground where he'd been sleeping and crouched while he got his bearings.
Behind him, the rock wall curved like bent fingers. Another boulder lay before him like a giant thumb. He had spent the night curled up inside this granite fist.
How did I get here
Craning his neck, he peered over the edge of the thumb. His hideout was halfway up a slope. Around him were shrubs, lodgepole pines, more boulders and leafy green aspen trees. Through the trunks, he saw the opposite wall of a steep, rocky canyon. Where the hell am I?
His head throbbed. The steady, pulsating pain synchronized with the beating of his heart.
When he raised his hand to his forehead, he saw a smear of dried blood on the sleeve of his plaid, flannel shirt. My blood? Other rusty blotches spattered the front of his shirt. Was I shot? He took a physical inventory. Apart from the killer headache, he didn't seem to be badly hurt. There were scrapes and bruises but nothing serious.
By his feet, he saw a handgun. A SIG Sauer P-226. He checked the magazine. Four bullets left. This isn't my gun. He preferred a Beretta M9, but the SIG would do just fine.
He felt in his pockets for an ammunition clip and found nothing. No wallet. No cell phone. Not a useful packet of aspirin. Nothing. He wasn't wearing a belt or a holster. Though he had on socks, the laces of his steel-toed boots weren't tied. Must have dressed in a hurry.
He licked his parched lips. The inside of his mouth tasted like he'd been chewing on a penny. The coppery taste was a symptom, but he didn't know what it meant. I could ask the paramedics. Oh, wait. Nobody's here. Nobody's coming to help me.
He was on his own.
His fingers gingerly explored his scalp until he found the source of his pain. When he poked at the knot on the back of his head, his hand came away bloody. Head wounds tended to bleed a lot, but how had that blood gotten on the front of his shirt?
He remembered shots being fired in the night. A fist-fight. Running. Riding. On a horse? That can't be right. He wasn't a cowboy. Or was he?
No time for speculating. He had to move fast. In four days.
His mind blanked. There was nothing inside his head but a big, fat zero.
In four days, something big was going down, something life-changing and important. Why the hell couldn't he remember? What was wrong with him?
The chirp of a bird screeched in his hypersensitive ears, and he was tempted to go back to sleep. If he waited, the truth would catch up to him. It always did. Can't escape the truth. Can't hide from reality.
He closed his eyes against the sun and gathered his strength. A different memory flashed. He wasn't in a forest but on a city street. He heard traffic noise and the rumble of an overhead train. Tall buildings with starkly lit windows loomed against the night sky. He fell on the pavement. Shadows devoured him. He fought for breath. If he lost consciousness, he would die.
His eyelids snapped open. Was he dead? That was as plausible an explanation as any.
This mountain landscape was the afterlife. Through the treetops, he saw a sky of ethereal blue. One thing was for damn sure. If he was dead, he needed to find an angel to tell him what came next.
Caitlyn Morris stepped onto the wide porch of her cabin and sipped coffee from her U.S. Marine Corps skull-and-crossbones mug. A crisp breeze rustled across the open meadow that stretched to the forested slopes. Looking to the south, she saw distant peaks, still snowcapped in early June.
A lock of straight blond hair blew across her forehead. She probably ought to do something about her messy pony-tail. Heather was going to be here any minute, and Caitlyn didn't want to look like she was falling apart.
She leaned her elbows on the porch railing and sighed. She'd moved to the mountains looking for peace and solitude, but this had been a busy little morning.
At daybreak, she'd been awakened by an intrudera dappled gray mare that stood outside her bedroom window, nickering and snorting, demanding attention. The mare hadn't been wearing a bridle or saddle, but she had seemed tame. Without hesitation, she'd followed Caitlyn to the barn. There, Caitlyn kept the other two horses she was renting for the summer from the Circle L Ranch, which was about eight miles down the winding dirt road that led to Pinedale.
After she'd tended to the wayward horse, sleep had been out of the question. She'd gotten dressed, had breakfast, put in a call to the Circle L and went back to the horse barn to check the inventory slip for the supplies that had been delivered from the hardware store yesterday.
A handyman was supposed to be starting work for her today, even though it was Saturday. Most of her projects didn't require two people, but she needed help to patch the barn roof. She checked her wristwatch. It was almost nine o'clock, and the guy who answered her ad had promised to be here by eight. Had he gotten lost? She really hoped he wasn't going to flake out on her.
When she saw a black truck coming down the road, her spirits lifted. Then she noticed the Circle L logo and the horse trailer. This wasn't her handyman.
The truck pulled into her drive and a tall, rangy brunetteHeather Laurence, half-owner of the Circle L climbed out. "Good to see you, Caitlyn. How are you doing?"
There was a note of caution in the other woman's voice. Nobody from this area knew exactly why Caitlyn had come to live at this isolated cabin, which had been a vacation home for her family since she was a little girl with blond pigtails and freckles.
She hadn't wanted to tell her story, and folks from around hereeven someone like Heather, whom she considered a frienddidn't push for explanations. They had a genuine respect for privacy.
Caitlyn held up her skull-and-crossbones mug. "Would you like some coffee?"
"Don't mind if I do."
The heels of Heather's cowboy boots clunked on the planks of the porch as they entered the cabin through the screen door.
When Caitlyn arrived here a month ago, it had taken a week to get the cabin clean enough to suit her. She'd scrubbed and dusted and repainted the walls of the front room a soothing sage green. Then she'd hired horses for company. Both were beautiesone palomino and the other roan. Every day since, she'd made a point of riding one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Though she certainly didn't need two horses, she hadn't wanted to separate one from the others at the Circle L. No need for a horse to be as lonely as she was.
Sunshine through the kitchen windows shone on the clean-but-battered countertops and appliances. If she decided to stay here on a more permanent basis, she would resurface the counters with Turkish tile.
"Looks nice and homey in here," Heather said.
"It had been neglected." When she and her brother were living at home, the family spent every Christmas vacation and at least a month in the summer at the cabin. "After Mom and Dad moved to Arizona, they stopped coming here as often."
"How are they doing?"
"Good. They're both retired but busy." Caitlyn poured coffee into a plain blue mug. "Cream or sugar?"
"I take it plain and strong." Heather grinned. "Like my men."
"I seem to remember a summer a long time ago when you were in love with Brad Pitt." "So were you."
"That sneaky Angelina stole him away from us." Heather raised her coffee mug. "To Brad."
"And all the other good men who got away."
They were both single and in their early thirties. Cait-lyn's unmarried status was a strategic career decision. She couldn't ask a husband to wait while she pursued her work as a reporter embedded with troops in war zones around the globe.
"That crush on the gorgeous Mr. Pitt must have been fifteen years ago," Heather said. "A simpler time."
Fifteen years ago, September eleventh was just another day. Nobody had heard of Osama bin Laden or the Taliban. "Before the Gulf War. Before Afghanistan."
"You've been to those places."
"And it doesn't look like I'll be going back any time soon." A knot tightened in her throat. Though Caitlyn wasn't ready to spill her guts, it wouldn't hurt to tell her old friend about some of the issues that had been bothering her. "The field office where I was working in the Middle East was closed down due to budget cuts."
"Sorry to hear it. What does that mean for you?"
"I've got a serious case of unemployment." And a lot of traumatic memories. Innumerable horrors she wanted to forget. "I'm not sure I want to continue as a journalist. That was one of the reasons I came here. I'm taking a break from news. No newspaper. No TV. And I haven't turned on my laptop in days."
"Hard to believe. You were always a news junkie, even when we were teenagers."
"Your brother used to call me Little Miss Know-It-All." Her brother was four years older and as cute as Brad Pitt. "I had such a huge crush on him."
"You and everybody else." Heather shook her head. "When Danny finally got married, you could hear hearts breaking all across the county."
Danny was still handsome, especially in his uniform. "Hard to believe he's a deputy sheriff."
"Not really. Remember how he always played cops and robbers?"
"Playing cowboy on a ranch is kind of redundant."
After days of solitude, Caitlyn enjoyed their small talk. At the same time, she felt an edge of anxiety. If she got too comfortable, she might let her guard down, might start welling up with tears, might turn angry. There was so much she had to hold back.
She looked through her kitchen window. "Do you know a guy named Jack Dalton?"
"I don't think so. Why?"
"He answered my ad for a handyman. And he was supposed to be here over an hour ago."
"Caitlyn, if you need help, I'd be happy to send over one of the hands from the ranch."
She wanted to remain independent. "This guy sounded like he'd be perfect. On the phone, he said he had experience as a carpenter, and he's a Gulf War veteran. I'd like to hire a vet."
"You spent a lot of time with the troops."
"And I don't want to talk about it. I don't mean to be rude, but I just can't." Suddenly flustered, she set down her mug on the countertop. "Let's go take a look at the horse that showed up on my doorstep."
After years of being glib and turning in daily reports of horrendous atrocities, she hated to find herself tongue-tied. Somehow, she had to get her life back.
Weaving through the bottom of the canyon was a rushing creek. He sank to his knees beside it and lowered his head to drink. Ice-cold water splashed against his lips and into his mouth. It tasted good.
No doubt there were all kinds of harmful bacteria in this unfiltered water, but he didn't care. The need for hydration overwhelmed other concerns. He splattered the cold liquid into his face. Took off his flannel shirt and washed his hands and arms. His white T-shirt had only a few spots of dried blood.
As far as he could figure, he'd been sleeping in his boxers and undershirt. He'd been startled awake, grabbed his flannel shirt and jeans, jammed his feet into his boots and then
His scenario was based on logic instead of memory. The remembering part of his brain must have been damaged by the head wound. His mind was like a blackboard that had been partially erased. Faint chalk scribbles taunted him. The more he concentrated, the more they faded. All he knew for sure was that somebody was trying to kill him.
This wasn't the first time he'd been on the run, but he didn't know why. Was he an innocent victim or an escaped felon? He suspected the latter. If he'd ever rated a guardian angel, that heavenly creature was off duty.
His first need was for transportation. Once he'd gotten away from this place, he could figure out what to do and where to go.
He tied the arms of his flannel shirt around his hips, tucked the SIG into the waistband of his jeans and started hiking on a path beside the creek. Though it would have been easier to walk along the nearby two-lane gravel road, his instincts warned him to avoid contact.
The canyon widened into an uncultivated open field of weeds, wildflowers and sagebrush. This landscape had to be the Rocky Mountains. He'd come to the Rockies as a kid, remembered hiking with a compass that pointed due north. It was a happier time.
A black truck hauling a horse trailer rumbled along the road. He ducked behind a shrub and watched as the truck passed. The logo on the driver's side door read: Circle L Ranch, Pinedale, Colorado.
Good. He had a location. Pinedale. Wherever that was.
He trudged at the edge of the field near the trees. His head still throbbed but he disregarded the pain. No time for self-pity. He only had four days until.
He approached a three-rail corral fence in need of repair. Some of the wood rails had fallen. Two horses stood near a small barn which was also kind of dilapidated. The log cabin appeared to be in good shape, though.
He focused on the dark green SUV parked between the cabin and the horse barn. That would be his way out.
A woman with blond hair in a high ponytail came out of the barn. Around her waist, she wore a tool belt that looked too heavy for her slender frame. At the porch, she paused to take a drink from a water bottle. Her head tilted back. The slender column of her throat was pure feminine loveliness. That image dissolved when she wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her denim shirt.
He didn't want to steal her SUV. But he needed transportation.
Coming around the far end of the corral, he approached.
When she spotted him, she waved and called out, "Hi there. You must be Jack Dalton."
It was as good a name as any. "I must be."