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"Clay!" Paula Olsen screamed in horror. One second her little blond two-year-old had tumbled headfirst out of the Red Flyer wagon onto the asphalt. In the next second, a stranger plucked him away as a snarling black Lab in the town's Dog-Walkathon lunged forward to sink his teeth into her little boy.
It was all over in an instant. The man more or less thrust Clay into her arms, giving her a glimpse of darkly lashed green eyes. She looked her son over. Except for a red bump on his head from the fall, she didn't see a mark on him. "How can I ever thank you?" she called out to the man.
But he'd disappeared without saying anything, making it impossible for her to thank him properly. It was no use calling him back. He moved like the wind and was already gone.
She heard a male voice in the crowd say, "Ooh-eee! I believe that was J. W. Cody's son! I thought he was still overseas!"
Two and a half years ago a pregnant Paula had done the master plan for the landscaping of John Walker Cody's spectacular new ranch house, the latest addition to the famed Cottonwood Ranch built on their 600,000 acre spread outside Markton, Wyoming. The fabulously wealthy Codys were the premier family of rodeo in the northwestern part of the state. She was aware he had a daughter and four sons, all rodeo champions, but she'd never met any of them.
If her recollection was correct, one of them was an officer in the Marines. Could that be Clay's rescuer? If so, he was out of uniform.
He'd been tall, maybe six foot two or three and in his late twenties, but she only caught a brief view of chiseled male features. For some strange reason she couldn't get rid of the fleeting impression that he'd looked…haunted, and not just because of the incident.
"Oh, Paula—" her friend Angie Gregson spoke behind her, holding Danice. She'd been pulling her two-year-old in a wagon right in front of Paula. "Talk about a close call!"
"It was," Paula whispered in a shaken voice, hugging Clay tighter. The man had a familiar build and midnight-black hair, like J. W. Cody, so she figured the stranger had to be a Cody. While everyone else stood there frozen, only someone with his quick instincts and skill could have pulled Clay away from those gaping jaws in time.
"Listen, Angie… I'm going to take Clay to the car and get the stroller. Without a restraint, the wagon's just too dangerous." The thought of what would have happened without the stranger's masterful intervention refused to leave her mind.
"I'll go with you. Some of the big dogs are scaring Danice anyway."
Paula nodded. "I'm pretty sure it was that huge black Lab that frightened Clay, but when he fell out of the wagon, he ended up scaring the dog." Together they pulled the empty wagons down the sidewalk and around the corner to Paula's car.
For the families living in Markton, Wyoming, a town of 997 people, the First of May was a big deal. The annual dog parade drew people from all the surrounding communities, including nearby Cody where she and Angie lived in the same apartment complex.
The two of them had made a special trip over here for the fundraising event showing off people's own dogs as well as those from the Humane Society. Paula wished she could laugh about it, but the close call—even though all the dogs were on leash—could have sent Clay to the hospital to be stitched up. After losing her husband, Brent, in the war in Afghanistan eighteen months ago, she couldn't fathom anything serious happening to Clay.
"Are you all right?" her brunette friend asked after they'd loaded their toddlers in the strollers.
"I will be in a minute." If that man was a Cody, she knew where to find him and thank him.
An intuitive Angie touched her arm. "If you want to go home, we can."
"Don't be silly." After eighteen months of grieving for Brent, she would have thought she was getting past the worst of it, but for some reason this incident brought her emotions to the surface once more. "We've been looking forward to this." She wasn't about to let what happened ruin their plans. "It's getting warmer out. Let's drop in the ice-cream store on our way back to the dog parade."
"And then let's walk around Old Trail Town. I'm craving one of those Wild Bill Cody chili dogs."
"Sounds good to me." Maybe the walk would bring back Paula's appetite.
Moments ago Walker Cody had left the motel on foot only to run into a dog parade, of all things. To see so many animals at once brought out children's excited cries and laughter from the adults, but Walker's attention had been captured by a blond toddler in a little wagon who was frightened by them. It reminded him of his own fear of horses as a child.
He noticed the boy start to stand up, then topple out, drawing the big Lab's attention. When it growled and bared its teeth, a woman's terrified cry followed. It was the kind he'd been trying to block from his subconscious since leaving Iraq.
Acting on pure instinct, Walker had torn through the line of onlookers and swooped the boy away before the person holding the leash could get control of the dog. But to his horror the incident brought on one of his flashbacks. While hugging the wailing child to his body, pressing him against his plastic-surgery scars, he'd broken out in a cold sweat.
Get away, Cody! Don't hurt anyone. Please, God, don't let me hurt anyone.
Blindly he handed off the child to the frightened woman standing next to him. Among the cacophony of sounds coming from the dogs and the crowd, Walker took off on a run. The last image in his mind had been of a pair of hot blue eyes turning to him in gratitude.
Her words had been spoken in English, not Arabic, which only added to his confusion and stayed with him all the way down the next block, where he found a bolt hole. Once in the men's bathroom at the Spotted Horse Saloon, he vomited.
Nothing came up but bile. He hadn't had an appetite since he'd flown home from Bethesda Naval Hospital three days ago. While he'd escaped the full blast of an IED, his two best buddies had taken the brunt. They would never get the chance to come home and live in a walking nightmare.
Post-traumatic stress disorder. That's what every guy in his outfit thought about, whether they admitted it or not. It was what they dreaded if their maimed bodies made it back. He'd had three episodes in the hospital where he'd been for the past two months, but this flashback had come when he couldn't pull out the dime he kept in his pocket.
He reached for it now and pressed it in the palm of his hand. His counselor at the hospital told him, "When you feel unreal, disoriented, 'crazy,' like you can feel your mind slipping away, hold that dime in your hand very tightly and say to yourself, 'I am not crazy. I am not in Iraq. This isn't really happening now. I am safe now,' over and over again. Be very sure you tell yourself, 'I am safe now. I am not in Iraq.' The feeling of safety is crucial during the flashbacks.
"Also tell yourself, 'I am not going to hurt anyone.' Many returning vets suffering flashbacks are afraid they're going crazy and they'll hurt people. They're not crazy, but the danger to yourself is real, because sometimes you might try to rationalize the situation by believing that it's better to hurt yourself than to hurt anyone else. Yo u need that spoken reinforcement to help you regain your feeling of being in control of yourself."
Walker reached in his pocket and pressed the dime into his palm, repeating the words like a litany. He was no longer aware of time or place. When he eventually became cognizant of his surroundings, he staggered over to the sink. No sooner had he rinsed out his mouth than he saw the reflection of a wizened cowboy in the mirror behind him.
The man in the cowboy hat and boots stared at him with a measure of curiosity and compassion. Walker knew he looked like hell. Fearing the stranger would ask him what was wrong or worse, offer to help him—forcing Walker to tell him to mind his own business—he put the dime back in his pocket and left.
To his chagrin, the bartender nodded to him. Walker had no choice but to go over to the bar. He asked for a bottle of water. When the other man handed it to him, he put down a five-dollar bill. "Keep the change."
Outside the doors he rested against the wall and drank the contents before he went back to the motel. En route he stopped at the convenience store for a pack of gum. After the furnace he'd lived in for the past twenty months while deployed in Iraq, Markton's seventy-five-degree temperature felt cool to him.
The tail end of the dog walk was passing by farther down the street. Volunteers followed to do the cleanup. This was one event that must have been thought up while Walker had been in the military. After leaving his motel room earlier to get some fresh air, the kind you could only get at a 6,200 feet elevation, nothing could have surprised him more than walking into a dog parade.
Minus the six years he'd served in the Marines in various parts of the world, and the four years before that spent in Missoula, Montana, getting his college degree, he'd lived his whole life on the Cottonwood Ranch outside Markton. He knew the town as well as any other local, yet he'd never stayed at the old Rocking J Motel located around the corner before.
Built in the forties with few amenities, it would hardly be noticed, but it was exactly the kind of place Walker had wanted and needed on his return. For the moment all he required was a bed, a shower, an old TV that still worked to blot out the fragments of horror flying loose in his head, and no family except Jesse who'd always been his hero.
Thanks to the cooperation of his superiors, no one knew he'd been wounded, let alone that his service in the Marines had come to an end. That was the way he wanted it.
Once back in his room, he reached for the house phone. One of these days he'd be forced to get a cell phone, but not yet. He couldn't bear to be reached by anyone. Though he'd e-mailed the family to stay in touch, his older brother, Jesse, was the only one he'd talked to over the phone, the only one he'd felt like talking to.
Jesse was the ranch cattle manager and had their father's toughness, but he also possessed an innate kindness reminiscent of their mother. When the boys were growing up, Jesse was the one Walker looked up to and trusted. Over the years, that had never changed. Of course he loved his twin brothers and his sister, but they were younger. Right now he needed Jesse's wisdom and understanding if he was going to survive.
Answer it, Jesse. Please, God.
His prayer granted, Walker sank down on the side of the bed in sheer relief. The familiar, forthright voice caused him to swallow hard. "Jesse? If you're not alone, don't give me away."
After a long, distinct pause, Jesse said, "I'm by myself in the truck on the way to the barn. Is it really you, Walker?" He heard joy in Jesse's words. It humbled him.
"Who else?" What's left of me.
"Where are you calling from?" Jesse asked.
The flashback had left his body trembling. "The Rocking J Motel." He couldn't believe there were still some old framed United Airlines Posters hanging on the maroon-and-yellow-flowered wallpaper.
More silence while his brother assimilated the news. "You've got to be kidding me! You're not really in Markton, are you?"
Walker eyed the motel key sitting on the bedside table. "Come to room fifteen and find out."
Jesse let out a low whistle. "You'll never know how much I've missed you." His voice shook. "I'll be right there!"
Walker closed his eyes tightly. Everything else in his world might be in chaos, but Jesse never changed, thank heaven.
After twenty minutes of pacing, he heard the sound of a truck pull up in the parking space outside the door. Walker moved a corner of the curtain aside in time to see his good-looking brother climb out of the cab wearing the white Stetson and checked shirt that were his signature. The thirty-year-old bull rider in the family didn't look any older than the twins!
His throat swelled with emotion as he stepped to the door and opened it. Their eyes met. Jesse's startling blue gaze examined him from head to toe, silently noting how the years had taken their toll on Walker.
"Go ahead and say it. It won't hurt my feelings. I look like somebody's idea of a nightmare."
Jesse's eyes glistened with tears he couldn't repress. "You came home. That's all that counts." He caught Walker in a fierce bear hug, causing his hat to fall off. "Are you back for good?" he asked in a thick-toned voice.
Walker's breath caught. "Maybe."
"What does that mean exactly?" Jesse demanded, relinquishing his hold.
He averted his eyes. "It means I'm out of the service. As for anything el—"
But Jesse didn't give him a chance to finish the sentence. He just hugged him again, harder. Though he was a couple of inches shorter than Walker, he could pack a wallop. Walker always thought his brother was bigger than life.
When they let go of each other, he noticed more lines of experience around Jesse's eyes and mouth, but thankfully everything else had stayed the same. With his short silvery-blond hair, another legacy from their mother, his older sibling always did stand out in a crowd. The ladies loved him, yet he'd managed to stay single. In that regard, he and Walker were a pair.
"I like the buzz."
"Ditto," Jesse answered with a smile, eyeing Walker's Marine cut before picking up his hat. He sat on one of the chairs set around the table and squinted at Walker while he twirled it in his fingers. "I take it no one knows you're home but me."
Walker snagged the other chair and flung a leg over to sit with his arms against the wooden back. "You've got that in one. I can't be around people yet."
"Understood. Hey, you know Grandfather Walker's cabin up on Carter Mountain is vacant. Is that far enough away for you?"
Jesse was reading his mind. Walker nodded. "But I won't step a foot in it if you don't agree to let me pay rent. I want that official and documented." He didn't need his father accusing him of not paying his own way.