Jane Fisher escaped Scraper crime boss Gideon Moore with only the clothes on her back. What he took from her can never be replaced, but her new home at Fort Dougan is the first safe one she's known. Or was, until the remaining supply of serum was stolen, flown high into the mountains on Gideon's command. Serving as Lyle's guide through Scraper territory means revisiting her own personal hell, but it's also an opportunityfor closure or revenge, Jane isn't quite sure.
Beautiful, proud and haunted, Jane is a temptation Lyle's worked hard to avoid. The mountains are the last place she needs to be. But if Jane can find the courage to face down a man like Gideon for the sake of the fort, no force on earth will keep Lyle from her side.
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Lyle spat out a mouthful of dust and lifted his face. A pair of hawks circled gently overhead, black specks against the crisp blue sky. It was the kind of late autumn day that should be spent baling hay, sipping cider or making fence before the frost set. No sign in that beautiful calm heaven of the hell surrounding him down here. Not even a cloud to show how fiercely the wind was blowing.
With the sound of gunfire still echoing in his ears, he holstered his revolver and looked over the field to make sure that all of his men were accounted for. The rocky ground at his feet was littered with the bodies of about a dozen Reapers. All of them disabled for the time being, none dead. Their one injured Ranger, Garrett, was already in the medical tent with Doc. Cam had seen him there. Four scouts checking for tracks to be sure there were no stragglers and the other Rangers were in the field making sure none of the Reapers would give them trouble until transport arrived.
Only a year ago, they'd have been running cleanup by now, lopping off the heads of the dead before they resurrected. Now, they shot the Reapers to disable them and then worked in groups to shackle and load them onto reinforced wagons. They'd cart the snarling, stinking bunch back to the fort, tie them down, inject them with the cure and then stand back to see if they survived. Close to half didn't, but the ones who pulled through seemed to recover fully.
The Rangers gave the survivors a change of clothes, a pair of boots and money for their next meal. And then they sent them on their way. Doc worried about what happened to them after that, but Lyle had never been able to muster up much sympathy. Life was hard. It was hard all around. This was his jobbullets, blood, chains. He didn't have the time or the energy to worry about what happened to former Reapers once they left the fort.
He turned at the sound of his name to see Cam about fifty yards distant, waving his arms and standing right next to the medical tent.
He set off at a jog, weaving between the downed Reapers, careful not to come within grab range of any of the twitching bodies. Garrett had been with the patrol for nearly twenty years, a good run. Most didn't make it that long. He was far too experienced to have made such a stupid-ass mistake, assuming the Reaper with the head wound wasn't a threat. He'd hurried. Hadn't waited for Cam to cover him and when he reached for the thing's legs, the Reaper came to. They were ravenous when injured and this one had taken a shot to the gut. It needed meat to heal itself and Garrett had practically served himself up on a platter.
Lyle tried to read the news on Cam's face as he approached. Hands planted on his hips, legs braced, Cam looked ready for a fight. Seemed he was always ready for a fight these days. Could have been any number of things that had set him off. The scowl was reassuring. That was anger, not grief, and Lyle took it as a good sign.
Cam waited until Lyle was within earshot before speaking. "Talk to him."
Lyle looked at the tent. The flaps were down, rope ties dangling, thudding against the post in a drumbeat. A gust of wind pushed at the canvas and just as abruptly bowed it in the opposite direction. "To who? Doc?"
"He's gone soft in the head." Cam removed his hat and shook the sand off the brim. "You have to talk some sense into him. He's as bad as Abby. They're Reapers, not fucking people. Not yet. Maybe not ever again."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about Doc sawing off Garrett's damn hand that's what I'm talking about."
"Stand aside and let me see what's going on."
Cam hesitated, looking as if he'd like to say more, but then jerked the flap of the tent back. Lyle ducked inside and paused while his eyes adjusted to the dim light. It was almost shockingly quiet inside the tent with the heavy canvas blocking the brunt of the wind. The walls were moving, sucking in and out with every gust. It was like being inside a pair of bellows. Lyle stifled a cough. Doc looked up sharply at the sound. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"Apparently, I'm talking sense into you."
Doc snorted and set back to work. "That'll be the day."
Garrett was stretched out on a wooden plank, moaning softly in his drugged state. Lyle dodged a swinging lantern and came to stand beside the table.
"How bad is it?"
Doc swiped sweat from his brow with his forearm though it wasn't particularly warm inside the tent. The scent of blood made the air seem thick.
"He'll lose his hand," Doc said flatly. "The rest will heal eventually so long as there's no infection."
In the past, they'd have just hacked a limb from a newly slaughtered Reaper and attached it to the wound. The same parasite that made men turn into Reapers gave them an amazing capacity to heal themselves. You only had to place the severed limb to the site of the wound and it would bind itself to the host. In a normal man, the parasite healed the wound but turned the man into a Reaper. Because Rangers were immune to Reaper infection, the parasite-laden blood could only heal their bodies, not take over their minds. Rangers had been patching themselves up with Reaper flesh for the better part of the past century, but that was before the cure.
Lyle's whole life was split in half by that one point. There was everything that had happened before the cure and the uncertain, still fucked-up world they were trying to figure out now.
"All of the Reapers are salvageable," he told Doc. None of them had been accidentally decapitated this time around. The Rangers were beginning to perfect the new art of capture. He met Doc's sharp gaze and said what they were both thinking. "Half of them won't survive the cure."
Doc's mouth tightened and he shook his head. "Trouble is telling which half. I can't cut off one man's hand to replace another's."
That was the thing though, wasn't it? "There was only one man injured today. A dozen Reapers. One man."
Doc gave him a look. A whole lecture in it though it lasted all of a heartbeat. Lyle swore under his breath.
"I hate this."
The expression on Doc's face softened a bit. "No one likes it. We have our orders and they're sound. You know they are. You signed off on them same as I did."
Lyle gestured toward Garrett. "Do you need someone to hold him down?"
As if he could hear them talking about him, Garrett cried out and swung his injured hand onto his chest. Lyle turned away from the blood-soaked rag covering the mangled stump. Doc hesitated for a moment and then nodded. "Nobody squeamish this time."
Lyle turned and left the tent. Waving Jess over, he pointed. "Doc needs you."
Jess's face paled. "You want me to help with Garrett? Lieutenant, I don't think"
Lyle shoved him toward the tent. "An order, Jess. Don't test me, not now."
He didn't wait to make sure Jess obeyed him. He didn't have to. Jess would follow orders now and make him pay later with surliness and dragging feet.
Cam whistled from a dozen yards away. "Over here."
Lyle jogged over to where Cam squatted beside a dying Reaper. The shot that had taken the Reaper down had gone right through his skull so he likely wouldn't be rousing anytime soon. The meat was still fresh. Lyle looked at the layers of dirt. The red stain around his mouth. His matted hair long and tangled. Years. It took them years to look like this. Decades, even.
"No one's looking for this one," Cam said. "Not anymore. There's not one person left alive to mourn him if he never comes back. He's as good as dead and buried anyway."
Somehow, that seemed sadder to Lyle than the loss of a hand.
"Lieutenant," Cam snapped. Pissedhe only used the title when he wanted to get under Lyle's skin. "You need to make a decision. We're running out of time."
Lyle rubbed the grit from his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Damn it."
Cap would have his head for this. "You have the knife?"
When Cam nodded, Lyle grabbed on to the Reaper's shoulders even though it made his skin crawl. Trying not to think about the gritty, oily, bug-ridden flesh he was clinging to, he pressed the full force of his weight down. "Go on. Do it."
Cam didn't hesitate. Not that he enjoyed this any more than Lyle did. Cam wasn't a bloodthirsty man, would likely be puking into the bushes as soon as he walked away. But a weak stomach had never stopped him from doing what needed to be done. It didn't stop him now.
Lyle ignored the sound of flesh parting beneath the blade, the bone snapping. He closed his mind to the wrongness of it all. Later, he'd chew it over and maybe figure out what he could have done different. For now, he focused on holding the thrashing Reaper steady enough so that Cam could finish the job.
It seemed to take an eternity but was probably only a matter of minutes. By the time the arm came off, they were both covered in warm blood and Cam had turned a shade of green that paled only where his lips were pressed tight together. Wordlessly, Cam handed Lyle the limb and sat back on his heels. His hands were shaking and the knife slipped from his fingers to fall to the ground.
Leaving Cam to deal with the mess, Lyle brought the Reaper's hand to the medical tent himself. Doc already had Garrett's arm strapped to a length of wood. Jess stood near his head, looking green but ready to hold Garrett down when Doc began to cut. Lyle threw the arm on the table and took Jess's place. Jess looked as though he might weep with relief when Lyle told him to leave.
Doc stared at the arm for a moment and then glared at Lyle. "Where did you get this?"
"What the hell kind of question is that? You know exactly where it came from."
Doc swore even as he grabbed the limb to examine the cut. When he saw the raggedly sawed tissue, he cursed again. "Our orders are to inject Reapers with the serum, not use them for parts." He grabbed hold of a short-bladed saw. "We're saving them now, in case you hadn't noticed."
"I noticed." Lyle lifted his chin toward Garrett. "Save him first."
Doc set to work, measuring the Reaper's arm against Garrett's and marking both. He cut through the flesh and bone with all the delicacy of a butcher. Lyle was aware that most people found the whole process disgusting but he'd always been more fascinated than appalled. This procedure in particular, watching as the hand from a Reaper reached out to attach itself to a Ranger's bloody stump No matter how many times he saw it, it always seemed like a miracle to him. A prayer fell from his lips as the wound begin to heal. A little disconcerting, that. It reminded him of the time his friend Rachel had let him press his hand against her pregnant belly and the babe picked that moment to roll over. This was a different kind of miracle but a miracle just the same.
He looked up to meet Doc's glare.
"I'll have to report it."
"You've seen enough of them healed now you know the cure works. We're already sending them out into the world with nothing but the clothes on their backs. How about we let them keep all the parts they were born with?"
"Report it. I'll take what's coming to me. I did what I needed to. I expect you'll do the same."
With a dramatic sigh, Doc grabbed a rag to wipe the blood from his hands. Lyle braced himself for a lecture but it never came. Instead, Doc sat down without a word, his back to Lyle as he set to work cleaning off his tools. Doc could be as pissy as a farmwife when crossed but he'd get over it. Eventually.
Taking his silence as a dismissal, Lyle left the tent.
Cam was waiting for him outside, sitting on a rock with a flask of whiskey in his hands. He stood up as Lyle came toward him. "Doc give you trouble?"
Lyle shook his head. "Not much. Come on."
He led Cam back to the Reaper they'd harvested the hand from. Already, the blood flow had slowed to a trickle. Not because he was out of blood but because his body was beginning to repair itself. Between the head wound and the loss of his hand, it would take him a very long time to heal. If he ever healed completely. They'd all seen the lurching monsters leftover from injuries not even the parasite could fully repair.
"Do you want me to take his head?"
Lyle scowled at Cam, who shrugged. "It would be a mercy. We can't throw him in with the others. You know the weak ones don't survive. They'll tear apart the wagon trying to get to him and we can't shackle him now anyway."
"Separate him from the others as best you can," Lyle said. "We're keeping him alive until his hand grows back."
Cam's eyes widened. "That could take more than a year. He's not a pet."
"See that he makes it back alive. He gets his chance just like everyone else."