The serene beauty of West Texas’s Big Bend National Park is shattered when four hikers are brutally ambushed by a sniper. Only one survives to report the murders. When investigators come up with nothing, they’re left wondering if this is a single incident—or the beginning of a rampage. One week later, Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke drives his 3500 Dodge Dually into the park, determined to unearth the truth . . .
Before he knows it, he’s in the same sniper’s crosshairs. The drug and human smuggling cartel known as the Coyotes Rabiosos—Rabid Coyotes—have lured him to remote backcountry, looking for payback for an old grudge. Wounded and stranded in the harsh desert terrain, hunted, and outnumbered, Sonny is about to become the target of an even more dangerous enemy—one whose thirst for revenge could incite an international conflict far beyond the U.S.-Mexican border . . .
Reavis Z. Wortham is . . .
“A masterful and entertaining storyteller.” —Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
“Entertaining and emotionally engaging.” —T. Jefferson Parker
“The real thing.” —C.J. Box
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Thunderheads boiled over the high desert peaks in Big Bend National Park as four hikers stretched out along the winding Devil's Den Trail. The experienced thirty-somethings filled the dry, cool morning air with comments and good-natured ribbing.
Trailing last as usual in the group's fifteen-year relationship, Harmony Cartwright stopped to tighten the faded Texas flag bandana she used as a headband to keep her blond hair under control. She adjusted the pack straps and, seeing that she wasn't falling too far behind, bent to pick up a 520-million-year-old chunk of quartz from the well-traveled trail.
She scratched away a few grains of sand with a chewed, unpainted thumbnail and angled it toward the sun. After a short examination, Harmony blessed it with a quick smile and tucked the rock into the pocket of her cargo shorts, where it clacked against half a dozen similar stones. The others continued at a steady pace and she hurried to catch up with her husband, Blue. He trailed behind Chloe Hutchins, who followed her husband, and the troop's leader Vince.
The veteran Marine stopped to take a long, deep sip of water from his bright yellow CamelBak pack. Solid as the trail under their feet, Vince was fearless, and had been all his life. After two tours in Afghanistan, he wrapped up his time in the Marine Corps and came home to sell real estate. Such a sedentary life caught up with him after months of inactivity, and he cast around for something adventurous.
Over half a dozen Friday nights and many cans of Coors, the four of them decided to hike the Devil's Den trail in some of the most rugged backcountry of the national park. The trail was off the beaten path for most hikers, who preferred to drive deeper into the park. Rated as a moderate five-and-a-half-mile hike, the trip would at least help them burn up some Yellow Belly calories and maybe lead to even more outdoor activities in the Rockies, a place he loved to visit, a few months down the road.
He swiveled to see Chloe hoofing along at a pace as quick as her wit. "Hey, Spousal Unit, how about you walk point? The view of this trail is getting boring, and that way I can watch your transmission twitch."
Chloe gave Vince a wink and pinched the blue nylon shirt from her damp skin, pumping it like a bellows to cool herself. The brunette wore a wide-brimmed straw hat exactly like the one shading her husband's head. "You wouldn't be able to concentrate then, Sergeant Hutchins. You'd probably trip on something and break a leg, and none of us can carry you out of here, so behave yourself and keep an eye out for marauding Indians."
Blue caught up with the sparring couple and tilted his Tilley hat upward. Built like a fireplug, he wore khaki shorts that revealed thick legs built for walking. "Y'all drinking enough water? This dry air's suckin' it out as fast as I can pour it in."
Chloe rolled her eyes in fun. "Not as much as Big Guy here, but he's working harder than I am."
"I'm still fresh enough out of the Sandbox to think this is chilly." Vince frowned in mock anger. "You're right though, Little Bit, y'all need to make sure you're staying hydrated. I don't want anyone on this team to be falling out."
"You should be sweating out all that beer y'all poured down last night." Chloe poked his flat stomach with a finger.
He raised an eyebrow at the petite brown-haired woman who weighed less than a hundred pounds. "Twelve little ol' cans ain't that much, besides, I run a bigger machine, so I can handle it."
Blue watched the clouds in the distance. "I wish I had one of those Yellow Bellies right now."
The quartet had formed in college, and Blue was used to the same good-natured arguments he'd been hearing in the years since. He waved a hand at the scattered scrub below the ridge above them. "Couldn't you guys find somewhere in the shade to stop?"
Vince spread both hands. "We're a little short on trees around here."
Blue scanned the sun-blasted landscape. The only sign of active life was a lazy buzzard drifting on the thermals high overhead. "Yeah, which is exactly why we should be hiking in Colorado, where there's trees, instead of this godforsaken desert. I get to pick next year, and it's gonna be a hike in Hawaii ... from the condo to the beach."
Harmony caught up with them and tugged a bottle of water from her pack. "This is beautiful! I love all this space! Look." She picked up a twisted piece of wood. "This will look good in a flower arrangement." She brightened. "You know, I'm gonna use it to make one for Kelly Hawke. I tried to get them to come with us, but she said Sonny couldn't get loose this week."
"Honey, that'll just add weight to your pack." Blue watched the love of his life tuck the wood into a side pocket. "I've already seen you put three pounds of rocks in your britches, and besides, it's illegal to take anything from a national park."
Harmony winked at Chloe. "They have plenty of rocks around here. I doubt they'll miss a handful."
Chloe tore open a packet of powdered electrolytes and was pouring the contents into her high-tech BPA-free water bottle when Vince grunted, staggered, and folded in half. The sharp whip-crack report of a rifle shot reached them half a second later and echoed off the bare rocks and cliffs bracketing the trail. Shocked, her hand moved and the remainder of the powder drifted on the slight breeze in a tiny orange cloud.
Unable to grasp what was happening, Chloe sat the bottle on the ground and knelt beside her husband as he dropped to one knee. "Vince. Vince?"
The look in his eyes from under his hat brim was one of pain and confusion. He took his hand from his chest and stared at the blood-covered palm. "Oh hell. I've been shot."
Blue's head whipped toward the ridge. "Some idiot isn't paying attention to where he's shooting! Y'all, get ..."
A second shot hit Vince above his left ear. The soft-nosed round expanded, blowing out the side of his head. His gore-splattered hat flipped off to land in a clump of bunch grass. The man who'd survived two tours of duty in Afghanistan dropped without a sound onto the American soil he'd sworn to protect.
Recovering faster than he would have ever imagined, Blue slammed Harmony onto the dry trail in a full-body tackle. They hit the hard ground at the same instant a third round punched through Blue's pack with a thock. Digging in with his hiking boots, he yanked his confused wife against the rocky arroyo wall and waved at Chloe, who was petrified with shock. "Chloe! Get down!! Get over here with us."
Still not grasping that she was also in danger, she grabbed the straps on Vince's pack to drag him out of the line of fire coming from above. His dead weight and the heavy pack proved too much for her slight frame. She grunted, and jerked back on her heels. Vince's body moved an inch.
The shooter's next round plucked at the top of her shoulder. The ripstop fluttered and blood wet the nylon. Chloe gasped, lost her grip, and fell out of sight from above.
Blue and Harmony squeezed against the shoulder-high rise between them and the shooter on the ridge above. Keeping one eye on Chloe's struggle with her husband's body, Blue shrugged out of his backpack and dug into its contents. "Dammit, girl, get under cover!"
Eyes wide with fear, Harmony crouched low, her shoulder against the bank of rocks, dirt, and scrub. "What are you doing?"
"That's no accident. Somebody's shooting at us on purpose!" Elbow deep in the pack's contents, Blue fished around for a long moment before pulling out a Glock 19. He would probably have left the heavy weapon home had they not planned on camping overnight in the backcountry.
Vince had a Glock 40 in a Kydex waistband holster tucked under his shirt, but neither expected a sniper attack in the middle of a national park. The night before, they'd discussed their concern over illegal aliens who often crossed into the U.S. from Mexico. Though most of them only came looking for a better life, there were always a few with bad intentions.
The guy above seemed to be something completely different. Blue jerked the slide back to chamber a round. He didn't intend to let him murder them all.
* * *
Feeling a little better now that he could shoot back, Blue took several deep breaths to settle his nerves. Another chunk of lead slapped into a rock near Chloe, showering her with rock fragments and sand. It whirred away with a low, vibrating buzz.
Assuming the shooter was using a bolt-action rifle for accuracy, Blue figured it would take a few seconds for the sniper to rack a fresh round and reacquire a new target. He rose enough to peek through a scrubby honey mesquite growing at eye level on the arroyo's edge and squinted upward to locate the shooter. The ground exploded only inches away, spraying the side of his face with sand and pebbles, the echo of the shot coming half a second later.
"Shit!" Skin hot and stinging from the tiny bits of shrapnel, Blue fell hard onto the trail and gasped when he realized he was fully exposed. A round punched through his left shoulder and shattered rocks on the hard trail underneath his body. His arm went numb.
Grunting, he flipped onto his good shoulder and squirmed back to the rise, far enough away from Harmony to draw the fire and keep her safe. She screamed at the sight of blood welling from his wound.
Panting and in shock from the wound, he thought only of keeping her out of the maniac's sights. "Stay there!" He held out the hand with the Glock, muzzle pointed at the sky. She rose in a crouch, as if to race out and help. "No! I said stay down!"
Only yards away, Chloe gave up on pulling Vince's body to cover. She sat against the sheltering rise. Blood soaked the front of her shirt from her shoulder wound, but the shocked woman's soft voice floated over the bare ground with the inflection of a worried child. "Blue, Vince's been shot!"
"So have I!" He groaned and used his feet to push away and gain more distance from the women. "Stay down!" He crawled ten feet to the lowest part of the bank's taper.
Another round hit Vince in the chest. Echoes bounced from one hard ridge to the next. His shirt fluttered from the impact, but he was already beyond hurting or responding. Chloe shrieked and covered her face with both hands. "They shot him again!"
Blue reached the rise's downward slope that tapered to a dangerously low level, ending his cover. He wondered why the sniper was shooting at the motionless body. Then the realization struck him. "Stay down, Chloe! He's trying to draw you out! Harmony, don't move, baby!"
"Why is he shooting at us?"
Blue ignored Chloe's question that didn't need an answer. It didn't matter why they were under fire. Someone was trying to kill them and that was the hard, simple truth. It was unbelievable that four people on a hike in a U.S. national park were the targets of a madman with a rifle.
The numbness of the shot was already wearing off. His arm hung limp and useless. He'd never felt such intense pain before and was swimmy-headed. Afraid he'd pass out from either the pain or shock, he gritted his teeth to keep from puking and focused on a piece of quartz to get hold of himself.
Harmony stripped the pack from her shoulders and crawled toward Chloe at the same time Blue rose just enough to peek through a different cluster of honey mesquite. Movement from above caught his eye and he saw the upper half of a man's body shift and twist in her direction.
"There you are." Drawing on hours on the shooting range back home in Dallas, he aimed the 9mm and adjusted for the elevation, hoping that the new technology in Parabellum ammo was true to the manufacturer's hype. He'd never shot uphill before, and the shooter looked to be at least a hundred yards away, but the trigonometry in his head worked out the angle for the trajectory he'd read about. He cranked off six fast shots from the 15-round magazine, thinking it was odd that his mind would register the empty brass tinkle off the rocks in such an intense situation.
The man on the ridge above threw his hands into the air and a rifle flipped end over end. "Got you, you son-of-a bitch!" Blue started to rise, but his response drew a stunning fusillade from above. The world erupted in mind-numbing noise as more than one fully automatic weapon hosed the area below the ridge.
The tiny geysers of dirt and rock exploding around Blue looked like hailstones falling onto still water. Rounds shredded the leaves off his covering brush and punched through the scant branches and lacy leaves to find flesh. His legs folded and he went down hard.
* * *
Harmony screamed over the rolling man-made thunder and reversed her direction, belly-crawling toward her husband.
Startled by the sudden continuous gunfire, Chloe spun toward Blue's body and became the next target when she involuntarily straightened into view. The rifle spoke again and Chloe's hair flew from the round's impact. Dead before she landed, she fell across Vince's legs and stilled.
Harmony's tan shirt and shorts blended well with the landscape. Knowing what would happen if she presented any part of her body above the rise, she kept her head low, grabbed Blue's shoulder, and rolled him out of sight from the rifle above.
Her husband was already gone. A single tear ran from the corner of his eye. The sight of that clear drop of liquid defined the moment, and Harmony cradled her husband's body. Trembling with fear and horror, she wept with deep, wracking sobs.
The high desert grew silent. The buzzard narrowed its spiral and circled overhead, waiting.
* * *
The day's heat rose as the sun reached its peak in the blue-white sky. Dark thunderheads to the west built to 50,000 feet, but refused to bring relief to the only survivor of the ambush. Flies buzzed the corpses and clotted pools of blood. Beyond those insects, there was no movement other than a kettle of buzzards circling in an airborne funeral procession.
No one came down to inspect the carnage. Throughout the day, Harmony had expected the shooters to come check on their victims. She worried that other hikers would stumble onto the massacre and become victims themselves, but she remained the only living human on the sun-blasted trail. The buzzards dropped lower, but wouldn't approach with one of the figures still moving.
They call them a kettle when they're flying, she thought, her shocked mind working to overcome the horror of what had happened. They're a wake when they're feeding.
She covered her mouth and gagged at the thought of what would soon happen if help didn't come.
Dusk arrived, bringing relief from the blazing springtime sun that slipped first behind a collapsing thunderstorm, then reappeared momentarily before settling below the bluish mountains in the distance.
Stiff and dehydrated, she released her husband's body and risked a quick peek at the ridge above. It was as empty as the rest of the park around her. When there was no more gunfire, she gained even more confidence and knew what she had to do. She kissed Blue's cold forehead and ran a finger along the thin white line of the dried tear.
With a deep, shuddering sigh, she hooked two fingers through her backpack and swung it over one shoulder. Hesitating for a moment, she picked up his Glock that was familiar from shooting at the local outdoor range not far from their house.
A house that'll be lonely and still from now on.
She gasped at the thought and gagged, but nothing came up but bile.
With an effort, Harmony gritted her teeth until the feelings passed. She didn't need distractions right then. She needed to escape, to bring help, and tell the authorities what had happened.
Still cautious, she belly-crawled along the edge of the low rise. It was slow, painful work as rocks gouged every part of her body that scraped along the trail. Her elbows, thighs, and knees took the brunt of the abuse and were soon as raw as hamburger. After a hundred yards, her shirt and shorts were cut and torn in a dozen places, her waistband full of sand and pebbles. She paused to dig the rock samples from her pockets and drop them on the trail.
Her crawl resumed, and when her bare legs couldn't take any more, she decided she'd had enough. Hoping she was finally out of range, Harmony rose and ran in a crouch for another hundred yards without drawing gunfire. There was nothing but a brilliant orange glow over a ragged line of mountains behind her as Harmony straightened, slipped the second pack strap over her other shoulder. Grasping the Glock in a white-knuckled death grip, the only survivor of the attack jogged through the dusk to get help.
* * *
Backlit from her angle against the orange horizon and pinkish clouds, the sniper wearing a shemagh head scarf rose and watched the blond woman's escape. Acquiring her dim image through the scope, he grunted and asked Allah for the strength not to shoot the fleeing target.
Excerpted from "Hawke's War"
Copyright © 2018 Wortham and Wortham, LLC.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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