"Sniper at three o 'clock. Get down! Get down!"
Bullets ripped through walls. Someone screamed. Someone was praying to God to let him die.
Quinn was on his belly, crawling toward an opening to get a bead on the sniper, when the world exploded.
One minute Quinn Walker was back in Afghanistan watching PFC Wooten's head explode all over again and the next moment he woke up. He sat straight up in bed, his heart pounding, his body covered in sweat.
He threw back the covers and staggered to the window overlooking the high mountain meadow. Less than an hour until sunrise. The sky was already showcasing the imminent arrival of a new day.
Why did this keep happening? Why couldn't he let it go? He leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes, willing the nightmare back to hell, and wondered if there would ever come a time when that horror faded?when he was able to accept that he was back home in Kentucky?
The little something called PTSD he'd brought home from the war had an ugly habit of recurring just when it was most inconvenient. It wasn't like sand fleas, which fell by the wayside after a good dose of tea tree oil. There were no meds, no vaccines, no magic wand to wave and make it go away. It was the gift that kept on giving, night after night in his sleep, and in the bright light of day when he least expected it. A word, a sound, even a scent, was all it took to yank him back. It was the son of a bitch on his back that wouldn't go away.
Too early to get ready for work and too late to go back to bed, he made a quick trip into the bathroom, and then grabbed a pair of sweatpants and headed downstairs from the loft.
The hardwood floors in the cabin echoed his steps as he turned on the lights and moved into the kitchen area to make coffee. As soon as it was done, he took his first hot, steamy cup outside to the wraparound deck to wait for sunrise.
Disturbed by Quinn's appearance, an owl suddenly took flight from the A-frame roof and flew into the trees.
Fog hovered waist-high above the ground all the way to the trees. He caught a glimpse of something moving off to his left and waited until a large buck with a massive rack slowly emerged from the fog. It was the prince of the forest, and the antlers were its crown. The buck suddenly stopped, as if sensing he was no longer alone.
Although Quinn didn't move, he knew the buck smelled him?or at least smelled the coffee?but it wasn't enough to spook him. After a few moments the buck moved on through the clearing in stately fashion and disappeared into the forest. It was a far better greeting to Quinn's day than his nightmare had been.
He sat on the top step with his elbows on his knees, waiting for the coffee to cool, remembering when this had been his grandparents' place, and he and his family were still living at home. Only this cabin wasn't the house that had been there then. This one was new. Quinn had built it with the help of the family after the old home place was blown up during a gunfight with some hired killers from L.A.
They'd come to silence a witness who was hiding here in the mountains, intent on keeping her from testifying against their boss. That witness was not only a distant relative but his brother Ryal's long-lost love.
The bad guys lost the fight.
Ryal and Beth and their baby daughter, Sarah, were living happily ever after.
Quinn was still trying to outrun a war.
A few moments later a coyote came out of the tree line near where he was sitting, lifted its head then tucked tail and disappeared.
"Yeah, I know, I'm screwing up the status quo this morning, but mine got screwed up, too," Quinn said, and took a quick sip of coffee before he was satisfied that it cool enough to drink.
He sat with one eye on the meadow, watching the night creatures going to ground and the day creatures coming out, all the while waiting for sunrise.
As a backcountry ranger for the Daniel Boone National Forest Service, the area he kept track of was off-road and unpopulated except for the wildlife. The fewer people he had to deal with, the better he liked it.
Finally the sun did him the honor of rising to the occasion, and Quinn went about the business of getting to work.
By midmorning he was on the opposite side of Rebel Ridge, hiking up Greenlee Pass to look for Robert Lane and Wayne Hall, two hikers who were over a day late checking out of the park. He wasn't expecting problems, but in country this rough, having an accident and no way to get medical attention could mean the difference between life and death. He carried food and first aid, and was in contact with ranger headquarters by two-way radio. The last reported contact with the hikers was at a location just above Greenlee Pass. Since he hadn't met them on the trail on his way up, it stood to reason they were still ahead of him. Unless they'd done something stupid like diverting off the hiking trail and getting themselves lost, in which case the search would turn to air, horseback and rescue dogs. In the eighteen months since he'd been on the job, they'd only had one such search, which had ended on a happy note. He was hoping that would be the case again.
He'd been walking for almost three hours when he paused at an outcrop to use his binoculars. A careful sweep of the area revealed nothing that alerted him. No smoke. No distress flag. Nothing. He pocketed the binoculars, got a drink of water and continued upward.
Less than a hundred yards later he found the first sign of blood. He would have missed it but for the unusual number of ants swarming on it. After the first sign, he found another and then another. He couldn't tell if it was human or animal, but either way it wasn't good. He didn't want to walk up on an injured animal, but he had no option but to keep following the blood trail upward, in case it was his hikers.
It didn't take long to find the source. Another hundred yards up and he caught the scent of something dead. A few yards farther he found one of the hikers?or at least part of one. An arm and a foot were missing, along with most of the internal organs.
The sight spun Quinn's head back to Afghanistan so fast that for a moment he nearly lost it. He grabbed for the dog tags he still wore and held on as if his life depended on it. The metal dug into his palm, and it was that pain that helped him focus.
He turned away from the sight and began looking at the scene, trying to figure out what had happened. There was one backpack about twenty feet up from the body, hanging from a limb. It appeared to have been ripped apart by teeth and claws. There were black bear in the park. This wasn't good.
When he found claw marks on a tree trunk where the bear had marked its territory, he stopped and stared. The claw marks were nearly ten feet high. That was one damn big bear.
He grabbed his radio and quickly called in to dispatch.
"This is Walker, come in."
"Go ahead, Walker," the dispatcher said.
"Found one of the hikers. Dead. Looks like a bear attack. I've got claw marks on a tree a good ten feet high." He gave the GPS coordinates of the body. "I have a blood trail that leads down the mountain, and I'm going back to follow it. We're still one hiker short. Stands to reason it might be him."
"Copy that, Walker. Stay safe. Over and out."
Quinn slipped the rifle strap off his shoulder, took the gun off safety, jacked a shell into the chamber and headed back down the trail.
Now that he knew what he was hunting, all his instincts kicked in. The forest had gone silent?like everything was holding its breath. He stopped, listening. Not even the air was stirring. After a moment he kept moving, following the blood into the trees, keeping his eyes on the ground and his ears tuned to the sounds around him.
About ten yards in, a twig suddenly snapped. He crouched instantly as he swung his rifle toward the sound. A few moments later a raccoon ambled out from under one bush and disappeared just as quickly beneath another one.
Shit. He let out a slow breath and kept moving.
The earth beneath the trees was spongy?covered in dead leaves and pine needles?but it wasn't the type of ground cover that held prints. It wasn't until he came upon a place void of leaves that he found his first footprint. It was human. Now that he knew he was trailing a man and not a bear, he started calling out loud. He didn't know which man was dead and which one had walked away from the bear attack, so he shouted both names.
"Hello! Hello! Robert? Wayne? Where are you?"
He kept shouting as he walked, following blood drops, broken limbs and the occasional footprint. He'd been on the trail for a good twenty minutes before he heard a faint sound. He stopped to listen, then called out again.
"Hello! Robert? Wayne?"
He heard the sound again. It was a faint call for help. His heart skipped a beat.
"Keep yelling! I'm coming," he shouted, and ran toward the noise.
One moment he was pushing through a thicket of brush, and the next he had to jump to keep from stepping on the body.
The man was lying on his side, covered in dirt and leaves and an abundance of dried blood. One leg had claw marks all the way from thigh to calf, with ants swarming the wounds. When he rolled over onto his back and saw Quinn, he started to cry.
"Thank God, thank God."
"Are you Robert or Wayne?" Quinn asked.
"I'm Robert Lane. Wayne is? Wayne is?"
Quinn put a hand on his shoulder. "I found him. Just rest easy, man. I'm Quinn Walker with the ranger service. Help is already on the way. Give me a second. I need to let them know I found you." He took out his two-way.
"Dispatch, this is Walker, over."
"Go ahead, Walker."
"I've got one alive. I'm sending GPS coordinates. Send me some help, ASAP."
"Copy that, Walker. Help is on the way."
Quinn eyed the area carefully, then dropped his backpack and knelt by Robert. He took out his canteen and lifted the man's head, slowly pouring water into his dry, cracked lips.
Robert grabbed frantically at the water, wanting all of it at once.
"Easy," Quinn said. "A little bit at a time so you don't choke, okay?"
Then he poured a little on a rag and wiped some crusted blood from one eye.
"Sorry, man," Quinn said softly, and doused the leg liberally with water, washing off the ants. "Did the bear follow you?"
"I don't know."
"What happened? Why did it attack?"
Robert moaned and then started to cry. "I don't know. It was coming up the trail toward us. The minute it saw us it charged. We never had a chance. It swiped at me first. I went down, and Wayne grabbed a branch and started screaming and yelling, trying to get the bear's attention."
Robert paused, choked on a sob and then broke down and wept.
Quinn let him cry. He knew how it felt to watch a friend die. He gave Robert another drink of water, and finally he was able to finish the story.
"Wayne saved my life. The bear ripped his belly open with one swipe. I heard him scream." Robert shuddered. "He was screaming and screaming, and then all of a sudden it was over. Wayne was?you know, and the bear was tearing into him like he was starving. I got up and ran. I ran. I ran away and left him like a coward."
"No. He was already dead," Quinn said. "Would you have had his sacrifice go for nothing? He did what he did to save your life. It would have been a stupid move not to try and get away, okay?"
Robert nodded, but he was crying again.
"How old are you, Robert?"
"Twenty. Wayne was twenty-two. We've been best friends since I was in the sixth grade. Oh, my God, this is going to kill his mom and dad."
Quinn touched the other man's forearm. "Death is always a hard thing to face, but it comes to all of us eventually. Just hang in there."
Robert moaned. "I think I'm gonna pass out. Don't lea?"
"I won't leave you, man. I promise."
Robert Lane's eyes rolled back in his head.
Quinn felt for a pulse. It was too rapid. The wounds were showing signs of infection. The guy would be lucky if he didn't lose the leg.
He stood up with his rifle steady in his grip. It wasn't the first time he'd stood guard over a man who was down.
He contacted the ranger station again. "This is Walker. Do you copy?"
"Go ahead, Walker."
"From what the hiker said, I think we've got a rogue bear. It's either sick or been injured. Might need to send some trackers up here to find it before it attacks someone else."
"Copy that, Walker. I'll pass the message on."
"Walker out," Quinn said, and pocketed his radio, then resumed guard.
It was close to an hour before he heard a chopper, and somewhat later before he heard people coming up the trail. He was deep into the trees, but they had his coordinates. They would find him. When he began to hear voices, he called out until the rescue crew came into view.
Within minutes they had the hiker's condition assessed, started an IV in his arm, sluiced the rest of the ants out of his wounds with disinfectant, loaded him onto a stretcher and strapped him down. The eight-man crew would take turns, two at a time, carrying him down the mountain to the clearing where the evac chopper was waiting.
Another crew was recovering the other hiker's remains. It would be dark before Quinn got home.
Quinn drove up to the cabin, turned off the headlights of his Jeep and got out. With the sun down, the air was already getting cool. He took his boots off on the deck, unlocked the door and then carried them through to the utility room. He would clean them up later, but not now. He needed to wash the blood off himself first.
He stripped where he stood, tossed his clothes into the washing machine and started it up before heading through the house to his loft. Within minutes he was standing beneath a spray of hot water with his eyes closed, willing away the gore of what he'd seen.
His life was solitary for a reason. Until he could figure out how to cope with his flashbacks and nightmares, he wasn't in any frame of mind to build a personal relationship. He knew this and accepted it, but it didn't make the lonely nights any easier to get past.