The Hunt, book 4 in my Heroes Rising series, was voted LR Cafe’s Best of 2021! Read Chapter One to see why so many readers love this book.
Brantford “Wolf” Makalski rolled over in bed and punched the alarm off on his cell. He winced only slightly as the damaged muscles in his shoulder and upper arm protested the movement.
Better do those exercises.
Yeah, the damn exercises. But if he didn’t… Problem was, he hadn’t, for way too long. He couldn’t seem to find the motivation for doing much of anything, as a matter of fact, except taking care of Bailey. Only when his arm and shoulder stiffened to the point where movement became a problem did he manage to kick himself in the ass and address the issue.
Both the doctor and the physical therapists told him, without exercising he might lose the use of his shoulder and arm by as much as 80 percent. If he followed the program, he might have residual stiffness and some limitations, but it would be a hell of a lot better. Now, he forced himself through the painful routine each day even as he asked himself, What for? It wasn’t like the SEALs were going to take him back.
And there was the root of his problem. Being a SEAL defined him. Without that, he had no idea who the hell he was or what he should do. It hadn’t been his choice to leave, so mentally he hadn’t been prepared.
The touch of a wet nose on his face reminded him staying in bed wasn’t actually doing that. He opened his eyes again and stared into Bailey’s soulful ones.
“You miss it, too, right, boy?”
He ruffled the dog’s fur on his head and stroked his ears.
The Belgian Malinois had been trained to sniff out explosives and was attached to Wolf’s team. Lighter and leaner than German shepherds, the breed sported a compact frame, an advantage when tandem parachute jumping or rappelling, an intrinsic part of many SEAL missions. Their exceptional sense of smell makes them an optimal breed for detecting Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Which was how they both ended up in this little house instead of with the rest of his team.
That last mission in Afghanistan had been FUBAR—fucked up beyond all repair. Both he and Bailey had been hurt badly enough to be medically discharged. Two damaged misfits, he remembered thinking. But the SEALs had helped him with Bailey’s adoption and, when they were both deemed fit to travel, they headed back to Wisconsin. They were good company for each other. In fact, Bailey was about the only one Wolf was fit to be around, surly as he’d become. There was one problem, however: now what did they do with the rest of their lives?
When the dog nosed him again he sighed, swung his legs out of bed, and stood up. Grabbed his boxer briefs and yanked them on. Then he shuffled into the kitchen where he opened the back door to let Bailey out into the yard. What a stroke of luck this house turned out to be. He’d been reluctantly ready to settle for some uninspiring apartment, not having any plans that required a choice of location. But not everyone would take Bailey, and the dog needed a place to stretch his legs, especially the injured one.
Driving the streets of a modest neighborhood, he’d seen the For Rent sign in front of the little bungalow. It wasn’t much, and it needed some loving care, but it had a very big yard. When he looked at it, he could already see Bailey romping in it, a little unsteady still on the injured leg.
Probably because the place was in such sad condition, the rent had been astonishingly low. His conscience had prodded him to at least do what he could to make the place presentable. But things like painting and mowing the yard were hell on his shoulder, which was what had prompted him to start the exercises in the first place.
He’d been here now for six months. Six months where he’d done nothing but buy groceries and hang out with Bailey. At least he hadn’t turned himself into an alcoholic. He knew he needed to find some focus for his life, but he had no idea what the hell that was. He hadn’t even been with a woman for so long, he wondered if he’d just lost interest. No, he corrected himself, they wouldn’t be interested in him. Not the way he was now.
He’d always wondered about guys like him who had medical discharges and why it took so long for most of them to find a new focus. Some of them never did. Now he knew the answer. It was like going from one planet to another and feeling like the alien intruder.
He’d splurged and bought himself one of those single-serving coffee machines, since he was such a caffeine addict. Now, as he waited for Bailey to tire himself out, he filled a mug and turned to carry it to the table. As he did, some of the hot liquid splashed onto his hand, and like that, the scene flashed into his mind.
They’d been sent to rescue two civilians who were prisoners in a Taliban facility. Two aid workers. They planned it out so carefully, had sneaked to get pictures of the house where they were being held, the area around it. How many guards were protecting the village and what else was going on in the street. Stealth was the word, and they were the best at it. Even Bailey, who would sniff for explosives, had been trained to walk silently.
But where there were supposed to be only two guards, there turned out to be five. And they had set explosives around the house where the aid workers were being kept. Bailey sniffed them out, but when he approached, he bumped an almost-invisible trip wire Boom! Something hot splashed on his hand and he was tossed backward, hitting his head against the wall. He was unconscious when his team got him the hell out of there. And, kudos to them, they got Bailey and the aid workers, too, leaving a bunch of dead terrorists in their place.
When he woke in the field hospital, it was to learn both he and Bailey were being airlifted to the new military hospital at Weilerbach, Germany. Bailey would be taken to a veterinary the military used, and they would both be treated for their injuries.
Wolf shook his head, trying not to let the memories overwhelm him the way they usually did. When he discovered his shoulder had been shredded, much like Bailey’s hip, it had taken him months to be able to cope with it. To realize he’d no longer be a SEAL. And that Bailey was being retired as an official bomb-sniffer.
Physical therapy had been a bitch. Mostly because he’d spent nearly all of it feeling sorry for himself. But at least he made sure to work with Bailey every day, which was probably why he didn’t lose his mind altogether.
But the same question plagued him every single day: if he wasn’t a SEAL anymore, then who was he? What was he supposed to do with his life?
He shook his head and swallowed a big gulp of coffee, barely noticing the way it burned his tongue. He’d turned into such a loser, something he’d never, ever expected to be. At least he’d recently started physical therapy again and was doing his exercises on a daily basis. But how did he get to the next chapter in his life? What did he do with himself?
Bailey came bounding up onto the porch and bumped the door with his nose. Wolf opened it and took a moment to hug what at that instant was his only friend, before letting him in and filling his food and water bowls. Okay, he’d do his exercises then take a shower and… And what?
Might as well do his morning workout. That took up a chunk of time. He went to grab his phone from the bedroom, although since he didn’t get any calls, he had no idea in hell why he worried about not having it. As he picked it up, he saw a text had come in while he was in the kitchen. From Zane Halstead.
“Made a decision yet? Hope you decide to at least come and check us out. Just email me for details.”
He’d been putting this off since he got the first text. And how the hell had this guy gotten his cell number? Probably through his military records, since he’d had to put it down when filling out the forms for his retirement and disability pay. Thank god no one else had tried to contact him, but these people must have some pull to access that information.
The first text had come in four weeks ago, and that he’d dismissed because…well, because. A few days later, he’d received another one, a couple of weeks later, a third. Why did these people want him in particular so badly?
Not that he’d seriously considered the offer , but it prompted him to at least get off his ass, do his PT every day on his shoulder, and find a gun range where he could train himself to shoot all over again. Luckily it had been his left shoulder, but having it out of commission affected his entire body. He was pretty happy with his progress so far, although he still had no clear goals in mind.
And then, today, a fourth text.
He stood there scrolling through the past messages. As he read through them, he felt like the biggest loser in the world. Okay, so he was used to having the ability to do anything, but he wasn’t the only war vet who had challenges. Many of them were far worse off than he was, and he thought it entirely possible they were doing much better than he was.
Which was why he now was searching for the original message from Halstead. They’d gone through BUD/S together a lifetime ago, which was how they knew each other. And there it was. The first text.
“Thought of you for this. Tough to track you down though. And, oh yeah, the sheriff, Alex Rossi, is a former SEAL himself. He’s new, cleaning house and filling the slots with former SEALs. If interested, text your email, and I’ll send you all the details. Or you can call me at this number. Hope to hear from you.”
Wolf sat on the bed, staring at the phone. Why was this decision so hard to make? If he hid away from everyone for too long, he’d turn into a withered mass of flesh and bone.
Just do it.
Bailey chose that moment to lumber into the room. He sat down at Wolf’s feet and looked at him with an expression on his face that could only be described as plaintive. The Belgian Malinois is a special breed, tolerating both hot and cold weather. Kid-friendly and dog-friendly, easy to train were more reasons why they were the dog most SEAL teams prefer. His brown coat accented by black ears and snout gave him a distinctive look. And he was loyal and dedicated beyond belief.
“What do you think, guy?” Wolf rubbed the dog’s snout. “Want to go on a field trip? Meet some new people?”
Bailey rubbed his snout against Wolf’s thigh and made quiet little noises.
“Yeah, me, too, big guy. But we need to do something, or we’re both going to dissolve into dust.”
He set the phone down and left it on the nightstand while he went through the exercises the physical therapist gave him. Fire shot through the damaged muscles of his upper arm and shoulder but he persevered, sweating like a pig and cursing loudly. He at least had to be able to use a gun if he expected to be considered for this job offered to him. Or any other job, for that matter. His gun was as much a part of his body as the hand that held it, so this was a must, no matter how much it hurt.
Finally, when he’d reached the upper limit of his pain level, he quit.
In the bathroom, he took a good look at himself in the mirror and thought again about Zane Halstead’s text. About what his life would be like if he stayed where he was or what might happen if he checked this out. His dark-brown hair was almost shoulder-length. He’d chopped it himself a few times with scissors, which was probably why it looked like a blind person had done it. Once a week, he sort of scraped his face, so some careful trim could give him a decent chin covering.
He’d have to clean up better if he decided to check out Halstead’s offer. Maybe take a trip to the dreaded barbershop in town and hope nobody was too interested in his business. Questions, even friendly ones, gave him hives. Shaking his head, he stepped into the shower. Finally, showered and dressed, he went back to the kitchen, Bailey right at his heels. He carried a fresh mug of coffee to the back porch and sat in one of the chairs, Bailey next to him. Two swallows of coffee, a long breath, and he began to type the text.
* * *
Lacey Cooper pulled her car into the pump at the truck stop and turned off her engine. She needed gas and iced tea, and a lucky break. It was hotter than blazing hell outside, which meant her air-conditioning had been running full blast, so when she stepped out of the vehicle, the heat was like a lit candle running over her skin. Which surprised her because she’d read that the temp in this area of Montana never even passed ninety.
Tonight she’d take advantage of the pool at the campground where she was staying. Plus, sleeping in the tent, she always got the cool night breezes.
She’d taken enough pictures the past few days to plaster every wall in her house. Not that she knew what she was shooting, except for some great scenery, but she kept thinking somewhere in there was a clue as to where Heather and Trace had disappeared to. Oh, sure, people had seen them, but mostly they kept to themselves. The people in the offices at the campgrounds where they’d stayed said they’d asked for information about hiking trails but hadn’t been specific about which ones.
Great. Just great.
I wonder if Heather is sleeping well. Comfortable. Someplace with Trace . If they’re sleeping at all. Where in the hell are those two lovebirds anyway? If they’re just off the grid, I might have to beat them with a broom, giving me heart failure like this.
Her sister, Heather, and her fiancé, Trace, had driven to the Crazy Mountains more than a week ago. They were huge camping fans and, in their research for interesting spots, had become fascinated with the Crazies. Lacey, a nature and wildlife photographer herself, was fascinated by the pictures they’d sent the first few days and wondered if she should make the trip herself. Maybe meet up with them for a few days.
She’d waited a couple of days to make sure she could do it and then texted Heather. When she didn’t get a response, she tried calling. No answer. That’s when she got worried. For twenty-four hours, she kept texting and calling. Finally, sick with fear, she called the police in the area, any departments that looked like they served the Crazies. They all told her the same thing: they didn’t consider someone missing for seventy-two hours, and people got lost in those mountains a lot.
Why wasn’t anyone interested in helping her?
Even search and rescue wasn’t optimistic, echoing what law enforcement had said. And she had no starting point. They actually spent a day and a night looking in likely areas, checking caves, everything, but there was no trace of the couple at all.
She decided the only thing was to fly out there, rent a car, and start looking herself. So far, her luck was zero, and her fear grew every day.
When she found them, she was going to spend the first fifteen minutes blistering their hides. Didn’t they realize she’d worry herself to death not hearing from them? After all, it had been a week. A week!
Again she’d talked to law enforcement but without much success. They all pointed out to her the vastness of the area.
“Without a starting point, I’d have people out there looking for months,” each of them told her.
The sad part of it was she was falling in love with the area. She’d moved a lot in her life, after their parents passed away, but no place had really felt like home to her. Trace ran a tour guide business, which he once said he could run from anywhere, and Heather was an in-demand artist so not locked into anyplace. They’d even discussed the possibility of the three of them moving here if they liked it.
Now, she just wanted to find what was left of her damn family and go from there.
She cursed silently and steadily under her breath while she filled her tank before parking in front of the convenience store. She needed something cold and wet, and she needed it now. The store was semi-crowded. She made her way to where the drink machines and the refrigerator cases were and grabbed a couple bottles of iced tea.
As she stood in line to pay for them, she let her gaze roam casually over the crowd. It was easy to spot the ranchers in their jeans, work shirts, and boots. Others were also dressed casually, and she was sure some of them were tourists. No hunters yet. Fall season in the Crazies had not yet started.
Lacey was familiar with some of the area. She’d been taking shots for different magazines over the past couple of years. This was a beautiful area and easy to show off. She’d raved about it and mentioned once or twice that she wanted to get pictures to include in a coffee table book she was doing. That was probably why Heather and Trace had chosen it for this trip. They were dedicated campers, loved exploring, hiking, all the things that went with it.
But they also knew the importance of keeping in touch with people.
She’d checked three campgrounds already, with minimum success. They’d stayed at one of them for two nights but hadn’t been back since then.
Of course, the Crazy Mountains covered a huge area and were almost completely surrounded by private lands. Huge ranches. There was a lot of wealth in the area, and the ranchers used it to fight any effort to change the status of their land. There weren’t a lot of towns, either. A few big ones like Billings and Livingston and Bozeman. She’d gone through the arduous and lengthy process of checking all the motels and hotels in the area on the off chance Heather and Trace had decided not to sleep under the trees, but, as she expected, no dice.
Now she was concentrating on some tiny ones like Eagle Rock in the area where she was currently searching. Here, for the first time, she’d had some luck. The campground where she registered was the one where the couple had spent two nights.
“We were surprised when they left,” the woman who checked her in told her. “Your sister raved about it. Said it was the nicest one they’d stayed at. But when I woke up the next morning their vehicle and all their stuff was gone. They must have left before the sun rose.”
That was the first big trigger for Lacey. Although she’d never gone on trips with them, she knew her sister. Sneaking off before dawn wasn’t her style. But there was no clue to where they’d gone when they left. They could be anywhere by this time. She’d decided to broaden her search area.
Someone had told her about Alex Rossi, the new sheriff of this county who was a former SEAL. Said those guys could find a gnat on the moon, and she should talk to him. Especially since the campground was in his area. She knew the reputation SEALs had. She figured if anyone could find them, it would be this sheriff.
She hadn’t checked the area around Eagle Rock yet, so she had gotten directions to his office from the campground and planned for him to be her next stop. When she called, he’d told her he’d be there most of the afternoon.
She started toward the checkout counter, but a man stopped her.
She looked at him and frowned. He was about five ten with graying black hair, thick brows, and deep-set eyes, and the kind of tan that came from spending a lot of time outdoors. How did he know who she was?
She frowned at him. “Do I know you?”
“Oh, sorry.” He smiled. “I always think everyone knows me. Cordell Ritchie. President of the Crazy Mountains Ranchers Association. Been here a long time. I heard you were looking for your sister.”
“Wow. Word must be getting around.”
His smile was the kind people called polished. Well, if he had a political position, that made sense.
“We’re a pretty spread out populated area,” he told her, “but we try to keep a handle on what’s going on and help where we can. I just want you to know that all the ranchers will be looking on their property to see if they can find anything. Including checking the parts of the mountains that bleed onto us.”
Lacey managed a smile. “That’s a very generous offer on your part, Mr. Ritchie.”
He dipped his head. “We try to take care of each other.” He took out his wallet and slid a thin business card from it, held it out to Lacey. “Call me any time. And how about giving me yours, in case we come up with anything. My ranch hands are out all the time, and they can certainly keep searching.”
Well, she’d take all the help she could get, since other people weren’t standing in line to offer it.
Lacey fished in her own wallet for one of her business cards, handing it over.
Ritchie studied it. “Wildlife photographer? Must be a great job.”
“It is.” She flashed a smile. “I really love my work. But it’s also helped me with my search, because I look at places differently than other people do. I see things they don’t.”
“Let’s hope it gets you some results. As warm as the days can be, the nights in the mountains can get pretty cold. I’m sure people have told you that disappearing in the Crazies is easy to happen, and the people are hard to find. There are so many caves and cracks and crevices that a search is always difficult. But we’ll keep looking. I’ve passed the word to my hands and the association members to keep a sharp eye out.”
Lacey forced a smile. “Well, thank you. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem. You have my card if you need anything.”
She wondered how he knew who she was. But of course, she’d been asking questions everywhere. A man in his position would certainly hear about it, she guessed. And maybe someone had given him a description. It was nice of him to offer, but something about him rubbed her the wrong way. Maybe it was his ego that he wore on his sleeve or his slightly condescending manner. She puzzled over it while she paid for her drinks and as she hurried out to her SUV.
After she cranked the ignition, she let the engine run for a few while the AC kicked on. Then she pulled out the directions to Alex Rossi’s office and punched them into her GPS.
“Exit parking lot and turn left on highway. Then proceed ten miles.”
She made the turn and headed down the paved two-lane road. Lodgepole pines crowded the edges and, beyond them, she could see stretches of land peppered with the same trees. She had just crested a small rise in the highway and made another turn when a bright flash of sunlight blinded her. She blinked, jerked the wheel, and struggled to bring the vehicle straight again. As another flash blinded her, she heard a loud noise, the sound of the driver’s window shattering, and felt a sharp pain in her arm. The car slid to the right, and she was unable to hold it straight. The next thing she knew, it had slewed off the road, smashing into a thick lodgepole pine.
That was all she knew before falling into blackness.
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