© 2023 by Jordan Summers

RIOT CHAPTERS 1-3

Chapter One

 

Riot clenched the summons in his hand and glared at it. In all his years as a Phantom Warrior, he’d never been summoned before the Atlantean King until this week. Nor had he been summoned before any other king for that matter. He scowled at the missive. This made the third one in a matter of days, since he’d returned from Earth. His mind flashed to his brethren, Phantom Warrior Linx. It was that damn cat’s fault that he was in this mess.

He should’ve never allowed Linx to talk him into smuggling Taylor Shelley onto the ship. Riot had only done so because the woman would’ve been killed had she stayed on Earth. In his mind, the threat of death superseded the actual ‘rules’ put in place by the Atlantean people for gathering fertile females. Not that he expected the King to see it that way.

The fact that Taylor’s sister was Linx’s mate…well, that simply complicated matters.

Riot stared at the giant rock slab doors that guarded the Throne Room and took a deep breath. Deceiving the King was wrong. He knew it. But for him, honor and friendship trumped fealty. Riot had no doubt that the King would disagree.

He made a mental note to beat some sense into Linx the next time he saw him, then growled under his breath and threw open the doors. He stepped into the Great Hall and scanned the long aisle that led to the crystal throne. This might be his third visit, but he didn’t like it any better than the first two.

Long tables fanned out on both sides of the aisle, separated by only a few feet in order to accommodate large crowds. Today, they were empty. Perhaps this would be a private meeting. The thought had barely had time to settle in Riot’s mind, when he spotted a small group of people orbiting the throne. So much for a private meeting.

Riot’s massive shoulders tensed a notch. He didn’t want an audience, but if there were others here, maybe he’d been summoned for a routine reason—not because of the mistakes and bloodshed that had occurred on his last mission to Earth. He glommed onto that remote chance, minor though it may be.

Linx, that lazy good for nothing cat, still hadn’t bothered to petition the Atlantean King for permanent residence for their stowaway. Instead, he’d dumped the helpless woman on Hades, the Dark King, knowing she wouldn’t be discovered.

Hades only ruled a small part of Planet Zaron, but the Dark King was formidable. No one crossed him and lived. Fortunately, Riot hadn’t had to deal with the Dark King…yet. King Eros was bad enough.

As Riot approached, the people hovering around the throne parted, revealing a large, blond-haired man dressed in a loincloth. His chest was bare and softened hide enclosed his feet. Perched upon the glowing green and blue crystal throne, the man leaned forward, as if in anticipation of his arrival.  One look at the Atlantean King and Riot’s tension skyrocketed, twisting his muscles into tight knots.

King Eros’ gaze appeared lazy, which belied his intense scrutiny.

Riot dropped to one knee and bowed his head. “You summoned me, Your Highness?” The question was a formality. They both knew that he wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t been summoned. Riot glanced up and met the King’s eyes. His thoughts immediately turned to food, though he was not hungry. 

The King might look soft with his long hair and pretty features, but he was a powerful Atlantean. And like allAtlanteans, he could read thoughts.

Eros’ blue eyes brightened with amusement. “Are you hungry, Phantom Warrior Riot?”

“Yes,” Riot said, automatically thinking of platters filled with roasted meats.

Eros’ eyes glittered and his mouth pressed together as if to seal off laughter. “It’s strange that you’re always in need of nourishment when I call for you.”

“Yes, Your Highness. Truly odd coincidence.” Riot purposely kept his expression blank as to give nothing away.

The amusement vanished from Eros’ handsome face. “Do you know why you’re here?”

Riot slowly shook his head and pictured an apple pie. “No, Your Highness.”

Eros shifted, his thick muscles flexing and tightening as he moved forward on the throne. “I read your incident report about the violence that occurred during your last mission.”

Riot remained silent and thought about the hamburgers he’d had on Earth. He’d especially loved the ones covered in ketchup and extra pickles. 

Eros’ brow furrowed. “You really should eat before you come here.” His gaze flicked to Riot’s stomach, then back to his face. “As I was saying, I wanted to speak with you about the deaths that occurred. You said in your report that they were unavoidable.”

They’d gone over this multiple times. So many in fact, that Riot wondered if the King expected him to change his story. That wasn’t going to happen. Riot rose from his kneeling position. “My Phantom brother, Linx was fighting for his life and the life of his mate when I arrived. He was outnumbered. The humans were armed with weapons made of steel. They fired metal rounds that were meant to lodge within the body.”

Eros’ mouth tightened. “I am familiar with guns,” he said. “What I can’t figure out is why a gun would have been a problem for a Phantom Warrior.”

“It wouldn’t have been, if not for the safety of the women—woman,” Riot corrected.

Eros rose from the throne. “Women? Your report stated that there was only one woman.”

Riot thought about fries smothered in gravy and his stomach growled. Several of the Atlanteans present took a step back as if they expected him to shift into his bear form and eat them. Riot nearly snorted. None here were to his liking. Besides, they’d be far too tough.

The King’s lips twitched and Riot stiffened. His last thought must’ve gotten through. He immediately went back to thinking about ice cream shakes and toasted buns with thick burgers wedged in the middle.

“I misspoke, Your Highness. There was only one woman that I can recall,” he said. “Phantom Warrior Linx later claimed her in order to save her life. Had I not arrived to help, we might have lost her.”

Eros’ muscles tensed and his nostrils flared. Anger radiated from his pores. Like Riot, the King wanted to kill the men all over again for what they’d done to Linx’s mate, Tabitha. “I trust there will be no further incidents,” Eros said.

“Definitely not, Your Highness.”

Eros nodded. “Good,” he said. “You’re dismissed. I expect you to be on the next transport back to Earth.”

“But, Your Majesty, I just returned. Shouldn’t a few of the other warriors have a chance before I’m sent back out?” This was punishment for omitting information. Riot knew it, but he couldn’t exactly call the King on it without implicating himself.

“Are you questioning a direct order?” Eros asked.

Riot felt his face pale. “No, Sire.” He turned to leave. Eros’ next words stopped him short.

“I trust if any new details of the event jar your memory that you will let me know immediately,” he said. There it was, the suspicion that had been lurking under the surface the whole time.

Riot looked back over his shoulder. “Of course.”

“Oh, and Riot,” Eros said.

He swiveled to face the King once more. “Yes, Your Highness.”

“Do get something to eat. Your hunger is mentally…distracting.” The King’s lips twitched.

He knew. There was no doubt in Riot’s mind, but somehow he managed to keep his composure. “Yes, Your Highness. Right away.”

Before Riot made it three steps, the stone doors flew open and a small brown-haired woman swept into the room. “There you are.” Her gaze bypassed Riot to settle on the King. A golden-haired boy, the future king of Zaron, and a beautiful chestnut-haired girl, whose curls hung halfway down her back were hot on her heels. 

The little girl saw King Eros sitting on his throne and squealed, “Daddy!” As she raced forward, arms outstretched.

Her brother watched Riot closely as he passed, his green eyes as off-putting as his father’s aqua blue ones.

Riot bowed. “My Queen,” he said.

Rachel smiled at him. “I swear I will never get used to people calling me that.” She shook her head and glanced at her husband. “We’ve been looking all over the palace for you.”

The second the King’s gaze landed on his wife, his blue eyes began to glow. People may have questioned his return after so many years away, but there was no denying the love he felt for the human woman standing before him.

Something in the vicinity of Riot’s hearts throbbed. He hadn’t experienced any kind of connection with the women on Earth. Certainly nothing like the kind he saw between the royal couple. Oh, he’d tried. His body had been more than willing to ‘test the waters’, but his size seemed to intimidate the females of the species.

Riot couldn’t really blame them. Even among the Phantom people, he was considered large and rather intimidating—not that anyone would be able to tell that from the King’s reaction to him. But Riot had heard his Phantom brothers joking about him on the ship. The harsh words would’ve hurt, if there hadn’t been a thread of worry laced with the humor. They hid their concern with laughter, while Riot hid his pain with silence.

He stopped at the stone doors and glanced one final time at the King and Queen. They appeared to be so happy. Riot was under no illusion that he’d find the same happiness.

 

* * * * *

 

Nina Whitetail walked down the sterile hall toward her grandfather’s hospital room. The smell of urine, blood, and antiseptic cleaners battered her nose and soured her stomach. Why did all hospitals smell the same? No matter how much they cleaned they could not cover up the odor of death. It clung to the walls, the light fixtures, and the very skin of the workers with its sticky cold fingers. She shuddered and took a deep breath through her mouth. It did little to help. She pressed on, trying not to gag.  When she reached the nurse’s station, she stopped.

“How’s Harold Twofeathers doing today?” she asked.

The nurse recognized her and gave her a wan smile. “He’s hanging in there, but there’s been no improvement.”

No improvement was better than him getting worse. Right? The lie slipped easily into Nina’s mind because she wanted so desperately to believe it. “Thanks for taking such good care of him.”

Compassionate eyes met hers. “He’s a wonderful man.”

“Yes, he is,” she said. Nina reached her grandfather’s room and paused long enough to paste a smile on her face. The act was as much for her benefit as it was for his. It helped ease the dull pain of impending loss. She’d been dealing with the grief for over six months.

Nina knew when she walked in the room that she’d find him propped up in bed, his once strong muscles wasting away. It was like an invisible monster took chunks out of him while she was at work. She couldn’t stand to see him like this and would change places with him in a heartbeat if she could. Not that he’d let her. Her grandfather, Harold Twofeathers, was a proud man, who believed in the old ways. Life circled and that was how it should be.

“Stop hovering outside my door like the coyote, Little Deer,” his warm voice called out, even though there was no way he could’ve known she was there. The cancer might be eating his body, but it hadn’t touched his mind or his Shamanic abilities.

Nina stepped forward, forcing her legs to move her into the room. “Shi-yo, Grandpa. You’re looking better today,” she said.

“Hello.” His warm chocolate-colored eyes sparkled as he patted the lumpy chair beside his bed. “Did you know that your nose twitches when you lie?”

Her hand rose to her face to cover her nose. “Does not.”

He laughed. “Come here, Little Deer. My eyes are not what they used to be.”

Warmth spread through her at the continued use of the endearment. “Your eyes might not be, but your hearing is just fine.”  Nina grinned at him and did as he asked. 

The second she sat, his large hand reached out to cover hers. His copper skin stretched like crinkled paper over his boney knuckles. Life may have beaten the padding out of them, but you wouldn’t know it from his warm gentle touch. Nina carefully squeezed his hand, then didn’t let go. Maybe if she just held onto him, death would be unable to take him away. It was a child’s hope. She knew that, but in her heart she couldn’t stop praying that somehow a miracle would occur and her grandfather would recover. She needed him.

His soft brown eyes crinkled at the corners. “Don’t be sad, Little Deer. There’s no need to fear the Great Spirit. I have spoken with him many times. He waits on Kuwah’ hifor me to join him.”

“Well, he can wait on the Sacred Mountain a little longer. You’re not going anywhere.” Nina sniffled and quickly wiped all hint of wetness away.

He patted her hand. “Not yet. I must remain until you’re settled.”

Nina rolled her eyes. “Then you’re going to be here for a while.”

Harold chuckled. “So what have you been doing today?”

Nina sighed. “Stocking up on bandages and antibiotics. The bear hunts are about to begin.”

He looked at her, his warm expression quickly turned serious.  “Stay out of the woods. I don’t want the sheriff to arrest you again.”

“You know I can’t do that. Too many animals need me.” He’d never told her to stay out of the woods in the past. Oh, he’d warned her not to get near the crazy white hunters because they might mistake her for an animal, but he’d never told her to stay out of the Smoky Mountains and the surrounding areas. It was tantamount to saying ‘stop breathing’. “I’ll be fine, Grandpa. You know I’m always careful.”

“It’s not you that I’m worried about,” he said. “The spirits have been whispering to me. They tell me that powerful magic is coming.”

“You know magic isn’t real, Grandpa.” Perhaps the cancer had spread to his brain after all. Her heart dropped as she battled the pain to keep it from showing on her face.

“Oh, it’s real.” He touched her heart. “You just need to open your eyes to see it.”

Nina knew she could keep her eyes open forever and the most that she could hope to see was a rerun of Harry Potter.

“The ancestors are singing The Bear Song. I hear it most everyday,” he said. “I think this time it’s going to draw the Great Bear out of hiding.”

Her grandfather had always loved The Bear Song. In his youth, he’d gladly joined in to sing along. Talk of it usually made her happy, but now it just frightened her.

As a veterinarian, Nina could logically understand the ritual of performing the song, but she hated its end result. Every bear season brought an increase of dogs and horses being shot, along with too many bears for her peace of mind. She was always inundated with injured animals this time of year—most of which she couldn’t save.

Hunting wasn’t allowed in the Smoky Mountain National Park and was highly regulated on the Qualla Boundary, but that didn’t stop a few hunters from wandering into places they shouldn’t be. Bear season also brought out the poachers. Not satisfied with killing just one bear, they had to trap and kill as many as possible. Of course, it was illegal, but that didn’t stop them. The mountains and the woods were vast. Hunters could easily evade law enforcement.

“You are frowning again, Little Deer.” Harold Twofeathers smiled. “Let me tell you a story.”

Nina had heard the story about the Great Bear hunted by the four brothers. They’d chased the monstrous creature into the sky where they remained to this day. But she listened to her grandfather as if it were for the first time. Some of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, or Tsalagias they called themselves, believed that bears were violent, and that there were monsters the size of woolly mammoths that resembled bears, roaming the woods. These creatures regularly attacked people and could only be slain by heroes.

Others, like her grandfather, believed that bears possessed strong medicine magic, which aided in healing. Nina didn’t believe either story, but she implicitly trusted her grandfather and his power. She just couldn’t, in good conscious, stay out of the woods.

He finished his story and looked at her. “Do you understand now?”

Nina’s brow furrowed. She’d listened to the story, but she wasn’t sure what lesson she was supposed to take away from it, other than don’t chase bears. “Um…”

Harold shook his head. “You must remember the stories. They will help you through life.”

She squeezed his hand. “I know, Grandpa. I will remember, and just to be safe, I promise not to chase any bears.”

“Not anybears.” Harold shook his head. “The lesson I was trying to impart was that if you chase the Great Bear, he will take you with him into the sky.” His pained gaze met hers. “There’s no coming back from the sky, Little Deer. Once the Great Bear lures you there, you are his for eternity. The four brothers found that out the hard way.”

A shiver tracked down Nina’s spine. The chances of her running into any bear, much less the Great Bear while she was out sabotaging bear traps, were slim to none.  “I’ll remember, Grandpa.”  Nina glanced at her watch. “I have to get back to work now. Do you need anything?”

He smiled. “Only your visits, Little Deer.”

“I’ll come by again after I get off work.” She slowly rose from the chair.

His hand snaked out with surprising speed and grasped her wrist. “Remember what I said. The Great Bear has powerful magic. He can mesmerize you and convince you that he’s not dangerous, but in the end, he is still a bear.”

This whole conversation was making Nina uncomfortable. She knew going into the woods and messing up traps was dangerous. The sheriff had only let her go after her grandfather promised him that she’d pay for all the damages. And she had, but not until after bear season ended. This year would be no different, except she had no intention of getting caught.

“You’ve always told me that bears aren’t naturally violent,” she said. “If I leave them alone, that they’ll leave me alone.”

“This is true.” His gaze sharpened. “But the magic that I see coming is no ordinary magic. And since bears hold the most magic, it has to be the Great Bear that the ancestors are warning me about. The Great Bear is like nothing you’ve ever seen before.”

Nina didn’t believe it, but she nodded all the same. “If he’s as big as you say that he is, then it sounds like the hunters are the ones that should be worried.”

“This magic is not coming for the hunters, Little Deer,” Harold said. “It’s coming for you.”

She chuckled and kissed his forehead. “The magic is going to have a hard time finding me, unless it comes to the office and knocks on the door.” Nina glanced at her watch again. “I really have to go. I have a Rottweiler coming in at 1:00. I’ll see you later, okay?”

“I’ll be here.” Harold laughed, then started to cough violently as he waved her out of the room.

Nina rushed out before he could see the fresh tears forming in her eyes. Harold Twofeathers, healer, shaman, and all around best grandpa ever, had raised her when her mother decided that she cared more for alcohol than she did her only daughter. She’d died ten years ago in a drunk driving accident. The state troopers had said that she’d driven off the side of the mountain on her way back from Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Her mother had never made it to Cherokee, North Carolina. Nina hadn’t cried when she’d learned the news. It was hard to cry over someone that you didn’t really know, but her grandfather had wept. Her mother was his daughter. His only daughter. That meant something to him. And now Nina finally understood as she faced her grandfather’s impending death. If only the stories about the Great Bear’s magical powers were true… She’d follow it anywhere, if it meant saving the only man that she’d ever loved.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Phantom Warrior Riot spent the night in La Push, Washington, staying only long enough to admire the pounding waves and the Quileute Tribe’s totems. The community was welcoming, but too small for what he needed to accomplish. For that, he needed a much larger population, one full of females of various shapes, sizes, and colors. He made his way through Forks, a small town that seemed to be obsessed with something called ‘Twilight’, before continuing on to Olympic National Park.

Riot ran across a few black bears in the park, but nothing near the size that he was in his Other form. The bears had sensed danger and quickly scampered off. As a Phantom Warrior—an alien shape-shifter species—and a member of the Tooth Clan, he was expected to find a mate. Women were few in number on his home planet of Zaron. Without the aid of women from Earth, his people would quickly become extinct.

Fortunately, the Phantom people had found a solution to their problem, when a lost group of Atlanteans returned to Zaron after having been stranded on Earth for hundreds and hundreds of years. The news of a planet full of compatible women had spread quickly. Soon warriors from the Tooth Clan, Wing Clan, Claw Clan, and Blood Clan were lining up to travel to Earth.

They’d banned together with the Zaronian Atlanteans, who also battled extinction due to intergalactic wars, to go on expeditions in search of viable mates. Like his Phantom brothers who’d gone before him, Riot had to do his part, which was why he found himself strolling into a bar in downtown Seattle near the wharf.

The moist sea air gave way to the warm press of too many bodies within the narrow room. The crowd parted, giving Riot plenty of space. Too much space. He smiled in the direction of a few females, but they shied away or pretended not to notice. He inhaled. Past the perfume, alcohol, sweat, and desperation, he could smell the fear. His smile faded. Riot sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. His shoulders hunched in an effort to make himself appear smaller, less intimidating.

At over six and a half feet tall, and pushing two hundred and eighty pounds of packed muscle, Riot wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. He received more than a few curious glances, but everyone, including the females he’d come here to make contact with, kept their distance.

A few women approached the far end of the bar to order drinks. Riot tried to talk to them, but the words came out like he was issuing orders to new warrior recruits. He’d never been good at chatting up females. What little experience he had, had been utterly unpleasant. He could still hear the Phantom woman’s cries of pain ringing in his ears from that fateful night. He’d been so excited by the opportunity of getting to couple that his beast had slipped its leash and nearly crushed the woman to death. Afterwards, Riot had been too embarrassed and horrified by the incident to ever try again.

He eyed the human women around him. They weren’t nearly as strong as the Phantom and Atlantean women on his planet. How would he ever be able to touch them without injuring them? His insecurity must’ve showed because the women who’d been standing at the bar grabbed their drinks and disappeared into the crowd quickly, barely giving him a second glance.

Riot watched them go, a mixture of disappointment and relief coursing through him.  He took a deep swallow of his beer and shook his head in disgust. You can’t find a mate by passively sitting here,he chided.  He slowly scanned the room and vowed to try harder with the next woman. It didn’t take long for another to approach.

“Can I buy you a drink?” he asked as she bellied up to the bar.

The lovely redhead turned at the sound of his voice. Her gaze flicked to his, and her welcoming smile died on her face as she took in the scar on his cheek. Riot stood to move closer, so he didn’t have to shout. The woman’s eyes widened as she craned her neck to look at him, then she let out a scream that would’ve curled his hair had it not been so straight.

Flashbacks of the night he’d nearly crushed the woman rushed through his head. Riot stiffened. Afraid to move for fear it would scare her even more. She backed away, keeping a wary eye on him. Horrified and more than a little humiliated by the woman’s reaction, Riot threw money down onto the bar and quickly left.

He knew he wasn’t as appealing as his brethren. His face was handsome enough, if you could overlook the scars covering his cheek, arms, and hands. There was only so much a body could heal, when it was routinely shredded during battles. He glanced down at his hands and growled, curling them into fists.

Riot rushed out, only to find that it was raining. He let the cool wetness wash away his humiliation. He tilted his head up and closed his eyes, taking deep heaving breaths of sea air into his lungs. He could still picture the red-haired woman in his mind’s eye, screaming at the sight of him. What would she have done, if he’d been in his bear form? Dropped dead?

He shuddered at the thought. Riot gazed at the people as they strolled down the wet streets. He needed to leave this place, needed to leave this planet. But he’d only just arrived and knew his commander on the ship wouldn’t allow him back so soon. Riot had thought Washington State would be a good place to search given the history and the acceptance of the bears in the area, but he’d been wrong.

He pulled out a map and stared at the vast country before him. This search,his search, was useless. Riot knew that as sure as he knew his other half. Some warriors weren’t meant to find a mate. And he was convinced that he was one of them. He only needed to hang on a few more days and then he would be able to return to Zaron and live out his remaining years fighting the planet’s enemies. He growled in frustration and ripped the map up into tiny pieces, throwing it to the ground. When he was done, a small square section clung to his palm. Riot peeled the paper off and stared at it. What did he have to lose?

“The Great Smoky Mountains it is,” he said, then took out his communications device.

 

* * * * *

 

Riot exhaled and scanned the small sign at the base of the strange mountains that appeared to exhale smoke. Was there a fire? Gatlinburg, Tennessee stared back at him cheerfully, welcoming him to the town. Riot scowled. He was in no mood for cheer. It had taken the ship most of a day to reach him in Seattle.

Not that it mattered how many days or hours that he’d lost. Unlike most Phantoms and Atlanteans, he’d been granted ‘extra’ time to seek his elusive mate. The Commander had told him as much when the ship picked him up. He’d barely made it onto the deck, when the orders came down directly from King Eros.

Once more, Riot had tried to argue that the ‘extra time’ was unjust to the others, but his words fell upon deaf ears. No way was he going to get out of this punishment. The King had spoken. He was to take a shuttle and return to Earth. He’d been instructed to stay for as long as it took.

The situation was made worse by the pity Riot had glimpsed in the Commander’s aqua-colored eyes as he relayed the King’s message. He still bristled when he thought about it. Riot didn’t want, nor did he need, more days to prove that he’d failed. Two days were quite enough. But he was a good warrior. He followed orders, even ones he did not agree with. And he most certainly didn’t agree with these. He’d stay the extra days or Goddess forbid—weeks, if only to return and tell them ‘I told you so’.

He stared at the small but bustling town, taking in its quaint shops and souvenir T-shirts. The air here smelled different. Somehow better. Sweeter. His shoulders relaxed as an older woman walked by and smiled at him. In her wake, a younger woman followed.

As soon as the female saw him, she rushed to the elderly woman’s side and hurried her along. He sighed and the tension he’d been holding returned in force. Despite its fragrant air and southern hospitality, this place would be like all the others.

Riot scanned the mountains as he strolled down the sidewalk. Several people crossed the road to avoid him. He pretended not to notice. He should be used to their response by now. He wasused to it. He rubbed his chest, but it did little to alleviate the pain.  “Just keep walking,” he muttered to himself, but his feet had other ideas.

Within seconds, he was sprinting down the sidewalk, past alarmed faces in an effort to reach the woods up ahead. The second he entered the lush green canopy of trees, Riot exhaled. Really exhaled. His muscles flexed, then slowly loosened. The moisture from the forest clung to his skin, leaving a light sheen behind.

The cloying heat from the asphalt gave way to refreshing coolness. He took another deep, hardy breath, feeling at home for the first time since landing on this blue-green rock. Tonight, he’d go to his ship, fly it deeper into the mountains and hide it in these peaceful woods.

 

* * * * *

 

Nina arrived at the veterinary office she shared with one other doctor. The receptionist, Sarah Mouse, who also doubled as her assistant, looked up and smiled. “How is Harold doing today?” she asked.

She gave Sarah a sad smile. “I think he’s worse, though he hides it well.”

Sarah’s smile faltered. “I’m sorry, Nina.”

“Yeah, me too.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Has Maggie Backwater phoned?”

Sarah looked at the notes in front of her. “No, not yet.”

“Is she still scheduled to come in with Humpty and Dumpty?” The dogs were due for their rabies shots. Nina flipped through the phone messages on Sarah’s desk to make sure there weren’t any emergencies that needed immediate attention. 

“Yes, she should be here anytime now.” The phone rang and Sarah answered it. “Cherokee Pet Care Clinic.”

Nina left her to it, and went to check on the few patients that were already receiving treatment. There weren’t many. Liddy Whirlwind’s cat, Speckles looked much better today. Her eye infection was clearing up nicely. She should be able to go home tomorrow. Robert Hummingbird had brought in his dog, Trixy to be spayed. With three litters of puppies under her furry belt, it was about time.

That left Ben, Max Dreadfulwater’s Chow-Labrador mix. He’d managed to get himself quilled by a porcupine. His wounds were healing nicely and Ben wasn’t in near the amount of pain he’d been in when Max dropped him off. Hopefully this had taught the dog a lesson like the skunk incident last year. If not, she’d be seeing him again soon.

Unless something changed, the recuperation kennel would be empty by the end of the week. Nina petted each animal and softly cooed to them. Most Cherokees didn’t have much use for a vet. If an animal got sick and couldn’t be healed by over-the-counter remedies, folks in the Qualla Boundary just shot them. In general, it was a pretty common occurrence in the south.

It hurt Nina to think about it, but a lot of folks in the area didn’t have the money for such frivolous things as veterinary care. Not when the money was the difference between eating and not eating. The arrival of the casino helped, but it didn’t eliminate all of the poverty. 

She walked back into the front office and dropped phone messages back onto Sarah’s desk. There was nothing there of any real importance. Not that she’d expected there to be. Work was slow. And quiet. The bell on the front door clanged in disagreement. Maggie Backwater struggled through the door with Humpty and Dumpty in tow. The two mastiffs had somehow managed to tangle their leashes and seemed to be determined to trip Maggie. Nina rushed forward to help.

“Come here, Humpty,” Nina took one of the leashes from Maggie’s hand.

“That’s Dumpty,” Maggie said.

“Of course.” Nina guided the giant dog toward the examining room. He yanked her arm, nearly pulling it from its socket when he caught sight of Speckles. The cat’s back arched and all the hair on her body rose as she hissed at the dog. Dumpty let out a loud woof. Humpty joined in, though he didn’t appear to know what he was supposed to be barking at.

“Hush!” Maggie said.

Both dogs ignored her and continued to bark.

Nina dragged Dumpty away from the cage and into the examining room. “Sit,” she said, waiting for Maggie to join her.

It didn’t take long to give the dogs their rabies shots. While they were there, Nina took the time to examine them. They both appeared to be in good health. She helped Maggie take them out of the office and load them into the back of her pickup truck. Soon they were driving away and Nina was back to waiting for her next patient.

An emergency call came in from Lulu Ball. Sarah took the message and handed it to Nina. “Lulu says that you need to come right away. Daisy is bleeding from her nose and she can’t tell what’s wrong.”

Nina walked back into her office and grabbed her ‘Vet House Call Bag’. “Call if there are any other problems. You know where I’ll be.”

Sarah nodded.

It only took twenty minutes for Nina to reach Lulu’s patch of ground. It wasn’t large, only a few acres, most of which was wooded. Lulu had managed to clear a little over an acre and cram a lot into the space. Nina turned off the ignition and climbed out of her truck. She honked the horn once.

“I’m back here!” Lulu called out from behind the house.

Nina grabbed her bag and walked around the house to the backyard. There were a couple of cows fenced in on the north side of the property. Lulu had set up a chicken hutch in the middle and flanked it with a pigpen on the right. A small garden brimming with pumpkins and squash took up the rest of the yard, giving way only to a short clothesline.

“Where is she?” Nina asked.

Lulu pointed to her right. “I don’t know what happened. She was fine yesterday.”

“Let me check her out. It might be nothing.” Nina walked over to the pigpen and gazed inside at the five piglets. Fresh blood covered one of their snouts. The rectangular pen stretched thirty feet and was ankle deep with mud. “I’m going to have to climb in there and catch her.”

“Figured you would. I tried, but she was too fast for me,” Lulu said.

Nina glanced at Lulu’s boots. There wasn’t a drop of mud on them. She arched a brow, but said nothing. Nina reached down and rolled up her pant legs, then grabbed a pair of gloves before stepping into the pen. Her boots sank down six inches. She took a step. Her boots made a sucking noise as mud and pig excrement covered her feet. She waded across the enclosure, slowly herding the pigs into a corner.

She let the first two piglets rush past her as she singled out Daisy. Nina reached for the piglet. She managed to get her hand on its back leg. Daisy let out an ear-piercing squeal, her little hooves spinning madly in the mud. Muck flew into Nina’s face, splattering her cheek as she lifted the piglet into her arms.

 

* * * * *

 

Riot heard a high-pitched screech, echoing through the woods. The sound was loud, which meant it was coming from nearby. The squealing continued. What was it? And what was killing it?

Curious, he made his way through the woods toward the horrendous sound. A yard filled with livestock came into view. He stopped, keeping to the shadows. There were two women standing in the yard, discussing an object between them. One was wearing a long skirt with a flowery shirt.

She was a big woman, hearty and full of health. The other smaller female wore jeans and boots. She appeared to be holding something pale and squirming in her arms. There was another loud squeal. The object in her arms tried to escape and the smaller woman turned to catch it before it dropped to the ground.

Riot’s breath seized, when he glimpsed the woman’s mud smudged face. Her features were delicate and lightly browned. She had full lips, long lashes, and high cheekbones. Her long, dark hair had been pulled back and tied at her nape. She smiled, flashing a row of slightly crooked teeth, as she caught the squirming creature.

“Get back here, Daisy.” She pulled the animal close once more and scratched it lovingly behind its ears. The squealing quieted and so did its struggles, giving her time to carefully examining its face.

Riot stared, mesmerized by her soft brown eyes and caring manner.

“Lulu, can you please hand me my bag?”

The woman wearing the skirt reached for something on the ground and handed it to her. “I’m going to give Daisy to you. Hold her close, so I can clean and disinfect her wound.”

She handed the pale pink creature over to the woman and reached into her bag. She pulled out cloth, wetted it with a clear liquid, then carefully dabbed at the animal’s nose. “It’s just a scratch,” she said. “Looks like one of the other pigs might’ve bit her.”

Lulu glanced at the pen and frowned. “Will she be okay if we put her back inside?”

The woman nodded. “I’ve cleaned the wound and put some medicine on it. Pigs are pretty hardy, so you shouldn’t have any problems with infection. If it looks like it’s getting worse, give me a call.”

“Thanks, Nina.”

Nina…her name whispered on the air, bringing to mind cool breezes and sweet, fragrant wildflowers. Riot inhaled, but could only detect the odor of the livestock. He continued to stare, caressing her body with his eyes, longing to get closer. Something about the way she handled the animal drew his beast. It rose inside of him.

Nina’s head shot up and she gazed into the woods, her brown eyes searching the shadows.

“What is it?” Lulu asked, doing the same.

A smile played on Riot’s lips as he took a step back. She’d sensed him. For some reason, the idea thrilled him. She may not be able to see him, but she certainly knew he was there. He looked at the smudge on her cheek, longing to brush it off with his fingertips. The women continued to stare at the woods.

She shrugged. “I thought I…it’s nothing.” Nina shook her head and gave the creature in Lulu’s arms one final scratch behind the ears.

Riot watched her gather her things and walk back to her vehicle. He looked at the truck, memorizing everything about it, so he’d be able to find it again. He wasn’t going to get his hopes up. This woman may turn out to be like all the others. Even as the thought slipped through his mind, he dismissed it. There was something different about this woman. “Nina,” he whispered her name aloud. “See you soon.”

 

* * * * *

 

Nina couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being watched. At first when she’d felt the sensation, she’d dismissed it. But when it grew stronger, she could no longer ignore what her body was telling her. She scanned the woods, searching the tree line.

Despite it being midday, the shadows were deep and could easily conceal someone who didn’t want to be seen. Warmth scrolled down her body, pausing long enough on her beasts to make her nipples harden. Nina swallowed hard and rolled her shoulders. She didn’t ‘see’ anything, but there was definitely someone there. She’d lay money on that someone being a male. She took a deep breath and shook her head. Maybe she was just tired, but that didn’t explain her body’s reaction. Nina could still feel the eyes on her as she drove back to the office.

The rest of the day was uneventful. Nina checked on her patients and finished the last of her paperwork. Numbers swam before her eyes as she stared at the balance sheet. If they didn’t get more business, they’d have to close the office. There were clinics nearby, but none like theirs, in the heart of Cherokee. She rubbed her eyes and yawned.

“Hard at work I see.” Kim Watt poked her head in Nina’s office.

“What are you doing here?” Nina rose and came around her desk to hug her friend.

“I was out shopping for wedding decorations and thought I’d drop by. How are you doing?” Kim’s sharp gaze took in the dark circles under Nina’s eyes and her disheveled clothes. “You aren’t sleeping, are you?” 

Nina sighed.

“That good, eh?” Kim squeezed her hand. “What is that on your face?”

She laughed. “Pig crap most likely.”

Kim’s face scrunched. “Eww.” 

Nina grabbed a wet towel and dabbed her cheek. She met her best friend’s caring gaze. “He’s not getting better,” she said. She didn’t have to say who. Kim already knew.

“I’m sorry, hon. I really am,” she said.

Nina scrubbed harder. The pain on her cheek distracted her from the pain burning inside of her. “I know. I’ve been praying for a miracle.”

Kim hugged her again. “We all have.”

She blinked back her tears. “Are we still on for tomorrow night?”

Kim’s face brightened. “I wouldn’t miss it.” She grinned.

“Is Danny okay with you going into the woods with me?” Nina couldn’t imagine Kim’s fiancé, who also happened to be a deputy with the sheriff’s department, being okay with his future bride traipsing through the woods destroying poachers’ illegal bear traps. 

Kim blushed and glanced away. “I didn’t exactly tell him that’s what we were doing. I might’ve said that we were having a bachelorette night.”

Which was the truth, and a lie. This was what they were doing insteadof the bachelorette party. “What if he finds out?” Nina asked. She was happy for her best friend, but she couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy that Kim had someone to go home to. What would that be like? She couldn’t imagine.

For the last two years, she had spent all of her time either working or taking her grandfather to doctor’s visits. Dating and having a social life were foreign concepts and would remain so as long as Harold was in the hospital.

Kim shook her head. “Danny won’t find out, unless you tell him.” She winked.

Nina snorted. “You know that’s never going to happen.” Danny Alberty had never cared for her. Oh, he’d tolerated Nina because of her close friendship with Kim, but he didn’t really likeher. The feeling was mutual. One good thing she could say about Kim’s fiancé was that he treated her best friend well. Nina knew Danny was counting the days until the wedding, since it meant that they’d be moving away. Fresh pain blossomed around Nina’s heart. Soon everyone she cared about would be gone.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” Kim nudged her out of her maudlin thoughts.

“See you then.” Nina finished the day and dropped by the hospital once more before returning to her empty home. Without Harold there, the place seemed so quiet…so very lonely. There was nothing to do but go to bed and start all over again tomorrow.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Nina dressed in black, despite the dangers of traipsing through the woods near hunting season without reflective clothing on. It was safer to wear the orange reflectors, but if she did that, then the poachers might spot her. Or worse yet, a sheriff’s deputy. She didn’t want anyone catching her, or Kim, in the woods tonight. What they were doing was risky enough. She glanced at the clock. Her best friend would be here any minute.

She tugged on her boots and quickly laced them up. The hiking boots would allow her to move quicker, and hopefully protect her ankles on the uneven terrain. There was a full moon scheduled for tonight, but they wouldn’t be able to tell beneath the canopy of trees. She’d pulled out a map of the Great Smoky Mountains and the Qualla Boundary earlier, circling spots that would be likely for poachers to set up traps.

Every year she went out hoping to not find them and every year she came back disappointed. Some people just couldn’t abide by the hunting laws. She stood and stomped her feet to make sure her boots were secure. Nina heard the screen door creak. It was followed by a loud knock.

Kim opened the door without waiting for her to answer. “You ready to go?”

“Just about.” Nina grabbed her hat and shoved it on her head, then took in her friend’s outfit with an eye toward stealth. “If moonlight hits it, they might spot your silver necklace.”

Kim’s hands rose to her throat. “Oh, I forgot all about that. I had to dress up a little since this is supposed to be my bachelorette party. If I hadn’t, Danny would’ve known something was up.” She winked and flicked the latch on her necklace. Kim pulled the chain off, gently placing it on Nina’s table. “How’s that?”

“Better,” Nina frowned at her friend’s running shoes. “Where are your boots?”

“They’re in the car. I couldn’t exactly wear them out of the house without Danny getting suspicious,” Kim said. “He was upset enough at the thought that you might’ve hired a male stripper.”

Nina snorted. “Could you imagine?”

Kim shook her head. “No, I can’t.” She made a gyrating motion with her hips and burst into giggles.

Nina pointed to the necklace. “Remember to pick it up before you go home. Don’t want to make Danny jealous for no reason.” 

Kim chuckled. “Danny doesn’t get jealous. He just shows all the guys his big gun.”

Nina laughed. “The last thing we need is him showing up tonight, waving his big gun around.”

Her friend flushed. “No, that wouldn’t be good.” She glanced at her watch. “I can’t stay out all night. He may not be the jealous type, but he is a cop and I don’t want to worry him.”

“We’ll be back in plenty of time for your curfew,” Nina said.

Kim swatted at her. “Very funny.”

Nina pulled a face and Kim laughed harder.

“Have you given any more thought to that blind date I told you about last week?” Kim asked.

The humor fled from Nina’s face. “You know I don’t have time to date. What with Harold being so sick.”

Kim looked at her. “You know I love you, so I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I think you use Harold’s illness as an excuse to keep your distance.”

Nina blanched. “That’s crazy.”

“Is it, hon? Really?” Kim asked. “I thought so at first, but then I realized that you were like this before Harold got sick.”

“I was not,” Nina said defensively. She’d been busy building her veterinary practice. That took time away from everything, including her social life.

Kim sighed. “I know you’re lonely, NiNi. I’m your best friend. I know you better than anyone and I’m worried about you. You can’t keep your life on hold indefinitely.”

“I’m not.” She sighed. “I won’t.”

Kim stared at her. “What are you going to do after my wedding?”

Pain pinched Nina’s chest. “Work, what else?”

“There’s more to life than work.”

Nina forced herself to meet Kim’s knowing gaze. “I’m fine on my own. You know that.”

She shook her head. “No, you’re not. That’s why I hate to see you pushing perfectly nice guys away.”

Perfectly nice guys? When had she met a ‘perfectly nice guy’? “Are you talking about Rick?”

“Yes,” Kim said.

Nina fought the urge to roll her eyes. She’d met Rick through Kim.  He’d ‘accidentally’ bumped into them when they were out to lunch. The man spent the entire hour discussing his guns. To be polite, Nina had feigned interest. Rick took it as encouragement. She’d been dodging him ever since. “I don’t want to date a sheriff’s deputy,” Nina said diplomatically.

“Then don’t!” Kim said. “But date someone. Anyone. It’s not healthy to have more contact with animals than you do people.”

“I don’t—” Nina stopped mid-sentence as Kim arched a brow. It wasn’t her fault that animals were more reliable and far better company than most of the people she’d met over the years. She rubbed the back of her neck. “Maybe I have been avoiding the dating pool,” she grudgingly acknowledged.

“The first step is admitting that you have a problem.” Kim grinned.

“Very funny.”

“It’s time to take off the water wings and get wet. Promise me that you’ll at least talk to the next guy that captures your interest.”

Nina sighed. “I promise, Mom.” How long had it been since a man had caught her eye? She couldn’t remember. Nina looked at her best friend. Thank goodness she hadn’t given her a time limit. She had a feeling a set time would come and go before she encountered someone like that.

Kim stuck out her tongue and blew a raspberry at her, shattering the seriousness of the moment. She glanced at the map laid out on the table. “So where are we going to start?”

Nina jumped at the chance to change the subject. She walked over and pointed to one of the spots she’d circled in red. “I thought we’d check out the Qualla Boundary where it borders the park. We’ll take the Blue Ridge Parkway to Heintooga Ridge Road and pull over somewhere along the side. The woods there are a good spot for poachers to set up their bear traps. Close enough to civilization to haul a four hundred pound bear carcass out, and yet far enough away to stay out of sight.”

Kim’s brow furrowed. “There are a few houses along there, before you reach the park and several hiking trails. I wouldn’t think it would be smart to set up where a hiker may stumble across them. Too easy to get caught.”

“Nobody said they were smart.” Nina rolled her eyes. “Besides, given the money they can make by selling bear gallbladders to the Asian market, it’s worth the risk.”

“Good point.” Kim nodded. “I’m going to grab my boots and backpack out of the car, then I’ll be ready to go.”

 

* * * * *

 

It didn’t take long to reach Heintooga Ridge Road. Black Camp Gap marked the entry to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If tonight wasn’t successful, then Nina planned to check in the woods off Heintooga Round Bottom Road. At least there, their vehicle wouldn’t stand out because they could park in Balsam Mountain campground. They wandered into the woods and quickly checked their bearings. The plan was to hike in a half a mile or so, and slowly circle back toward Nina’s truck.

The woods were quiet this time of year. After the trees changed colors, most of the tourists left the area, giving the locals a chance to recover and get ready for next summer’s arrivals. Nina preferred the fall. She liked the peace that descended upon the mountains. She just wished it didn’t bring out the poachers. Daylight was fading fast. Soon the sun would drop behind the mountains and leave them in deep shadows. Darkness would descend an hour or two later.

“Ready?” She turned to Kim, who once again checked her watch.

Her face flushed with excitement. “Yep, let’s do this.”

They hiked deeper into the woods, leaving the road behind. Dead leaves covered the forest floor, crunching beneath their boots. Despite the dense, decaying foliage on the ground, the trees were far from bare. They walked for an hour in a grid pattern to make sure they covered the area thoroughly. Nina continuously scanned the ground for bear traps and obvious bait snares, while Kim kept her gaze glued to the tops of the trees, searching for camouflaged hunting blinds.

There shouldn’t be any in the park or on Cherokee land. The People controlled who hunted on the Qualla Boundary. They kept chatter to a minimum as they slowly worked their way through the woods. The quiet became a living, breathing thing that surrounded them. Instead of feeling cocooned, it sharpened Nina’s senses, making her hyperaware. Humans weren’t the only things they had to watch out for in the woods. There were black bear and bobcats, though neither tended to bother people if they were left alone. 

A twig snapped and the women froze, listening. The forest seemed to hold its breath. Kim pointed to a spot off to her right. Nina nodded in agreement. They waited until the regular sounds of the woods returned, then continued on. Nina caught a glint of something in the distance. She took a few steps forward, then held up her fist. Kim stopped instantly. Nina squinted and spotted the illegal snare. She pointed to the spot. Kim nodded and slid off her backpack. She reached inside and pulled out a pair of wire cutters, then handed them to Nina.

Nina looked around, scanning the woods for movement, then slowly approached the spot. She examined the ground carefully before she took each step. The last thing she needed was to get caught in one of the traps. The snare was strung across a tree branch and dropped onto the ground. Someone had covered most of it with leaves and placed a piece of deer shank in the center, along with smaller bits of flesh scattered around the area to draw in the creature.

She had two choices. She could either spring the trap, leaving it useless, but still reusable or she could destroy the trap so the poachers would have to buy another one. Nina decided to hit them in their wallets. It would hurt more that way and it just might save a bear or two in the process. She crouched down next to the snare and gently slid the wire cutters under one side. She’d have to cut fast or the snare might spring and they wouldn’t be able to reach it. Nina took a deep breath and clamped down on the wire. The metal snapped a second before the snare whipped into the air, dangling uselessly from the tree branch. 

“One down,” she said to Kim.

Before Kim could answer, an angry voice shouted from a distance, “What are you doing?”

Nina jumped to her feet and saw a man coming toward them. She couldn’t make out his features. He was too far away, but his tone was warning enough. She urged Kim to run.

“Get back here!” The man bellowed as the women took off. His heavy footfalls echoed through the trees as he raced toward them.

The man paused to look at his ruined trap. “Son-of-a-bitch!” His head jerked to the right.

That’s when Nina heard stomping from a second pair of boots. He wasn’t alone. Fear kicked her chest and she pumped her arms harder.

A shot rang out, shattering the tree trunk beside the women.

Kim screamed and stopped abruptly. “Oh my God, they’re shooting at us.”

“Just run!” Nina jerked her into motion. She didn’t know which one of the men had shot at them and she didn’t care. “Get back to the truck!” She urged. “I’ll meet you later.”

“What are you going to do? Where are you going?” Kim gasped. They ran side by side, keeping up their brisk pace.

Nina met her worried gaze. “I’m going to lead them away.”

“No!” Kim cried.

“There’s no time to argue. One of us needs to make it back to the truck.” Nina pulled the keys out of her pocket and shoved them into Kim’s hand.

“We can go together.” Kim squealed as another shot rang out. “They’re trying to kill us.”

“I noticed. That’s why we have to split up.” Nina saw a fallen tree up ahead. “I’m going to bank right at the tree. You go straight for the truck. I’ll make sure they follow me.”

Tears filled Kim’s eyes. “What if they shoot you?”

Nina’s side hurt. She wasn’t used to sprinting for this long. She took a deep breath to answer, but it was difficult at this pace. Getting shot was a very real possibility. She prayed that she knew the woods better than these guys did. “The spirits won’t let that happen,” she said, hoping it was true.  Kim didn’t believe in the old ways and neither did Nina really, but her grandfather did.

“I’ll get help,” Kim said.

“No! Danny will kill us if he finds out,” Nina said.

Kim hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “You better make it back in one piece,” she said, then hurried through the woods toward Heintooga Ridge Road.

Nina watched her go, fear threatening to swamp her. Unlike Kim, she didn’t have anyone besides her grandfather. There was no one waiting at home for her. That, more than anything, was the reason she’d urged her best friend to leave. She leapt over the fallen tree and banked right.

The light was fading fast, drowning the forest in shadows. All she had to do was stay alive long enough to lose them in the darkness. Nina ran harder than she’d ever run in her life. Already the men’s voices were growing distant. The stitch in her side continued to stab her organs. She wouldn’t be able to keep this up for much longer.

One of the poachers fired another shot. The sound echoed through the mountains, making it difficult to tell where it came from, but it seemed farther away. Nina slowed, even though she didn’t want to. Her body was refusing to keep up the brutal pace. Besides, it was either that or trip and break her neck.

She kept moving, stopping every few minutes to listen. It was hard to hear past the intense pounding of her heart and the roaring of her blood. A branch cracked. It sounded like a cannon blast to her strung-out nerves. She froze. She didn’t dare take out her flashlight for fear she’d be spotted. Instead, Nina scanned her surroundings. Nothing moved.

It’s probably nothing, she told herself, but didn’t really believe it.

 

* * * * *

 

“Did you hit her?” Hank squinted into the trees.

The red-haired man shook his head. “Didn’t spot any blood, so I don’t think so.”

Hank stared at Markus in disgust. “I swear sometimes you couldn’t hit the side of a barn, even if it was raised in front of you.”

“I did find something.” Markus pointed at a spot in the woods. “You need to see this.”

Hank stomped after him, swearing under his breath. “What is it?”

Markus looked at the ground, studying a spot near his feet. “I think it’s a bear track, but it can’t be.”

Hank shoved him aside. “Let me see.”

He glanced at the ground, then did a double-take. What in the hell was it?  Hank crouched down and dipped his hand in the track. It was at least five inches deep and the ground wasn’t even muddy. He could distinctly make out the holes where the massive claws dug into the ground. The track had to be bigger than his head, which meant the bear was…

“What do you think it is?” Markus asked.

“A bear,” Hank said.

Markus snorted. “There ain’t no bear out here that’s the size of that track. It would have to be huge. Nearly six feet at the shoulder.”

Hank curled his lip in disgust. “If a bear didn’t make the track, what did?”

Markus stared at the track and shook his head. “Don’t know.” His wary gaze scanned the trees. “Maybe it’s one of those people who run around pretending to be Big Foot.”

Hank scowled. “Does that look like a Big Foot track to you?”

Markus shrugged. “Ain’t never seen one in person.”

“Well it ain’t! It’s a bear, I’m tellin’ you.” Hank looked at the woods with renewed interest. If they could catch this bear, he’d easily bring in enough on the black market for him to save his house from foreclosure and have a little left over to retire on. He wouldn’t have to put up with his boss demanding that he work extra hours, only to have those same hours slashed the following week. His gaze landed on their destroyed trapping equipment and he swore. “That bitch cost us a lot of money tonight. Not to mention a chance at a bear big enough for us to retire off of.” He looked at Markus. “At least tell me that you got a good look at her. I don’t want tonight to be a total loss.”

Markus grinned, his front tooth missing due to an encounter with the wrong end of a beer bottle. “I sure did.”

Hank smiled back. “Good enough to identify her?”

Markus nodded. “Oh yeah. She’s one of The People all right. Most of the time they all look alike, but she was a pretty little thing. I’d know her if I saw her again.”

“Did she see you?” Hank asked.

Markus’s face scrunched. “I don’t think so. She was too busy running away.”

“Good, you take a ride into Cherokee tomorrow and to see if you can spot her. Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Hank said.

Markus looked at him. “What do I do if I find her? I can’t just haul her out of town by her hair.”

“Once you find her, we’ll follow her until we can catch her alone,” Hank said.

Markus’s eyes sparked with excitement. “Then what?”

“We’ll make her sorry she ever came into the woods. I’m not losing my house over some bitch out to protectthe environment or whatever in the hell her reasons for being out here are. I’m tired of those people tromping all over our rights as Americans.” He sneered. “Now let’s pack up our stuff and get a move-on in case the bitch decides to call the authorities.”

“Do you really think that bear is big enough for us to retire?” Markus asked, looking hopeful.

Hank nodded slowly. “If that track is any indication, then yes. I sure do.”

“Whew wee! I could use myself a beer right about now. I’m in the mood to celebrate.” Markus gathered up the destroyed equipment.

Hank watched him dispassionately. Markus was always in the mood to celebrate. If he wasn’t so good at following orders, Hank would have dumped him long ago. Most of time, he was utterly useless. But Markus was a good shot, when he was sober. Unfortunately, that was becoming less often these days.

Unlike his alcoholic friend, Hank had no intention of celebrating until they’d taken care of the woman, and the bear’s vital organs were packed on ice in the back of his pickup truck. Then, and only then, would he raise a bottle and relax.

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