I’d no sooner mounted and urged Socks into his big, ground-eating trot, when the bullet slammed into my chest. I slumped in the saddle, and that half-broke, useless horse blew up and bucked me off. He’d waited for months to do just that. Fortunately, we were on the edge of the meadow, so when I hit the ground, there weren’t any rocks.
Though still conscious, blood cascaded down the inside of my shirt, which meant I wasn’t going to make it. Like most folks in those circumstances, the hereafter instantly escalated to the top of my life-and-death totem pole.
Frantically I scanned the ground around me, hoping that renegade horse had pitched my rifle as well. Nothing lay in the tall grass near the gate, which meant the rifle in my scabbard left with that treacherous cayuse. By now, he’d be standing at the barn. An instant weakness turned my legs and arms to mush, but fortunately I was conscious enough to determine where the shot had come from, and even why.
Anyone over the age of three could have answered the ‘why’ part. We had a few distant neighbors, but none we didn’t get along with, which likely meant my past had come north to haunt me. I’d made more than one enemy in the time I’d spent infiltrating drug cartels in Mexico and Central America. For too many years, bringing drug lords to justice had been a major part of my life. The search for those who sold drugs had consumed every waking minute, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know the danger. The Blackwater Ranch had been a way for me to retire, to fade into obscurity, because those who had sworn to kill me were lined up like corner store lottery ticket buyers.
I coughed, expecting blood in my mouth, but I spit out nothing more than pine needles, which might mean I’d last long enough the shooter could finish what he’d started.
Here, in one of the most remote places on the continent, I’d reckoned I was safe. Often, I didn’t even pack a gun unless a pack of wolves or a marauding grizzly had killed a calf. I raised my head and scanned the ridge on the south side of the trail. Years of danger, along with a certainty in the bottom of my gut told me the shooter was holed up on the brushy hump that lay a scant hundred yards from the spot where I’d dismounted to close the gate. Dead pine crisscrossed through dense patches of juniper which provided a multitude of hiding places, and I’d ridden right into his ambush.
The man who had opened the gate had correctly surmised that the moment any cows showed up in the hay meadow, I’d ride down and push them back into the range area. I’d done just that, shrugging off any suspicion as to how the gate latch had malfunctioned. Now I knew. No cow had rubbed it open, and whoever had shot me was right now lining up to finish the job. That thought disturbed me more than the blood pooling around the top of my jeans, but I hadn’t time to ponder further. My immediate need was to disappear, because as sure as God made our Ilgachuz Mountains, whoever carried that rifle would already be working his way closer to make sure I was properly dead.
The moment I moved, a knifing pain exploded across my chest. I slumped into the verdant sedge grass that grew around what would soon be my dead body. Rage surged through every capillary and right to my knuckles, which probably meant more of my blood leaked onto the meadow. I winced, biting back the anger and pain as I crawled away from where I figured the shot had come from. Eventually, I reached a dense stand of alder and burrowed as far into it as I could. Even so, it provided no place to hide so I kept moving farther up the slope to a stand of beetle killed pine which unfortunately provided even less cover.
Questions ricocheted across my brain. How had they found me? I searched for a name, while I rested behind an upended stump. Who from my past was capable enough to find their way into this wilderness setting, so foreign to anything I’d ever experienced in Mexico or Latin America?
I’d always considered our remote ranch safe from Los Zetas or any of the half-dozen other major cartels. But if they could carry their war this far into one of the wildest, most inaccessible places on the planet, there was nowhere in the world my family would be safe. Mug shots, wanted posters, names and faces flipped through my mind, many of them complete with the extensive dossiers I’d so painstakingly created. Over the years, I’d run into a host of criminals and assassins, both male and female. Most, though dangerous on their own turf, were city folk, and despite my best efforts, I came up with no sicario, no assassin’s name that would be capable of reaching me here.
When I’d come home two years ago from my last intelligence assignment, I’d wanted desperately to forever leave the tortured mosaic of suffering and death that defines so much of Mexico under the bloody thumb of the drug cartels. Now, bleeding from a mortal wound, and scarcely a mile from my house, I realized how wrong I’d been. My fight with the cartels would never go away, and here, on the east end of the big meadow, a hundred miles from any town, they’d found me.
Despite the pain, I slipped away from the stump and scuttled farther up the ridge to a half-hidden cavern dug in the past by a wintering bear. I wanted desperately to crawl down in that depression and hide, but it had death-trap written all over it, so I angled farther up the slope. If the shooter was an excellent tracker he’d have no trouble trailing me across the meadow, but he’d have to be better than average to figure out which way I’d gone after I’d reached the pine needle carpeted forest I was in now. I hoped he lacked that level of skill, because I was losing a lot of blood and rapidly getting weaker. Once, I glanced down. Though the blood obscured anything definite, I reckoned there must be a hole on the left side of my vest, which meant a corresponding one in my chest.
For most of an hour, nothing moved behind me, which meant that whoever hid on the far side of the trail was a top-flight assassin. The man took no chances. Though his shot hadn’t killed me, he knew I’d been hit hard, and like any animal at bay, I would hole up and try to stop the bleeding. That would stop me from any serious attempt at escape. Another worry suddenly edged to the front of my brain. The sound of the shot would have carried back to our cabin. I’d left the house with my old standby .22 Remington in the scabbard so I could possibly bag a few grouse for supper. The bullet hole in my vest was larger than grouse gun size. Clarissa, if she’d been outside, would worry at the report of the larger rifle. She might even tromp out to the end of the meadow and investigate. I’d bypassed five cows and calves, and ridden down the west fence to see if a tree had fallen over the wires before checking the gate. My intention had been to then ride back and push the cows back onto the range area. Socks, after his bucking spree would head for home. When Clarissa saw him at the barn she would definitely come looking, especially if there was any blood on the saddle. The thought of her running into whoever had shot me sent a shiver of fear up my spine. I needed to remain conscious and somehow get home to warn her. Not for the first time, I wished for our old life where I could have simply dragged out my cell phone and texted her. “Hey, we have trouble. Bring my .270 up to the old wolf-den spruce tree, and stay on the north side of the ridge.
Though Clarissa hated guns, and steadfastly refused to learn anything more than the bare minimum about calibers or bullet sizes, she’d definitely know that it was the one with the expensive scope. Momentarily, my thought-line hit a solid wall as a wave of intense pain exploded across my chest. When it passed, I glanced down the hill. I could see nothing different, but I had a hunch he’d moved.
I well-remembered the day I’d brought that .270 home. The Swarovski scope had first-class written all over it, but it also made a royal shambles of our budget. I tried to justify my purchase. I needed it for predators. The calves we saved would more than pay for it. At the time, Clarissa wasn’t impressed, and though we’d spent a tense evening, after I’d dispatched three problem wolves, she admitted it might have been a good investment. Now, I wished for that rifle along with a working cellphone. I had neither, and whatever I did next would determine whether I, and possibly my family would live to see another sunrise. I gritted my teeth against a new spasm of pain.
I pulled my hat off, then poked my head up over the rim of the narrow cavern. Nothing. Though I had an uneasy feeling that whoever was down there was now much closer, he remained hidden. Painfully, I pulled myself to my feet and crabbed further up the hill. If I could get far enough away to stop the bleeding, I might be able to make it to the house. That was the only way I could hope to survive. I needed a rifle.
The hopeless reality of my situation slammed into me with at least as much power as the bullet I’d taken. That shot had changed our hopes and dreams—everything. Never again could I treasure this wilderness ranch as a place where my family was safe, a refuge far from the vengeful retribution of the drug cartels.
By the time I’d reached the top of the ridge, the blood from the wound in my chest had soaked through the top of my jeans, and the realization hit me that I might never make it to the house. If I didn’t find a hiding place, the shooter would quickly follow me and finish what he’d started.
A pitchy, ancient spruce tree with low-hanging branches offered the only haven. I pushed through the protective screen. Behind the tree, a massive rock bluff swept up toward the top of the hill. Several years ago I’d crawled in here, curious to see what lay behind the heavy veil of branches. I’d cornered a wolf bitch with pups in the den that lay behind the tree. She bluffed better than I did, and I left a lot faster than I’d arrived. This time, there were no occupants in the den, and I crawled painfully into the shallow indentation in the rock.
Gingerly, I pulled at the snap buttons on my shirt, then eased the fabric away from my blood-encrusted wound. It didn’t go well, and by the time I’d separated my shirt from the bloody mess on the front of my chest, I was in danger of passing out. With some water, I could have washed enough of the blood and gore away to get a decent view of the damage. That luxury I didn’t have, but as I gingerly explored the edges of the wound, I grimaced. I wouldn’t die, at least not today, because there was no hole in my chest.
The jagged, horizontal rip made me queasy, a nearly carbon copy of another wound I’d suffered long ago in Costa Rica. I eased the rest of my shirt away from the coagulating mess, which caused a bunch more pain and bleeding, but there was little I could do about that. Meanwhile, I thought about the angle of the shot. To avoid detection, the shooter had to have hidden in that jungle of juniper and deadfall on the south side of the meadow. After I’d dismounted to check the ground for tracks, I’d thrown the gate farther back, then mounted and leaned over in the saddle in a last search for any tracks that didn’t belong to a cow. Within seconds, the assassin had fired. His position on the south side of the trail meant he’d not had a frontal shot, and it’s not a simple task to hit a sideways target on a moving horse. Had he panicked and squeezed off a second too early? I stared at the bloody wound. The shooter’s trajectory had been off by two inches. Barring gangrene, septicemia, or a half-dozen other infectious complications, I might survive—if I made it out of here.