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Authors: Valerie Hansen

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BOOK: Dangerous Legacy
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Maggie levered herself up just in time to see her enormous dog bound over the cart and disappear into the thick forest. “Wolfie! No!

“Wolfie, come.” She started to get to her feet. Looked down at her hands. And saw blood.

SIX

T
he first thing Flint noticed as he slowly pulled into Maggie’s driveway was her. She was pacing the porch and looked beside herself. Her eyes were wide, her hair flyaway. When she ran straight to him instead of holding her ground, he knew something was terribly wrong. “Why didn’t you answer your phone? Did you leave it in the house again?”

She latched on to the sleeve of his jacket as soon as he stepped out of the truck. “You have to help me.”

“Okay. What’s wrong?”

Gesturing wildly, she indicated the woods at the edge of the compound. “Wolves. I heard them.”

“Did they approach? Menace you in any way?”

“No, but—”

“Then go back in the house. I’ll check your pens.”

“It’s not that.”

As her grip tightened, Flint glanced down. Was that a trace of blood on the cuff of her jacket? His breath caught. “Are you hurt?”

“No. Not me, Wolfie. He crashed through a window and ran off. If the pack spots him, they’ll kill him. He won’t be able to fight them all.”

Flint took a step forward. “Okay. I’ll radio a report and board up your window while we wait for more help.”

The noise she made was half exasperation, half anger. As soon as he was through contacting his partner, she said, “I nailed a board over the window myself. I called the sheriff, too, but he said there was nothing he could do about a runaway dog.”

“Why didn’t you call Game and Fish?”

When Maggie rolled her eyes, he had his answer.

“I get it. You’d rather have your dog die than ask me for anything.”

“No! I never said that. I left a message on the answering machine at your office.”

Flint was penitent. “Right. It’s Saturday. Sorry.” He eyed the porch. “Why don’t we go wait inside?”

Her “No!” was so forceful he stepped back, hands raised as if he were being robbed at gunpoint. “Okay, okay. I’ll look around out here and listen for more howling after I call and ask somebody to bring me an ATV.” He studied her. “Will that do?”

“I guess it’ll have to.”

They stepped off the porch together. He’d dealt with plenty of anxious people in the course of his duties, but Maggie’s case was extreme. Maybe if he could distract her she’d be more tractable. “Is your kid at your mother’s today?”

She stopped in her tracks. “No. Why?”

“Because that’s where he was when you had that wreck,” Flint said.

“Only because we were being shot at when he got out of school,” she countered. “I take good care of him.”

“I’m sure you do.” He took time to rephrase his query. “I was asking because I wanted to know if you were free to help me start to trail your dog instead of waiting for wheels.”

“Oh.” Maggie cast a brief glance at the house. “No. That’s why I needed help. I can’t leave Mark here all by himself.”

“Understood.” Flint was grabbing gear out of his truck and loading a small backpack. “Okay. Point me in the right direction.”

“This way.”

As he followed her across the yard and past the broken window, he was listening intently. Except for the occasional birdcall and rustling of squirrels among the dry leaves aloft, nothing broke the rural silence.

Maggie stopped at the edge of the cleared land and pointed. “He went through here, on the deer trail. After that I have no idea.”

Crouching, Flint touched a fingertip to a darker spot on the ground. Wolfie was leaving a trail. Of blood. All the more reason for wolves to attack him.

As he stood, Flint realized from Maggie’s expression that she had come to the same disturbing conclusion.

“I’ll do my best to track him down for you,” he promised. “When my partner gets here, point him in this direction. He can use GPS to find me.”

“I will.”

The clenching of her slim fingers made him want to cover her clasped hands with his and offer more tangible comfort. He refrained. All he had to do to convince himself it was a bad idea was to remember the awkwardness after her accident. The adverse effect of that closeness, although innocent, lingered. And when she’d grabbed his forearm a few minutes ago, every one of his nerves tingled.

Nevertheless, Flint stood stock-still. Staring into her eyes. Drowning in their blue-water depths.

Maggie didn’t move, either. Time stopped.

Finally, Flint shouldered his pack, turned and started into the forest without another word. He didn’t look back until he heard Maggie call, “I’ll pray for you.”

Was that something new or had she remembered him in prayer while he was away, too? He had often prayed for her during the time they were apart, at least when he wasn’t being distracted by the fight to stay alive. Every time he lost a comrade in combat, it magnified how alone he really was.

Now he was back with the remnant of his family and the folks he’d known while growing up, yet there were times when he felt more alone
now
than he had when he was half a world away.

Sighing, he slowed to check the trail of intermittent blood drops, then straightened and paused to listen, expecting howling. Instead, he heard a distant shout.
Maggie?
His heart threatened to pound right out of his chest until his radio crackled. The ATV had arrived already and was being unloaded.

Gathering himself so he wouldn’t sound breathless, he keyed his mic. “This is Crawford. Wait for me at the house. I’ll be right back.”

That decision would probably displease Maggie, but it couldn’t be helped. Better to have wheels and make good time than to fail because of darkness. The headlights on the four-wheel-drive vehicle would help a lot as the sun set.

Flint grabbed the shoulder straps of the pack and began to jog. The chances that Maggie would have taken his advice and gone into the house were slim to none. She was bound to be waiting, ready to chew him out for not finding her injured dog.

He broke from the woods and kept going. There she was. And more beautiful than ever, with a wildness about her that made her seem a part of the mountains they both loved. She’d pulled her jacket tightly around her and was facing into the wind, her hair lifting on the breeze.

Flint slowed to a brisk walk and approached. His jaw muscles clenched as he assessed his errant feelings. Above all, it was imperative he squelch any emotional links to Maggie Morgan.

He’d been rejected by her once.

Once was enough.

* * *

Maggie had immediately recognized Warden Samson when he pulled up. Cautioning Mark to stay inside while she went to brief the warden, she’d hurried down the porch steps.

“Flint—I mean Warden Crawford—went after my dog.”

The dark-haired young agent frowned at her. “Yeah. I know. He contacted me.”

“Did he find him?” Her hopes soared until the warden shook his head. “I heard a pack of wolves.”

“Aren’t any wolves in Arkansas,” Samson countered, putting out ramps and unloading the ATV from the back of his pickup. “Only thing I’ve seen around here that looked like one is that dog of yours.” He smiled. “Maybe he’s lookin’ for kin.”

“Better his than mine,” she said wryly. “Crawford’s on foot. He said to use GPS to meet up with him.”

“No need.” Samson gestured with his chin. “Here he comes.”

Before she could speak, Flint began to explain. “I followed the dog as far as Lick Creek. I’ll drive back and pick up the trail where I left off.”

“Want me to hang around here?” the other warden asked.

“Not unless you feel like getting in trouble, too.”

Samson grinned. “We could call it public service.”

Maggie suddenly understood what the men were saying. Flint was out there on his own time, with borrowed equipment, looking for a domestic animal, when that wasn’t included in his regular duties. Involving a partner just made the infraction worse.

“He was bleeding,” Maggie offered, so thankful she didn’t know how to express it. “Is that how you tracked him?”

“Partly. It’s hard to tell how badly he’s hurt without knowing how fast he’s traveling. At least he was still on the move when he got to the creek.”

“Maybe he’ll lay up in the water and you’ll find him soon.”

“Maybe.” Flint glanced at the sky. “Gotta go. I’m losing daylight.”

The other warden waved and climbed into his own truck as Flint gunned the ATV engine and sped off.

“Please, God,” Maggie whispered. “Help him.”

She was familiar enough with injured animals to know they would “go to ground” if they felt unable to continue. The icy creek water would help Wolfie slow his bleeding if it was out of control. The downside was the chance that he’d chill his body too much and go into hypothermia. That could kill him, too, if he wasn’t found in time.

Biting her lip to squelch tears, she turned and started back to the house, back to her waiting son. The right thing to do was tell him the truth, although she hated the idea. Children were tenderhearted. They took losses hard.

With loss on her mind, Maggie pictured Flint. How was she going to keep her sanity when she kept seeing him? Didn’t he know how hard it was for her? Didn’t he care?

Perhaps this was his way of punishing her, she mused, rejecting the idea only partially. Whether he meant to or not, his continued presence was adding to her anguish like a knife through her heart.

She climbed the steps and opened her front door to greet her anxious son. One thing was certain. Although she thought her pain was bad now, the future promised to be much worse.

Opening her arms to Mark, she dropped to one knee and held him close. She must not weep. Not now. Not ever. She had to maintain a strong, capable image for the sake of her little boy.

“Where’s Wolfie?” he asked.

Maggie set him away and met his inquiring gaze with what she hoped was assurance. “The game warden is out looking for him.”

“Why doesn’t he just come home?”

That was an excellent question, one she didn’t want to answer. Nevertheless, it was necessary if she was to keep the child’s trust.

“Wolfie hurt himself when he broke the glass in the window,” Maggie said tenderly. “Sometimes, when animals get hurt, they go hide instead of looking for help.”

“But he loves us.”

“Yes, he does. And we love him, too.” She paused, deciding how blunt to be. “But sometimes love isn’t enough.”

“Uh-uh,” Mark insisted. “Jesus loves us and that’s enough.”

“True.” It was all Maggie could do to fight the tears gathering behind her lashes. No wonder scripture instructed believers to “come as a little child.” The faith of children put adults to shame, herself included.

“Let’s pray for Wolfie,” Mark said.

What would happen to his faith if the dog never came home? she wondered. How could she protect his tender heart from the kinds of deep disappointments she had experienced?

“You know,” Maggie told him gently, “sometimes God decides that what was asked for isn’t best, so He doesn’t give it to us.”

“Okay.” He smiled.

“Okay?”

“Sure.” The smile grew to a grin. “I trust Jesus. Don’t you?”

The innocent question echoed in Maggie’s heart. She did trust Him. After all, her commitment to her Christian faith had been reaffirmed when she reached her lowest point just before Mark was born. Had she forgotten how cherished and loved she’d felt then? Had her sense of belonging waned as life had sped by?

There was only one thing to do. Kneeling beside her son, she folded her hands, bowed her head and joined him in praying for the welfare of a simple dog.

And while she did so, she silently added thanks for everything the Lord had given her and asked forgiveness for her lack of faith.

Then, as if back where she’d begun, she also asked for the wisdom to know what to tell Mark if Wolfie never came home to them.

The irony of that struck her with dismay. How could she hope to lead her son when he was the one leading her?

Maggie clamped her hands together more tightly as her mind and heart filled with a different unspoken prayer. Despite knowing it was impossible, she wanted to go back to her teenage years and take up where she and Flint had left off.

This time, tears did begin to fall.

Mark said, “Amen,” stood and wrapped his little arms around her neck, then leaned closer to whisper, “Don’t cry, Mama. I prayed for you, too.”

* * *

Flint had dismounted periodically to make sure he hadn’t lost the trail. Since the last rain, the forest floor had remained damp, so tracks were easier to spot, particularly along the creek banks.

Scowling, he bent for a closer look. There were large canine tracks, all right. There were also waffle imprints left by hiking boots that overlapped them. Tensing, he rested his palm against the grip of his pistol. This wasn’t public land, so what was the person in boots doing out here? Moreover, why was he apparently trailing the dog?

It was easy for Flint to assume the paw prints he’d been following belonged to Maggie’s pet. If there had been an actual wolf pack roaming the area, there would be more than one set of tracks and the sizes would vary.

He heard a distinct whimper. Froze. Listened. There it was again!

Still cautious, Flint left the ATV and began to work his way toward the sounds. The closer he got, the more the whining increased, leading him to suspect he was approaching a domestic animal. A wild one would have quieted in order to hide from a human.

There was a splashing sound from the creek. A series of yips, then a deep bark. Flint picked up his pace. That was no wolf. That was Maggie’s dog.

The moment they set eyes on each other, Wolfie lowered his head, stuck his rear up in the air and wagged his bushy tail.

Flint grinned. “You sure gave us a scare.” He paused and patted his thigh. “Come here. Let me look at you.”

Wolfie was wiggling side to side but not approaching. As Flint drew closer he could see why. The dog was tied to a tree with a frayed piece of rope. Moreover, it looked as if somebody had tried to bandage his bleeding paw.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here? Looks like somebody tried to help you.” A quick scan of the neighboring terrain showed no sign of the Good Samaritan.

Flint bent to inspect the injury and saw more blood in the icy creek water. “You should have had sense enough to leave the bandage alone,” Flint said, gathering up the loosened strip of cloth and rinsing it in the running stream before untying the rope. To be on the safe side, he kept hold of it and led Wolfie slowly back to the ATV.

BOOK: Dangerous Legacy
3.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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