“He’s dead,” Micah said.
Dead? Brad thought he’d heard wrong.
“Micah!” It was Ryan. “I’ve got foot tracks. Looks like the other guy walked his way out.”
“Any blood on the ground?” Micah said.
“Can’t tell,” Ryan said. The radio crackled with directions for Echo to follow the tracks.
Two of the searchers moved off on their snowmobile as Micah and Jessie slid back into the ravine. Several minutes later they reappeared with the body. Micah covered it quickly, but not before Brad saw the carnage.
A dark circle—like a stain—spread across the man’s right cheek. Was that a bruise or blood? And his eye—is he looking at me? Brad’s thoughts became disjointed. He can’t be looking at me; he’s dead! The man’s eye was still open—bulged out as if it had been popped from its socket. Above his eye … is that scalp? A flap of skin hung below the man’s jaw—part of his face had been torn away! And there was blood dripping from his chin…
Everything inside him was going to come up. Jessie took one look at Brad and grabbed him by the shoulder. She half-pulled, half-dragged him several yards away, where he fell onto his knees in the snow. She had one hand on the back of his neck as he buckled over to be sick.
“Easy, Brad,” Jessie’s voice, like silk, smoothed the roughest edges of his growing panic. “Stay calm, okay?”
He forced himself to focus on his breathing.
“We’re going to roll you onto the backboard now,” she said. “I wish I could help you with the pain, but I’m concerned about your head injury.”
“It’s okay.” His voice was a near-whisper. “I trust you.”
On the count of three, they rolled him onto the backboard.
He screamed at the explosion of pain on his left side. Then he was looking into Jessie’s face above his. Her hair dripped rainwater on his face and her hand was pressed against his head. For a split second their eyes met. “Brad, stay with me…Brad…”
But he was losing the battle. Her face became a blurry picture, then a dot of light, ever smaller…then blackness.
He sank to his bed when she went to the bathroom, not bothering to turn on the overhead light. He fumbled with the clasps on his leg brace for a few moments, then lay propped on his elbows—uncomfortable, exhausted and frustrated.
“You really don’t feel good, do you?” she was at his side.
He shook his head. He reached for the brace again, but she laid her hand on his.
“Let me,” she said softly.
Slowly he reclined.
One by one she released the clasps on his leg brace. She moved with slow deliberation, as if she were undressing him. When she’d removed the brace she let it fall to the floor, one hand still resting on his leg. She sat on the bed next to him and reached for the ankle zipper on his workout pants.
He couldn’t take his eyes from her as she unzipped his pants from his ankle to above his knee. He found himself wanting her touch…anticipating it…needing it.
She began a soft stoke from ankle to mid-calf.
Brad closed his eyes, allowing himself to fall into the sensation of her touch.
Unconsciously he tensed as she ran her hands up his leg toward his knee, but he made no attempt to move. Her feather-light strokes did not cause pain, as he had anticipated, but rather, a sensation like wind moving over his skin. He relaxed—falling into the deep exhaustion of the last few months…
Brad fumbled with the saddle. He wasn’t a great a rider; would he be a help or a hindrance to the expert horseman? He took a couple deep breaths to calm himself. Focus. He ran through a mental search-and-rescue checklist.
It was slow going, having to examine every side of every foot of the trail for any sign that Jessie or her horse had been through there. It was frustrating, too: with no recent snow and spring animal activity, the trails were criss-crossed with tracks. Nothing to indicate that any one track held more importance to their mission.
The two men spoke very little, instead taking turns calling Jessie’s name.
The spring warmth faded quickly when the sun went down. Brad shivered and turned up the collar on the jacket Drew had thrown him. His feeling of dread became sharper with each passing minute. They’d been searching nearly two hours.
How long had she been out? Was she adequately dressed? What if she was injured? God, what if she’d been mauled by the cat??
He forced himself to re-focus on the task at hand.
What if she was so badly hurt that she couldn’t answer them?
What if he never got a chance to admit he’d been an ass?