Chad looked across the room where the man he had once considered a friend and that woman conversed with the lady who had led this shindig. He was struggling with all the new names. But that was the least of it. He was wrestling the hardest decision of his life – who to trust with the most precious thing to him – his daughter and the woman he loved.
“What’s your take, Travis?” He turned to the man he had known only a few months.
Though, that was not wholly accurate. Travis Baker had been that annoying little kid on the ranch next to his grandparents. When he visited them each summer and those last couple of years when they had taken him in after his parents’ nasty divorce, the boy had always hung around. And the time he had come home after training, the boy’s eyes had light up like the night sky at his Marine Corps uniform.
No, even though they had only been reacquainted recently and now more as peers, brothers in arms, he knew this man. Despite the whispered rumors around town, he knew that Travis was a man of honor.
His new-old friend stared about the room, “Honestly, these people all seem on the up-and-up. I know that ain’t what you want to hear, and I know that some of them are even on the wrong side of the law in this whole mess. But as my Mama was fond of saying, ‘thems good people.’”
Chad nodded his head – Travis was right. It was not what he wanted to hear, but maybe it was what he needed to. His own gut certainly seemed to agree with that assessment. And he knew that was how Rose felt. All the way here, he had listened to her making excuses for this Will fellow. Telling him how Reb and Stacey were on their side, friends that they could trust.
And if it was just his own life, he’d go with that. But it wasn’t. It was her life and their little girl’s. Hell, he’d only known he had a child for a few weeks, and already that girl had him wrapped around her little finger.
But honestly, what choice did he have? Even with all the training and experience in this room and by his reckoning that about a hundred years or more, that was not even counting a couple of men with Reb whose backgrounds he did not know. No, in this room were Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, federal agents, and of course, jarheads. Even with all that, they were up against one of the largest drug cartels in the world. Without the backing or support of their government.
Travis spoke again as if reading his mind, “I know this won’t be the first time that either of us has faced the enemy with people at our backs whose loyalties we aren’t sure of. And I promise you, I’ll be protecting your rear from the enemy or frienemies.”
Rose stood up from where she had cuddled in his lap, since he had drawn her from the arm of the chair and into his protection. “I’m going to check on Stacey. See how she’s doing.”
Her eyes bore into his soul, “You know we aren’t the only one with a daughter in danger. She has three of them who have been for months. At least, I spoke with Grace today. She hasn’t heard from Mercy in weeks.”
He watched her walk away. He was torn – part of him needed to stay by her side, never let her out of his sight, but another bit knew she spoke the truth. That agent’s word had hit home. Hell, he had thought the same thing himself. Yeah, for her life and Grace’s, there was not anything he would not do. Lie, cheat, steal, kill, yes, probably even kidnap an innocent child.
But it was not that simple. He knew himself well enough. He had been in situations where his orders and the ‘right’ thing were not the same. He had been tested in fire to the point that he was singed and would never get the smell of smoke or the burn scars from his soul. Not even the love of a good woman could wipe some things away. But it sure as hell made them easier to live with.
He turned to his friend, “There’s someone I need to speak with. Do me a favor? Go and find out what you can about the men that came with Reb.”
His friend nodded and gripped his shoulder, “I promise I’ve got your back.”
Chad was too choked up. Though they were eye-to-eye now. Hell, that little kid probably had a good three inches on him now. But it was that same look. Hero-worship? No, not quite. This man understood. He knew those hard choices, too. He had led good men to their deaths.
Been forced to kill ‘enemies’ that were mere boys. Had no choice but to watch women and girls abused because it was ‘their culture.’ Those ‘arranged marriages’ overlooked by their government were little more than the under-aged girls prostituted by Garcia. No, this man and most of these others understood that truth. He reached out and gripped the man’s hand, “Thanks.” Travis turned and walked away with only the slightest nod of his head. Yeah, he understood.
Chad caught the eye of the young man who had spoken earlier. The man bent and kissed the top of the petite woman next to him. Where had the baby come from? But Chad knew. His chest constricted like that herd of elephants had plopped down on it again as the big man tenderly stroked the child’s cheek.
He fought the anger and regret for the thousandth time in the past few weeks. Not just at Gerald McBride for his lies, but mostly at himself. He had not listened to his gut that morning as he snuck out of that motel room.
And they had all paid for it. They still were. Hell, if he had been more of a man back then, they wouldn’t be in this mess. And he wouldn’t have missed moments like that with his little girl.
But no more. No more lies. When they found Grace and brought her home, they were telling her the truth. All of it. If she was angry, they’d deal with it. He swore he’d do whatever it took to be a real daddy to her. For them to be a family. A true family.
The man held out his hand though Chad had trouble seeing through the unshed tears, “I’m Ryan. Ryan Ranger. That’s Laura, Laura Reynolds, and our little girl Chloe.”
“Chad. Chad Wilson.” Looking up into the man’s face, staring him in the eye, he wondered how he had ever doubted these people.
But still, this was his family’s future, he had to know. “Tell me about this man. This Agent Caleb Williams. Why are you so certain that he is not part of it all? He let them go. Let McBride just walk away.”
The man shifted nervously from side to side, and for a moment, Chad feared that he had assessed the situation all wrong. Then he spoke, “As I said, Will and I went through the academy together. I know you understand that. You know what it’s like. When you train with someone like that, for that long, you come to know them.”
Chad wanted to believe the man, but that did not mean people did not change. From the sound of things, this guy had been some shit. How could this man be certain that it had not changed him? That the man had not betrayed the oath, he took. It could not have been easy to see the laws that you were sworn to uphold and defend applied differently to someone you loved, just because of her skin color.
“Because the berserkr blood of his ancestors tells him the truth.”
He turned to see the elderly Native American who had spoken of Fate earlier approach them. By his side was the only other man that Reb considered a friend. Chad frowned; both were named Greywolf. Was this the grandfather that had raised the man? But he thought Reb had told him that the man died?
“Yes, my brother died almost a year ago. Jack is my nephew. My name is Raymond Greywolf, but most people call me Grandfather.”
Chad frowned as he took the man’s hand. None of it made any sense. It was as if…
“I can read your mind?” The old man smiled, “It is not quite that simple, my new friend. But life never is.”
He shook his head, trying to put all of the pieces into place. But things only got more confusing as the man spoke again. “This gut you think of. This instinct. It has kept you alive before, yes? Kept others alive?” Chad nodded his head.
“It is a gift that we all have. But in many cultures and religions, we are trained to ignore it. Told to obey rules, commandments, and orders. You understand these things. But you have broken them too? When that gut told you they were not ‘right’?” Again Chad nodded.
“For some of us, those gifts are stronger. And for others, they train themselves to listen to that voice.” The man reached up and placed a gnarled hand on the other man’s shoulder. “I have trained Ryan since he was thirteen summers to listen. His instincts are always right. Though he demeans them by calling them his ‘golden gut.’”
Raymond Greywolf turned and looked him in the eye. He would have sworn that he saw the answers to the universe in those dark depths as the man spoke. “He would know if Will spoke untruth. I would know. Though, I have not had the privilege of meeting the young man face-to-face yet. His spirit speaks to me. He is pure of heart. As are you.”
The man reached out his other hand and took his, “You will bring them home. I promise you.”