Ryan’s whole body ached as he looked at the little rag-tag group. They had spent close to an hour searching the desert around the Garcia compound for the women after Rex had caught a whiff of horses and female blood. There was no cellphone reception, so he had lost track of the other men he had sent to the compound. They had almost given up and turned back, but Rex had insisted he could smell the other horses.
They found them huddled beneath a cliff. Laura’s sister and the girl were fine. But Cassandra McBride was severely beaten and had lost a lot of blood. He had sent Jack back to the Garcia compound on of the horses to ensure there would be medical personnel there for her when they arrived. Then he, Reb’s father, and Rex had led the women slowly back across the desert.
As they approached the compound, he was surprised to see half a dozen ambulances and more police than he could count. He knew that J. T. Tyler would be among those somewhere. And he was determined that he would deliver the women only into his hands.
Ryan was not surprised when Chad came running to meet them. He lifted the woman from the back of the horse, cradling her and whispering softly as she cuddled into his shoulder. But it was the girl that worried Ryan. Something about the way she drew back when the man looked in her direction. Grace dropped back, her rainbow head staring at the ground as she led the stallion by the reins.
His future sister-in-law was almost as bad. She turned her head from side to side, her eyes searching the horizon before she turned to the other man. “Where’s Will? Has anyone seen Caleb Williams?”
She had been relieved when Ryan had told her that he had hooked up with their group. But now, as she watched the reunion between Chad and his family, Ryan felt the tension rising in her. The way the other man would not meet her gaze directly told him that something was up even before the man spoke. “He was one of the injured.”
Chad did not get anything else out of his mouth before Mercy took off running towards the house. “Damn,” he knew that it would not be easy for her to find Will in the chaos, especially if J. T. had anything to say about it. The man was by the books type. None of them would be going anywhere until they were fully debriefed.
He looked to the other man, “How bad is it?”
Chad shook his head, “I don’t know. He isn’t the worst, though. That fella who came with you and Reb, he’s pretty bad,” he spoke to the older man.
“Mason? The boy was shot?”
He could tell that Reb’s father was upset, but they were only a couple of minutes from the house. It would do them no good to separate now. “Tyler will be able to give us more information,” he placed a restraining hand on the man’s shoulder. The old man nodded, but the worry was evident on his face as they continued in silence.
As he had said, it was only a couple of moments until the compound came into view. He sighed with relief to see Jack waiting by the barn with a couple of men carrying a large orange bag and a gurney. Chad headed straight to them without a word.
Ryan’s eyes scanned the area, looking for one person. The only one that could give him the information he needed. He finally found what he sought. Tyler was standing in the garden, near some old tree. Next to him were Grandfather and another man, wearing a bullet-proof vest. He guided Barry in that direction while Rex hung back with the girl who looked on the verge of tears.
J. T. looked up as they approached, “You found them.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yeah, Cassandra McBride needs medical attention. Her daughter is with her, and Mercy…”
“Is in the ambulance with Williams.”
“What’s the casualties?”
“Williams has a gunshot wound to the shoulder. But he was also exposed to the virus. I have a call in now to the CDC, trying to figure out what our risks are. I had the other guy medivac to Laredo already.”
“What happened to Mason?”
“Is that his name?”
“Mason Cartwright,” Barry spoke up. “How is he?”
Tyler turned and addressed the older man, “Are you next of kin?”
Ryan saw the man wince at those words as he shook his head, “No, but I guess I’m as close as the boy’s got. His dad died in the Towers. He was a single father. His mother had died of cancer when he was young. His older sister raised him, but she and her children were murdered a couple of years ago by a family annihilator. Mason’s been staying at the eco-village my wife and I run in Arizona for the past few months. He’s helping us set up a domestic violence refuge.”
Tyler shook his head and reached out to put his hand on the man’s shoulder, “He was shot from behind. We’re not sure how bad it is yet, but he’s got no feeling in his legs. If you give your statement to one of our agents, I’ll have someone escort you across the border.”
Ryan studied Tyler’s face. Whether the man needed to work on his poker face or it was his golden gut again, he knew there was more to it than that. “How was he shot from behind, J. T.?” He used the man’s name rather than his title or last name to get his attention. Tyler was no longer his superior, and he wanted the man to know it. Besides, he enjoyed watching the man squirm.
“We aren’t finished taking statements yet, Ranger. You know I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation.”
Ryan was about to lunge for the man when Grandfather placed his hand on his chest. He felt the anger and anxiety vanish like smoke in a magic act. He hated when the old man did that. But he recognized the wisdom of that restraint as he watched the medics push the stretcher with Cassie McBride past them. Chad climbed into the ambulance as soon as they had her settled. The girl stood next to his cousin, watching as it drove away.
“What the fuck happened here?” Ryan felt the frustration and impotence tightening like a noose around his throat. His chest felt heavy, each breath an act of sheer willpower. He had been fighting back this red haze all his life. He had tried his damnedest to make some difference in this fucked up world. First by studying the law, then in the SEALs, and for the past three years with the agency.
And for what? The world was just as fucked up as it always had been. Men like Garcia still sold drugs that killed people. Kidnapped women and girls off the street, and sold them like they were things. What if that had been his baby girl? Or Laura?
Ryan leaned forward, his hands on his knees, as he dropped his head. He was not sure which he wanted more – to scream at the injustice of it all or cry. At least two of the men he had brought to this cluster fuck were injured. A woman, too. And that girl? Those girls. Would either Bebe or Callie ever be the same? What was the point?
“Look up, my son.”
Ryan wanted to push the old man away, but he owed Raymond Greywolf more than that. If not for this man, the discipline he had taught him, he did not know what would have become of him. He inhaled deeply and met the man’s eyes.
“Not at me. At the sky. Tell me what you see.”
It was still night. He had no idea what time, but he could see the faintest of light on the horizon. He was not sure what the man wanted from him this time. “Nothing. Just the sky.”
“Nothing? Describe it for me, Ryan.”
He half-smiled, remembering that lifetime ago. That same gentle coaxing voice when the man was trying to make a point to any of them. “Darkness. Black sky.”
“Look closer, my son. What else do you see?”
There was no moon. That had been one of the things that slowed them from getting back to this place. Without moonlight, they had been forced to walk more slowly across the desert, uncertain what might trip them or the horses.
He shook his head; what did the old man want him to say? Then it came to him. “Stars.” He had rarely seen so many. Not since those summers on this man’s ranch. He had spent way too much time in cities with their pollution and bright lights to notice such things.
There were millions of them. He had been so caught up in getting back here that he had not noticed. And while they were not bright enough to light the path back, they shone even brighter in the night sky without the moon.
“That is the point. You are one of those stars, Ryan. These men that risked so much are too. And even on the darkest night, those stars shine brightly. They light the darkness. Even when there are too many clouds to see them, they are still there. Doing what they do. Shining their light into the darkness. Even during the day, when our sun, their cousin, shines so brightly it overshadows them, they still send forth their light.”
“That is the point, my son. We all have that choice. To shine our light or to cower in the darkness until it overtakes us. Because without that night, without the darkness, you would never see their beauty. Your beauty.”
“Does it make a difference, though?”
“Do you make a difference?” He hated how the man always saw through things to the heart of the matter. “You did tonight. You saved those women. Two cartels are destroyed.”
“Others will take their place.”
“And the darkness will come again tonight. But those stars will keep shining. And you will, too. Because that is who you are. You and your woman will raise that little one to burn brightly in the darkness. And together with others, you may never push back the darkness completely, but you can make this world a more beautiful place.”
“You know once upon a time your people used those stars to sail the great oceans. Even as far as this land. That is the power of those stars. To draw us and guide us with their light through the darkness.”
Ryan wanted to believe this man. But sometimes, he felt that he had seen so much darkness, spent so much time around men like the McBrides and Garcias, that he had lost his way. “Then, let us finish up here. Tell that man what he wants to hear. And go home. Back to your light, my son.”
Ray placed his hand on his shoulder and led him back to where Tyler and the others gathered, talking quietly.