Chapter One



THE short Wyoming range grass poked at his chest as he belly-crawled in the direction of the house. He ignored the pricks, scratches, and jabs as he kept his mind and attention on his objective—a cluster of cages behind the house. He really didn’t care why he’d been contracted to infiltrate this particular ranch or why he’d been told specifically to get unseen to those cages and release the abused and malnourished animals inside. Gordon wiped his brow and kept moving. The lights had gone out in the house a while ago, darkness and near silence descending quickly on the land. Once his eyes adjusted to the dark, Gordon had been pleased he’d checked things out earlier in the day. If there was one thing he could count on, it was an innate sense of direction. It didn’t matter if he couldn’t see a thing anymore after he’d spotted a point or landmark—he could make a beeline to it and usually put himself over it with no difficulty at all.

Some light from the area around the barn combined with the partial moon to provide more than Gordon actually needed, and the cages loomed easily within his line of sight. Raising his body off the ground, he thought about getting up and walking from here, but his instructions had been very specific: he was not to be seen under any circumstances. And if at all possible, Gordon was to make every effort to make it look like someone had left the cages open and the poor, mistreated animals had gotten loose. He was pretty sure that the people who’d contacted him were some sort of ecoterrorist group or something like that. What Gordon really cared about was that they had paid him in cash, and he desperately needed the money because he hated starving.

A sound behind him had Gordon stopping where he was. Dropping to his belly again, he listened and waited, but heard nothing more. Looking around as best he could, he saw no one, and was pretty sure there wasn’t any movement. Slowly, he began moving again. The cool night air had started to make its way through his clothing, and he wished he’d worn another layer, but it was too late now. He was getting close to the cages. He heard another sound and figured it was small creatures moving through the grass, and if he didn’t keep moving, he’d have them to contend with as well, so Gordon moved closer and closer to the first set of cages. At the edge of the enclosures, he settled again and listened. Gordon could hear animals moving around in the cages. They didn’t make a great deal of noise, but when he carefully lifted his head to look, he could see dark forms moving around. “Don’t worry, you’ll be free soon,” Gordon whispered, sending the animals his best wishes as he got even closer.

Thinking he could use the cages themselves as cover, Gordon shifted direction and began moving behind them and around to the far side. That was when he ran into trouble. Gordon was approaching the cage on the farthest side when he heard a snarl that nearly curdled his blood. He tried to move away but realized he was too close to the cage, and a pair of razor claws raked over his leg. Stealth or not, money or not, Gordon let out a yell that reverberated over the land and echoed off the hills at the edge of the valley. Lights came on from every direction. Gordon rolled away from the cage and kept rolling, getting farther and farther away. His leg hurt like flaming hell. He was scared to touch it, but he knew he was bleeding and his pants were now wet and clinging to him—that is, what was left of his pants.

Voices called from around him, and Gordon kept putting distance between himself and the sounds. He decided to settle in the grass and wait until everyone left before getting the hell out of here. “Are all the animals okay?” Gordon heard what sounded like a concerned voice ask as figures walked from cage to cage, everyone keeping away from the cage he’d gone near.

“Yes, they’re fine,” a man answered, shining a flashlight around the cages and on the animals inside. Gordon stopped breathing when he realized that the cage he’d gotten close to contained a tiger. Holy shit! There were lions and black prowling cats in the other cages. Fuck, if he’d actually opened one of the cages, he’d probably have been ripped to shreds. Putting his head on the ground, Gordon wondered how in hell he got himself into messes like this all the time. Well, not necessarily like this, because this was the first time he’d actually come close to being torn apart by wild animals. Before he’d only been shot at, not ripped apart and eaten. They’d told him the cages contained exotic animals, and he’d been expecting zebras and animals like the ones he used to visit at the petting zoo when he was a kid.

Gordon tried to breathe and wait out the activity happening closer to the house. It was still dark enough that the people around the cages couldn’t see him, but he had no intention of moving until they were gone. Then he was going to somehow make his way back to his pathetic excuse for a car and get the hell out of this town and, if he lived that long, the entire state.

The activity calmed down, and one by one, the people went inside. Once he couldn’t see anyone else, Gordon got to his knees, gritting his teeth as he crawled farther and farther back across the field.

“I suggest if you want to continue breathing that you don’t move another muscle,” a gruff voice said, and Gordon stopped and slowly lifted his gaze. He saw what looked like a pair of boots and then sturdy legs, followed by a wide body and big arms holding a gun. Not knowing what else to do, Gordon put his head back down and waited to see what was going to happen next. “Are you injured?”

“Yes,” Gordon answered honestly. He’d been caught and was being held at gunpoint. Honesty was his only way out now, if there was a way out of this. The people who’d hired him had told him that the owners of this ranch were ruthless animal abusers and that there was no telling what they’d do to him if he were to get caught. The worst had happened, and while Gordon thought about getting up and trying to make a run for it, his leg hurt so badly now, he wasn’t sure he’d be able walk, let alone run.

“Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to take you to my place and have a look at your leg. I’ll have my gun and I know damned well how to use it. In return for not shooting, you are going to tell me what in hell you were doing out in the range in the middle of the night and what on earth possessed you to get within a mile of that cage. That tiger would have ripped you to pieces in seconds.”

Gordon nodded and the man lifted him up and onto his feet. His leg throbbed, but he was able to put a small amount of weight on it.

“Wally, it’s Mario. I caught the guy who was out by the cages. That bitch of yours nailed him good on the leg. I’m bringing him to my place. You might want to see if Dakota can stop by and take a look. He’s lost some blood and he’s probably going to need stitches and maybe someone to examine his head.” Gordon saw the other man looking at him as he talked on his cell phone. “Okay, I’ll see you there.” He hung up. “Can you walk?”

“A little, I guess,” Gordon said. “I’m not armed.” He’d been shot at plenty over the years and somehow he’d always made it home.

“Okay, but one move I don’t like and I’ll drop you in a heap,” Mario said, though Gordon was hurting too badly to put up any sort of fight. In the end, that was why he’d gotten sent home. He couldn’t take the sound of the gunfire, bombs, and God knew what else, any longer. In the end, whenever anyone pointed a gun at him, his mind no longer tried to figure out how to kill them first to get out of the situation. He simply dropped to the ground and hoped whoever had the gun wouldn’t shoot him. The military didn’t need men like that, so they’d discharged him medically and sent him home.

Slowly, Gordon and his helper made it toward a small building on the edge of the ranch. It wasn’t too far from where he’d been caught, thank God, because Gordon wasn’t sure how much longer his leg was going to hold out.

The inside of the cabin looked rather depressing, but the place was clean. Mario helped Gordon into a chair. “Don’t move,” Mario told him, and Gordon nodded. He wasn’t sure he could even if he wanted to. For the first time he got a look at his shredded pant leg and the blood on the fabric. At least it didn’t look too bad. He tried to move it, but pain shot up and down his leg, so he gave up. The next time he went anywhere, it was probably going to be a one-way ride to jail.

Mario returned with a pan of water as the door opened and two other men came in. One was large and carried a bag, while the other was smaller, but with huge eyes. “I’m Dakota Holden, and you’re on my ranch. Who the hell are you?” the larger man said.

“Gordon Fisher,” he answered.

“Lucky for you, I also happen to be a doctor. I’m going to take a look at your leg, since cat scratches can be incredibly infectious. Once I’m done, you’re going to explain what you thought you were doing out by the cat cages.”

Gordon nodded, and Dakota knelt on the floor. Fabric tore as Dakota ripped his pants up to his knee. “How bad is it?” Gordon asked.

“You’re very lucky. The tiger didn’t get a good purchase on your leg or else the rips in your flesh would be a lot deeper. Her claws are designed to rip flesh from bone. She didn’t get the chance with you, but she won’t fail the next time.”

Gordon hissed between his teeth as Dakota cleaned his skin.

“What were you doing out there?” the third man asked.

“I was hired to set them all free,” Gordon explained, and the smaller man gasped. “What? They’re in little cages.”

The man stalked in front of Gordon. “Those animals are rescues from circuses and carnivals. I take care of them, nurse them back to health in some cases, and then I find them good homes in zoos and other reputable places. Some of those cats have been with me for five years, and I have no idea what they would do outside those cages. I’m a veterinarian, for God’s sake. I’d never hurt any animal in my care, but I may hurt you.” The man’s eyes blazed. “You’re damned lucky you didn’t let any of those cats loose. They would stalk any prey that came across their line of sight, and the first bit of prey would have been you. They’d have ripped you apart before moving on to scare half the community, until someone shot them.”

“I didn’t know. I was told you were hurting them and keeping them under bad conditions,” Gordon whined slightly.

“Who in hell told you all that crap?” the man yelled. At the same time, Dakota pressed a cold cloth to part of his leg, and Gordon jumped.

“Those animals need my help to survive, and whoever told you they were being mistreated was full of crap!” The small man was still yelling, and Gordon’s eyes widened. “I ought to show you pictures of the damaged feet and loss of hair I saw when they came in, and how good they look now.”

“Wally, calm down,” Dakota said without looking up from Gordon’s leg.

“But the one attacked me,” Gordon said, thankful he never got the cage open. Who knew what would have happened.

“She was beaten and whipped by her captors. They turned her into a cat that hates every human on the planet. If you’d let her go, she would have attacked you and then moved on to whoever else she found. Maybe the kid from the ranch down the road would have been next. Believe it or not, she’s much better now. When Jasmine first got here, she spent her days banging against the cage, trying to get out. Now at least Liam and I can get close enough to feed her and take care of her without being attacked. But your little stunt has probably undone all that work!” Wally flashed him a look of total disgust and then whirled away from him. “When you’re done, Kota, I want him off our ranch, and I don’t care if he has to fucking crawl.” Wally spun around and stalked out, and Gordon jumped when the door slammed hard enough to shake the walls.

Gordon looked down at the doctor treating his leg and heard him snickering. “You must have some sort of talent, because you managed to rile him up more than anyone has in years,” Dakota said with an odd twinkle in his eyes.

“He sure talks big,” Gordon said as the doctor got some bandages out of his bag.

Both Dakota and Mario started chuckling, which turned into full-on laughter. “That man may talk tough, but he can also kick your ass into the middle of next week,” Mario told him. “He’s one man you want to stay on the good side of.”

“Were you in the service?” Dakota asked, and Gordon nodded. “You have the look.” Dakota returned to his work. “When you went through basic, you had those guys you knew would always have your back no matter what, right?”

“Yeah,” Gordon answered, remembering Stacks and Bottles, his best friends, both gone now.

“Well, that’s the way Wally is. If he’s your friend, he’ll move heaven and earth for you, but piss him off or hurt someone he cares for, and even those lions and tigers out back wouldn’t stand a chance. He knows how to fight and knows how to win, so you’d best not judge him by his size.” Dakota stood up. “Besides, if you mess with my Wally, you mess with me too.”

Gordon swallowed and nodded. “Thank you for your help.”

Dakota nodded and put his things away before pulling over one of the kitchen chairs. “Now you’re going to tell me who put you up to the stupid notion of trying to infiltrate my ranch.” Gordon nodded, looking down at his leg and slowly rolling it so he could see the bandage. The claw marks extended out from under the gauze. “You were very lucky, and whoever put you up to this didn’t know what the hell they were doing or what they were talking about.”

Gordon nodded again and looked up at the other two men, who both sat straight and tall, staring at him intently. “I met them at a diner outside of town. They were looking for someone to help them with a problem, and I overheard their conversation. When I showed some interest, they pounced enthusiastically. Told me that some animals were being abused on this ranch and used for God knows what. They said they were being kept in tiny cages without enough food, water, or shelter. They wanted someone to let them free and were willing to pay.”

“You know that was a bunch of crap,” Dakota said, and Gordon nodded automatically. He didn’t really know who to believe any longer, but the fact that the people who’d hired him to set the animals free didn’t tell him that they were big cats that would rip him apart wasn’t adding to their credibility. “Wally would give his life before he’d harm any creature.” Gordon nodded again. “What did these people look like?”

At least now he could provide information. “There were four of them, three men and a woman. I met them yesterday. All were in their midtwenties and looked a bit like hippies. The leader called himself Rafe. Tall, about six feet, with dirty-blond hair and blue eyes that never seemed to settle anywhere. The woman was probably his girlfriend. She didn’t say much. Short dark hair, wild eyes, nose that had probably been broken at least once. Figured someone used her for a punching bag at one time. No bruises now, though.” Once Gordon started, the words poured out. He didn’t owe those people any loyalty, and at least Dakota and Mario had helped him. “The other two were twins, both middle height, brown hair, goatees. Looked like a matched set.”

“Anything else you can tell us? Did they say where they were heading?” Dakota asked, and Gordon shook his head.

“No. They sounded like they were staying put for a while. Like this area needed to be cleaned out or something,” Gordon explained, thinking back on the conversation they’d had in the diner the day before. “They wanted me to join their group, and I think this was some sort of initiation.”

“Why did you agree to do this?” Mario asked, clearly confused.

“I like helping animals. They don’t shoot at me,” Gordon answered truthfully, and both men looked at each other and nodded slightly.

“I’m going to pass this information to the sheriff. If he catches them, we’ll need you to identify them. If you help us, I won’t press charges against you,” Dakota said as he stood up, stifling a yawn. “I want to check your leg in the morning to make sure there’s no infection.”

“Okay,” Gordon answered, not sure what was going to happen next. Dakota walked over to where Mario stood and the two of them talked softly. Mario nodded a few times and flicked his gaze in Gordon’s direction, but he couldn’t hear what either of them said. Then Dakota left, and Mario disappeared down what must have been a small hallway before returning with a blanket, a pillow, and a pair of jeans for Gordon to wear in the morning.

“You can sleep on the sofa,” Mario commanded and passed him the bedding. “Don’t go wandering through the house and don’t think of leaving. I hear everything, and the sheriff will probably want to talk to you in the morning.”

“I won’t go anywhere,” Gordon promised. He didn’t have a place to go unless he wanted to sleep in his car again, and that prospect wasn’t something he was looking forward to.

Mario nodded and left the room, turning out the lights as he went. Gordon stretched out on the sofa, getting as comfortable as he could before turning out the light near his head. His leg ached and he knew it probably would all night long. Gordon managed to find a reasonably comfortable position and closed his eyes. At least he was warm and springs weren’t jabbing into his back. In the morning, he’d do what they wanted and try to keep his ass out of jail. Then he’d take off and get out of these people’s hair. He remembered his mother saying years ago that they had relatives up in Montana. Maybe he’d try to look them up to see if one of them could help him get a job.