Copyright 2004 by Texbard

For disclaimers, see Chapter 1

Chapter 8

The phone rang incessantly, and Aileen let it go, her arms elbow-deep in dishwater.  Crystal was a pain to clean, but two of their guests, a couple celebrating their anniversary, had requested the romance package for the weekend, which included mimosas, coffee, and heart-shaped muffins for breakfast, delivered to their room each morning.  Along with the mimosas, Aileen always insisted on providing her fine crystal champagne flutes.  She snorted.  In actuality, the heart-shaped muffins were more difficult than cleaning crystal stemware.  If she didn't pop them out of the muffin tin just right, they often crumbled -- the reason she always made more than necessary.  Besides, she and Joseph could always share the leftovers.

She cocked her head to the side, listening as the answering machine picked up, and a woman's west Texas drawl twanged in her ear.  "Miz Carson Garret?  Hellooo?"  The voice paused, then continued, "it's two o'clock, and we expected y'all for check-in around noon.  We'll of course hold yall's room until eight p.m., but since you requested the early arrival, we were just double-checkin' on yall's whereabouts.  If you get this message, give us a call …"

The voice droned on, leaving a callback number.  Aileen frowned.  The number wasn't the one for the Gage Hotel, as she had that one memorized, often setting up dinner reservations for her guests.  She couldn't place the number, other than the area code was local, and she wondered, with some amusement, what Carson had planned for her daughter's birthday, and realized Carson had been forced to leave their phone number with whatever hotel was calling, given the sporadic cell service in the area.  She shook her head, knowing full-well that keeping to a schedule on a back-packing trip was a crap-shoot at best, and wondered if the two girls were having fun, and what might have held them up on the trail.

She liked Carson, and especially liked the effect she was having on her often-serious loner of a daughter.  Shea hadn't been quite so much of a loner in high school, although Aileen had despaired of her ever finding friends that didn't constantly land her in hot water.  It had taken a long time to figure out that along with embarrassment at her heritage, her daughter had simply been bored as a teenager, the public schools of Brewster County sadly lacking in anything that remotely resembled intellectual challenge for someone of Shea's capabilities.

Her first clue should have been when she found her daughter sprawled in a corner of the upstairs den, pouring over an old set of encyclopedias at the tender age of four.  Not just looking at the pictures, but reading, and doing a fairly credible job of it at that.  She'd scrimped and saved, and purchased a newer set of the books -- ones that actually included the space exploration program and presidents beyond Harry Truman.  She'd saved the set, wrapping it up and putting it under the Christmas tree the next year.  When Shea opened it, all the other presents under the tree went forgotten for well over an hour, as she flitted from book to book, looking at the pictures and casting adoring glances at her parents for such a treasure of a gift.

As time went by, those adoring glances had been fewer and further between, and at times she had wistfully wished for the days when a five-year-old Shea could be won over with something as simple as an ice cream cone, or as complex as a set of books.  Ah, well, she mused.  After all was said and done, her daughter had turned out better than she'd ever hoped or dreamed.  And at last, it seemed that one missing puzzle piece had slipped into place, as she observed Carson's steady and sure presence in Shea's life, and the light in her daughter's eyes when she caught her watching Carson, unaware.

There was love there, no doubt, on both sides, and she fervently hoped this one would be a keeper.  Wasn't it what every parent ultimately hoped for his or her children?  The happiness that can only come from sharing your life with someone else?  It didn't matter anymore that Carson didn't come in the package Aileen had dreamed of for her daughter for so long, and she chuckled at herself, realizing that gender hadn't even crossed her mind when she'd first scrutinized Shea's blonde companion.  For a long while, she'd accepted the fact that if Shea ever brought someone home, it would be a girl.  She'd gotten right past the exterior and looked inside the woman, seeing all the qualities she could hope for in a life partner, for any of her children.

The phone rang again, and she released a frustrated breath, as she finished rinsing the last glass, and set it in the drain rack next to the sink.  The answering machine picked up again, and another female voice called out, this time for her daughter.  "This is Keena Smothers with the warden's office.  I'm looking for Miz Kennedy Shea Nocona.  We found her 4Runner, or what's left of it, sitting down by La Clocha in the park, and we need to find out where she wants it hauled to, and if we need to preserve it for insurance for a day or two.  We've got a big mess down here anyway, so if someone could have her …"

Aileen dropped the dishrag upon hearing about the truck, and rushed to the phone, drying her hands on her apron as she ram. She grabbed the receiver, her hand shaking.  "Hello?  This is Kennedy's mother.  Has she been in an accident?" 

"Near as we can tell, no, ma'am."  The ranger took a breath, switching gears as she found herself talking to a human being after all.  "There's been a fire down here in the wooded area just west of La Clocha campground.  Unfortunately her truck was parked just downwind of it, and there isn't much left worth driving, but she wasn't in it.  Gas tank blew up and made a huge mess, caught a nearby tent on fire and pretty much burned the campsite to the ground, but no one was in it.  We're just trying to find her."

"She and a friend are backpacking in the park."  Aileen's heart skipped a beat.  "The fire … is anyone hurt?"

"Weelllll," Ranger Smothers drawled.  "Not by the fire, no."

"What do you mean by that?"  Aileen's knuckles turned white as she gripped the phone.  "My daughter … I take it you haven't seen her anywhere down there?  Just a minute …" She covered the phone with one hand.  "Joseph!"  Her voice bellowed in a tone that had brought her husband running on many occasions over the years.  She heard his footsteps on the basement stairs, and uncovered the phone.

"Ma'am, there's been a homicide in the park.  I probably shouldn't say much more than that, but the victim was male, so we know it's not your daughter.  We're just trying to find her to deal with her truck … tie up our loose ends so we can deal with the murder."  She huffed and continued.  "Damned pot-smoking hippie started the fire, near as we can tell.  Found a tiny bit of a joint near the source -- lab's already confirmed it.  Been fighting the fire since before dawn.  We're just lucky with all the rain, a lot of the trees were spared that otherwise would've burned.  Lot of smoke, but the fire itself didn't get too unmanageable.  We're still putting out little bits of it, but for the most part, it's over."

Joseph reached Aileen's side, her worry obvious from across the room.  "What's going on?"

"I'm talking with a park ranger.  Been a fire in the park.  Shea's truck burned down at La Clocha."  She turned her attention back to the ranger on the phone.

"What?!  Is she alright?  And Carson?"  Joseph resisted the urge to take the phone from her.  "Don't hang up, I want to talk to them when you're finished."

"They weren't in the truck, but they don't know where they are.  A man's been murdered too."  She handed off the phone.  "Here, you take it.  I’m going to go change so we can drive down there."

Joseph took the phone and introduced himself, listening as the ranger repeated her story.  "But there's no sign of my daughter at all?" he asked, as she finished.

"Not yet."  She hesitated.  "Mr. Nocona, that tent that was pitched near the truck -- no one was in it, and no one else was parked in that area.  We just assumed the tent was probably hers, but it doesn't make sense, unless she and her friend headed out hiking before sunup.  We haven't found anyone else in the area at all, other than one hiker that came into Rio Grande Village station pretty early this morning and called a friend to give him a ride out, but he said he'd come in the opposite direction of the fire.  Looked like he'd been hiking all night, the numbskull."

"Called a friend?  He local?"  Joseph, unlike his more high-strung wife, had the presence of mind to take notes as they talked.  "You get a name?"

"Yeah, he was … let me see …" Joseph heard the rattle of shuffling paper, and waited, tapping his pen impatiently against his notepad.  "Richard Wolden.  Yeah, definitely a local, 'cause I've seen him around the park before."

"Rick Wolden?"  Joseph's hackles rose.  "Listen.  My daughter -- she was planning to turn him into the sheriff after her backpacking trip.  She'll have a fit for me jumping the gun, but she thinks he and a friend of his drugged her drink out at Armadillo Flats earlier this week.  You say he was alone?"

"Yep.  A buddy picked him up, but he came into the station alone."  She closed her manila file folder.

Something pricked at the back of Joseph's mind, an uneasy feeling he'd come to associate with his gut instinct -- something that rarely failed him.  "Haul him back in and hold him if you can, or at least get someone to keep an eye on him.  Him being in that part of the park, that close to my daughter's campsite -- I don't like it.  Something isn't right."

"Will do sir.  I'm actually a licensed game warden.  Don't need a warrant to do most anything I want to," she responded smugly.  "Y'all coming down here?"

"We're leaving right now."  He spotted Aileen coming down the stairs in her jeans and hiking boots.  "Be there soon as we can.  Leave the truck where it is until we get there.  I know y'all take pictures, but we'd like to take some too, just in case."

"Alright sir, I'll be here."

Joseph heard the click as she hung up, and turned to face his wife, debating telling her about Rick's presence in the park.  "Has Pete called since he got back to Austin?"

"No," Aileen's brows rose at the seeming randomness of the question.  "Why?"

"Might need to give him a call tonight." Joseph held the door for her, as they went out to their own truck.  "Honey."  He helped her into the truck.  "Rick Wolden was down in the park near Shea's truck."

Aileen's face grew pale.  "You think he's up to something?"

"Not sure, but it's a little too strange to my liking.  Let's get down there and check out the truck. Maybe by the time we get there, Shea and Carson will have turned up."  He squeezed Aileen's hand, then closed the truck door and went around to his own side, climbing in and starting the engine.  In short order, he was breaking the speed limit, headed south for the park.


The sun shone down from directly overhead, casting unseasonably warm rays on the desert valley below.  Two exhausted sweaty figures sat in the shade of the canyon wall, listening to the water rush by below.  They had made slow progress, but the woods were growing closer, and it appeared the fire had either mostly burned out or been contained.  Smoke curled up from charred trees and brush in a few places, but the billowing thick clouds that had obscured part of the sky for a while had cleared.

"Honey, try to eat some of this trail bar, if you can."  Carson held up half of her lunch, watching as two tired blue eyes opened and peered at her from behind dark blinking lashes.  Kennedy was in so much pain it made Carson hurt watching her.

"Be a waste.  Just gonna come back up."  She shifted and winced silently, looking down at her leg.  The bandage was spotted with fresh blood, and from the pain in her shoulder, she suspected it was in similar condition.  "Check my shoulder, will ya?  See what's going on."

"You hurting?  I mean any worse than you were?"  She stood on her knees, scooting around as Kennedy presented her back to her.  "Oh."

"Oh, what?"  She felt the shirt being lifted and gasped as the cotton tugged at her stitches.  "Ouch.  Careful.  I think …"

"Blood's soaked through to your shirt."  Carson carefully got the shirt the rest of the way up and saw fresh seepage at each end of the row of stitches.  It had swollen again, and the skin around it was an angry red color.  "Heat's probably bad for it."

"Walking two miles over rough terrain's probably bad for it too."  The shirt slid back down, sticking to her sweaty back.  "My head hurts so bad it feels like it's going to explode."

"Need more ibuprofen?"  Carson unzipped her shorts pocket and pulled out the precious bottle of painkillers.  "Been four hours."

"Yeah."  She sat back and took the handful of gel caps from her lover, closing her eyes as Carson held the water bottle to her lips.  She sucked at it slowly, wondering if pills and water would both stay down.  After she swallowed, she remained still, resting back against the rock on her right side, waiting for her insides to start doing the tango.  Her stomach only fluttered a little, then settled down.  "Carson, maybe you should go on without me.  You could cover the last two miles a lot faster, maybe get the truck and drive it back to this side of the trees, and I could get across the river to it somehow, or if there's rangers near the fire line, you can bring back help.

"And if those guys are around and start shooting at you?  Then what?"  The Glock was stored safely in the top of her pack for quick access.

"I'll duck," Kennedy laughed quietly.  "Sweetheart, I can find a place to hide for a while.  Just get me a bottle of water and leave the drugs, and I'll be fine."

"I'm scared to leave you."  Carson knew it was the right thing to do, logically, but nightmares of finding Kennedy dead upon return tugged at her.  She scooted around and looked at Kennedy's face.  It was tense with pain, even her jaw was clenched, and her entire body was unnaturally stiff.  "God, you're hurting so much, it makes me hurt too."

"Then go.  Please.  I honestly don't think I can go on.  My vision's gone blurry from the headache -- might be a migraine setting in.  And the more I walk, the more I'm going to bleed, and I don't have much blood to spare."  She took Carson's hand and brought it to her lips.  "Go on, Wonder Woman, and finish saving my life."

"I …" Carson's jaw clamped shut.  She managed a smile, patting Kennedy's cheek as she released her hand.  "Just returning a favor.  Here …" She picked up the water bottle.  "Let me get you a refill so you'll have a full supply.  You need to keep drinking as much as you can."

"I know."  She watched as Carson got up and picked her way down to the embankment.  Soon she was out of sight, having scrambled down a small drop off to the water's edge.  Kennedy closed her eyes again.  Feeling dizzy sitting down was a bad sign.  Being thirsty despite drinking water was too.  Despite the heat she was chilled, and suspected her fever had returned as well.  For a fleeting moment, she contemplated her own death, and just as quickly shoved it aside.  She had way too much to live for.  "Get the water and hurry for help, sweetheart."  She closed her eyes again, and waited.

Carson stepped gingerly along the water's edge, searching for a spot she could kneel in without falling in.  The space between the higher embankment and the water was fairly narrow, steep, and uneven, and she wasn't sure how quickly it got deep.  She pushed back some shrubbery and stepped through it, finding a likely place to get the water, when a bit of un-natural color caught her eye.

She looked up and spotted a patch of dark green peeking through some dead brown brush that hung out over the river.  The water washed by and the green bobbed up and down and shifted, and she could just make out their runaway raft from earlier, caught there by some miracle.  "Whoa!"  She tossed the water bottle aside and took off, oblivious to rocks and cactus, reaching a point where she had no choice but to wade in.

The current was swift, but as she tested her footing, the water was only calf-deep.  "Good thing these boots are waterproof."  She trudged through the water, making one careful step at a time so as not to fall, praying she didn't stir the water any more and dislodge her treasure.  She came to the brush and reached through, grabbing some rope that was looped around a branch, holding the raft in place.  She worked her way around to the other side and found herself in waist-deep current that threatened to knock her off her feet.

"Dammit!"  She painstakingly got the raft loose, and examined it.  It was old and patched in a few places, but hadn't taken in any water, and there was even one paddle lying in the bottom.  "I hope I have a few more miracles left today."  She looked skyward for a moment, then began tugging it upstream, making her movement even more difficult.  As she reached the spot where she had tossed the water bottle, she tripped over something under the water and fell to her hands and knees, her chin just above the surface, but the rope was still in her hand.  She got up and pulled the raft onto the bank, tying it securely to the shrub she'd so recently plowed through.  A warm trickling sensation made her leg itch, and she looked down.  Both knees were bleeding from whatever she'd hit on the river bottom.  "I am NOT pouring tequila on those," she mumbled, as she climbed back up the embankment.

Kennedy heard her approach and opened one eye.  "What happened?"  The other eye popped open.  "You get in a fight with a fish?"

"No. I found us a way out of here, if we can get you down that bank.  Come on."  She knelt down, getting an arm around Kennedy and helping her to her feet.

"Where's the water?"  The world spun and she grabbed Carson's shoulder hard with her right hand.

"Plenty of it in the river.  I'll refill both bottles after we get down there."  She felt Kennedy practically slumped against her and stopped, patting her stomach lightly.  "Honey, give me all you've got here and then you'll be able to rest for the rest of the way.  I found that raft down there."

"Really?"  Carson's voice sounded far away, as if they were speaking through tin cans and string.  Kennedy's brain was fuzzy, and everything looked spotted as her head continued to pound.  Her field of vision had narrowed, a sure sign she was suffering a migraine on top of everything else.  She hadn't packed her migraine meds, as she hadn't had one in a few months.

As they reached the embankment, Carson helped her ease down on her behind.  "What's gonna be the best way for you to do this?"  She sat down next to her lover, holding her hand.

"Roll over and slide down on my stomach.  If I do it facing forward I might scrape my shoulder, and I think that might kill me right now."  She rolled to her side.  "If you can get down there and kind of catch me -- break my fall …"

"Sure."  Carson jumped down and held her breath as Kennedy slid down, bits of red and brown dirt coming loose and crumbling beneath her.  She was almost as tall as the bank, and landed on her feet, wobbling slightly until Carson steadied her, then got her seated while she re-filled the water bottles, watching as the cool liquid filtered through the purification system.  "Okay."  She stood and placed the bottles in the compartments in the pack designed for that purpose.  "Your cruise ship awaits, my lady."

Kennedy chuckled a little and stood, hobbling over near the water's edge, while Carson got the raft into the water, leaving the rope tied to the shrub just in case.  Kennedy got to the raft and more or less fell in gracelessly, although she managed to land on her right side.  "Ooof."  She simply lay back for a moment, feeling the coolness of the water through the raft bottom.  It made her chills worse, but it felt good against the wound on her shoulder.

"We're off!"  Carson untied the rope and hopped in, picking up the paddle and steering them toward the center of the river.  "Will I know where to pull in to the other side?"  There was no answer, and she turned.  "Kennedy?"

"I'm here.  Just feeling a little queasy.  Have to keep my eyes closed 'cause if I look up at the sky it makes it worse.  When we get past the woods tap me on the foot and I'll sit up and help you find the pull in at Rio Grande Village."  She folded her hands over her stomach, hoping she might nap for what would probably be a relatively short trip.

"Okay.  You just rest and leave the driving to me."  The motion felt good after their slow progress, and the breeze created from moving along the cool river was heavenly against her parched sunburned skin.  As they passed the brush where the raft had been tangled, she could swear she saw a bit of a white blur that lingered for a moment, then vanished into nothing.


The water was rough out in the middle, and hadn't gone down much, leading Carson to believe there had been more rain up river.  Ahead of her the smoke continued to trickle up from the woods, while high rocky desert cliffs quickly faded behind her.  She had to continually switch sides with the one paddle, pulling hard to keep the raft from hurling back to shore.  It was a good size -- long enough for Kennedy to stretch completely out, with a few feet to spare at each end.  Unfortunately it was wide enough that she had to lean and reach, scooting from side to side with her entire body, each time she switched sides with the paddle.

It was hard work, and she barely had time to look back to see how Kennedy was faring.  She felt a hand curl around her thigh and spared a glance at her lover.  Her features had softened, just a little, and she appeared to be sleeping.  It was a relief, whether it was induced by excess ibuprofen, or sheer exhaustion.  Kennedy had been in so much pain by the time they got into the raft.

Carson still felt residual anxiety at how close she'd come to having to leave her behind.  It was entirely possible there were still dangerous people out there, presumably after them.  She decided it was fortuitous they had ended up on the Mexican side of the river for a while.  Perhaps the men shooting at them had given up and left.  She kept watching the shoreline, especially on the Texas side of the river, looking for any sign of humanity, either friend or foe.

Alone with her thoughts, the anger had time to simmer and boil to the surface.  Someone had shot Kennedy.  Luckily they were either a bad aim, or had not intended to kill her.  She shuddered and felt dizzy for a moment, as she fought back a wave of pure terror.  The bullet she removed from Kennedy's shoulder was less than a foot from her heart, not to mention lungs and major veins and arteries.

She wanted to kill the shooter.  She couldn't remember ever wanting to kill anyone before until that weekend, not even Nick Giovani, the man who had drugged and kidnapped her only a few months before.  Sam drugging Kennedy's drink, and someone shooting at her -- that was different.  They had almost taken away something very precious, when she'd only just found it.

Love, Carson had learned, was hard to find and even more difficult to keep.  Compatible as they were, she and Kennedy had learned that being in love was easy, but maintaining a relationship was a lot of work.  The reward was well worth the effort, as she gradually found herself slipping into a place that was invigorating and comforting all at the same time.  She awoke each morning feeling wondrously alive like she never had before, and slept each night in a bed of infinite peace.  Being in Kennedy's arms could set her senses on fire, or calm them beyond measure.

It was a gift she didn't intend to give up anytime soon.

As they neared the woods, it was obvious the fire was almost burned out, not a hint of actual flames to be seen.  Her back and arms were starting to ache with the effort of fighting the river, and she was glad of the swift current.  Her eyes stung a little as they entered an area where smoke was still drifting on the wind, and she sneezed as it tickled her nose.  They reached the tree line, and she began studying the shore in earnest for a good place to pull in.

As she squinted, she spotted two figures standing just inside the trees.  They were hard to make out, but they seemed to be watching her.  Her skin prickled as one of them stepped out into view.  He was covered from head to toe, wore dark sunglasses, and had a hat pulled low over his face, so that she really couldn't make out much detail by way of identification, even his height, given the distance between them.  She instinctively hunched down, making herself as small as possible.  The second man joined the first, a rifle held at his side.

"Kennedy," she whispered loudly.  "Honey, you need to curl into a ball in the corner of the raft.  "She reached back, gently shaking a long leg, careful to avoid the injured one.

"What?"  Kennedy was dazed, her brain a fuzz of fever and renewed pain.

"Those men are on shore and they have a gun.  You need to get out of their sight."  She hunkered even lower, barely using the paddle as they passed the men.

"Carson, get down yourself!"  Kennedy came alive, trying to sit up and failing, groaning as pain shot through her shoulder and chest.

"Gotta keep us from drifting toward them," she hissed, as she used the paddle to maneuver around a large downed tree in the middle of the river.  "But …" she watched the men, who watched back, but made not a sound.  "They aren't shooting at us, and they aren't yelling.  You think they're friendly?"

Kennedy scooted to the side of the raft and peeked over the edge.  "Can’t tell.  Maybe they're part of the fire crew.  Hey!"  She yelled.  "Help!"

"Dammit!" One of the men yelled back, and kicked savagely at the ground.  "You better shut up now, girl!"  He shook a fist at her, before both of the men ran away, back into the trees and out of view.

"Definitely not friendly."  She dropped back down below the rounded surface.  "But for some reason they aren't shooting.  I think there must be other people too close by for them to make that much noise."

"Should we pull in at La Clocha?"  Carson could feel the panic rising, as she watched the trees like a hawk for any sign of the men.

"If we see anyone there, yes.  If not, no, we need to go on to Rio Grande Village.  I don't want to risk running into those guys if it's just the two of us."  She closed her eyes, swallowing as her head spun for a moment.  "How many ibuprofen did I take a while ago?"

"Four, I think.  Maybe five.  And four earlier this morning."  Carson frowned, trying to watch the river ahead of them and Kennedy behind her at the same time.  "Honey, you probably shouldn't take any more for a while."

"I know."  Kennedy winced as she tried to lay with no pressure on her shoulder.  "We should be coming up on La Clocha pretty quick here, fast as we're moving."  She tried to sit up and failed.  "Can you see anything that looks like a campground?"

"No."  Carson squinted toward shore.  "Still seeing some trees.  Oh -- a bunch of 'em burned.  How sad."  She swallowed at a scratchiness brought on from breathing the smoke-tainted air.  "I think I see …" she rubbed her eyes, which also stung.  "… maybe some color through the trees, maybe a vehicle.  Tough to tell."

"If you're not absolutely certain, go on.  The village isn't that much further, and there's a ranger station there.  Might be best anyway.  Probably gonna need to get a helicopter in."  She lay back down, dizzy from the swift rocking motion of the river.

"Helicopter?  Why … oh.  Of course."  It was over fifty miles to the nearest hospital, in Alpine.  A helicopter would be much faster than sending an ambulance a hundred miles round trip.  "They'd better take me with you," she gulped at a lump that formed in her throat.

"They will." Kennedy reached out, touching her leg.  "Gonna need you."  She managed a small smile.  "May need you to help me remember my own damned name and address for the paper work.  Least I've got my insurance card in the pack."

"Oh.  True."  Carson lifted the paddle long enough to make sure the pack was indeed within reach.  She frowned as she spotted a compartment next to her -- some sort of pocket in the side of the raft that was snapped closed.  Curiously, she unsnapped it, careful to keep one eye on the water at the same time.  She reached in and drew out a bundle of plastic garbage bag material, wrapped in several rounds of twine.  It was heavy and beneath the thin plastic surface was an odd rough texture.  Unable to deal with it, she set it aside to inspect once they came ashore.

They cleared the trees and reached more open countryside again.  She signed with relief.  The village was real close, according to the map, if she was remembering correctly.  She looked back at Kennedy, who was lying very still, save the soft rise and fall of her chest as she breathed.  Her right arm was slung across her eyes, but even so, her face was a study in pain.  "Migraine?" she asked quietly.

"Oh, yeah," a raspy voice answered.  "If I'm lucky mother nature will arrive right on time too."

"Huh?"  It only took a moment, and she felt a pang of sympathy.  "Oh.  Sorry, honey.  I imagine this will go down as the suckiest birthday ever."

"No."  She shifted, uncovering her face for a moment and touching Carson's leg again.  "It's the best one.  'Cause I got the best gift I could ever want this year."  Her thumb brushed across the soft skin of Carson's calf, before she closed her eyes again, this time with a full smile gracing her lips.  "The very best."

Clear of the smoke, Carson blinked for a different reason, sniffling before her vision cleared, and she felt dampness on her cheeks.  "Yeah," she whispered softly.  "Me too."


Aileen paced back and forth near the ruined 4Runner, waiting while Ranger Smothers dealt with the remains of a skeleton fire crew.  The fire was put out, although the acrid smell of charred wood, and the offensive chemical scent of burned paint and metal from the truck remained.  Inside the truck were two destroyed backpacks and a melted cooler with crispy-blackened food inside, including a shattered and melted bottle of champagne.  "Hope they get to have their celebration."  She closed the bent cooler lid and crossed her arms over her chest, looking lost.

She walked over to Joseph, who was leaning against a tree nearby, surveying the damage from a distance.  There was a large gaping hole in the back of the truck, where the gas tank had exploded.  Next to it was a barely-distinguishable tree, the branches obviously blown to smithereens by the explosion.  They watched as a body bag was toted down the trail from them, and loaded into the back of the county coroner's SUV, which drove away.  An autopsy would be performed.  The dead man's face was unidentifiable.  "Come here," Joseph beckoned to her, holding out his arm.

She buried herself in his embrace, pressing her face against the clean sun-scented cotton of his work shirt.  "I swore I wasn't going to cry unless there was something to cry about."  She sniffled and felt a handkerchief pressed into her hand.  "Thank you.  You always were prepared."

Joseph kissed her forehead, and hugged her close.  "They're going to be fine."

"You're certain?"  She blew her nose and stuffed the handkerchief in her jeans pocket.

"I am."  He stroked her head, watching as Smothers approached them.  "Our daughter knows how to survive in the outdoors."

"But that man was shot.  What if the killer is still in the park?"  Aileen fretted.

"Ma'am.  Sir."  Smothers reached them, pushing her wide-brimmed hat back so she could see them better.  "We've got some search parties organized and headed this way from the main park headquarters, and there's a helicopter on its way from Fort Stockton, to do an aerial search.  With the fire and the murder, things have gotten a bit confusing.  Any footprints they might have made aren't around anymore, with the fire and the water and all that we used to put it out.  We did find a set of fresh tire tracks near the victim's tent, but we lost them a ways up on the back road.  Common truck tire tread. It'll be tough to determine what vehicle they came from, although we did cast a plaster of them."

"Thank you,"  Joseph nodded at her.  "I know y'all are doing your best.  If I know my daughter, they probably hiked up river through the woods.  Shea likes trees, if that will help your search any."

"It will. I …"  Her government-issue two-way radio went off, and static buzzed for a moment, before she picked it up.  "Hold on." She gestured at Aileen and Joseph.  "Come again?"  She made an adjustment to a couple of knobs.  "This is Keena.  I didn't hear you the first time."

"I said we have a couple of dead bodies here.  Female. They …" More static crackled across the air waves, cutting off whatever was being said.  "Damn," Smothers muttered, glancing at Aileen and Joseph, wishing they hadn't heard.  "I'm just going to move over there and take this.  I'll be …"

"No.  Stay."  Joseph held out a hand.  "I'd like to hear, if you don't mind."

"Alright."  She could see the tension in his face, and watched as Aileen buried hers in his shirt once again, her shoulder shaking as she cried silently.  She held the radio out a bit and moved the knobs around again.  "Don't move," she barked into the device. "I can't hear you very well.  We have a bad connection.  Now. Start from the beginning.  Who are you, where are you, and please describe the victims."

"This is Davidson," a voice sputtered across the airwaves.  "I've got two female bodies here, found 'em behind a rock covered by branches.  I'm a little ways off the Mariscal Canyon Trail, near Talley campground."

"Too far to be them," Joseph continued to stroke Aileen's head.  "They couldn't have hiked that far from here."  Privately he acknowledged if they'd hiked all night, it was possible, but there was no sense in worrying her any more than she already was.

"Describe them," Smothers' voice conveyed barely-contained patience.

"Both look to be in their late-20's to early 30's, one's tall, and one's short …, probably a little over 5 feet, while the taller one is close to 6.  One's got long hair, and one short …"

Aileen gasped and looked up, covering her mouth in horror.  "No," she whispered fiercely.   Joseph merely held her tighter, his own features gone pale.

"Let's see," Davidson continued.  "Both Hispanic, black hair and dark brown eyes the both of 'em."

Aileen's knees buckled as blood rushed from her head.  "Thank God."  She almost collapsed, sitting down quickly on the hard packed ground, taking Joseph with her.  "Thank God," she repeated, and sobbed anew, this time with tears of joy streaming down her face.  "I'm sorry for their families," she sniffled, "but I can't help myself."  She struggled for composure.  "It's not them."

Smothers breathed a sigh of relief.  "Any apparent cause of death?"

"It's the strangest thing," Davidson sputtered, static starting to build again.  "Their skin is kind of grayish, and they're white around the mouths.  One of 'em looks like she's vomited on herself.  But no obvious wounds or anything like that.  I would've thought maybe rattler bite, but there's no fang marks anywhere I can see."

"Alright," Smothers pulled out a notepad from her hip pocket, jotting down a few items while she talked.  "Bag 'em as soon as you can and get 'em to the coroner's office.  I swear that man's gonna earn his keep today."

"Roger that," Davidson's voice came through clear.  "Over and out."

"Phil," Smothers' voice grew soft.  "You be careful out there.  We've got a killer on the loose."

"Will do, ma'am."  The radio went silent, and Smothers clipped it back on her belt.  "Sorry about that."  She knelt down next to Aileen, touching her on the knee.  "Do you need some water or something?  Maybe we should get y'all down to the station at Rio Grande Village.  It's air conditioned and you'd have a comfortable place to sit."

"I'd like to help the search teams," Joseph started emphatically.  "I know my daughter better than almost anyone."

"Sir, we really advise against that," she gentled her voice. "That close to the situation, folks tend to make careless mistakes and get themselves hurt or lost.  Besides, when we find them, they'll probably need you and you wouldn't want to be out on the trail somewhere where you might not be able to get to them quickly."

"We'll see."  He helped Aileen up.  "But maybe we could go down there and freshen up a bit, and grab some sandwiches before we decide.  How does that sound, sweetheart?"

"Sounds good," Aileen answered weekly.  Her equilibrium was slowly returning, and she still felt a little light-headed.

Joseph supported her, as they made their way to their truck.  They were soon tooling along the rough backcountry road, with Smothers following behind in a beat-up jeep.  Overhead the sun continued to beat down, parching the land in unseasonable warmth.


The raft bobbed and rocked, as Carson guided it around some floating debris and branches in the water.  Her heart continually jumped into her throat, almost as if she could feel the two men they'd seen watching her.  They were well past the wooded area, so she knew logically that was impossible.  Still, she kept hunching her shoulders, a part of her expecting to hear gunshot.  She suspected that sound would stay with her for a long time to come.  Remembering her dream from the night before, she shivered.

"I think we're getting closer," she looked behind her briefly.  Kennedy was still stretched out with her eyes closed.  A sheen of sweat dotted her forehead, and she was shaking just a little, a slight tremor evident in her hands.  "Honey, hold on for me."  She shoved the paddle hard into the water, doubling her effort, willing them to move even faster.  She looked down at Kennedy's bandaged leg, noting a fresh seepage of blood there.  The bandage was fast becoming soaked again.  "Damn," she bit her lower lip and snorted a soft breath through her nose.

"I'm holding," a weak voice finally responded.  "Just feeling kinda dizzy.  Not that I wasn't feeling dizzy before."

Carson's ears perked up, as she heard a rumbling vibrating noise, and looked up to spot a helicopter overhead.  "Oh," she gasped quietly.  "I hope our shooters aren't flyers as well."  She decided to take a gamble, and held up her oar for a moment, waving it wildly back and forth over her head. 

The copter dipped lower until she could see a man sitting in the open side door, waving back at her.  She waved back before dropping the oar back into the water.  The chopper drew even closer, a little to the side and overhead.  "Ma'am, follow us and we'll guide you toward the landing at the Village up ahead," a loudspeaker blared, shattering their relative peace.  Carson lifted her oar once more in acknowledgement, as the chopper sped ahead and stayed just a little bit in front and above them.

After a few minutes it began to veer left, and Carson followed, her arms screaming with her efforts.  The current was rough and very swift, and just when she thought she wouldn't make it, the chopper dropped a line into the raft, it's end looped through a clamp hook.  She grabbed it and hooked it through a loop at the front of the raft, and sat back, breathing hard as they were towed the last several yards toward the landing.  The chopper pulled them in, then sat down on the ground a little ways away.

Carson got up on her knees and grabbed at a dock, looping the rope around a post and tying it securely.  "Help is on the way," she touched Kennedy's face for a second, then scrambled out of the raft and onto the dock, her legs so rubbery she wasn't certain she could walk.  Two medics leaped from the helicopter and ran toward her, meeting her halfway.  "My partner," she gestured toward the raft.  "She's been shot.  Lost a lot of blood.  We need a hospital, quick."

"How about you?"  One medic stopped, giving her a brief visual once-over, while the other continued on toward the raft.  "Looks like you've been hurt," he noted the blood on her shirt.

"I'm fine.  Not my blood here.  Just take care of her, please.  She's hurt pretty bad, I think."  She hovered behind the medics, anxiously watching as they lifted Kennedy from the raft and got her onto the dock.  Carson knelt on the opposite side of her lover, holding hand, as one of the medics got her situated on a stretcher.  As they stood and began carrying her up to the helicopter, two familiar figures came racing out of the ranger station, and Carson headed for them, practically bowling Aileen over as she caught up to her and engulfed her in a hug.  "I've never been so glad to see anyone in my life," she crooned, and looked up.

"And we've never been so happy to see you two." Joseph patted her absently on the shoulder, before he moved on to where the two medics were transporting his daughter.  She appeared to be quite limp, and he frowned.  He quickened his pace and reached her just as they approached the helicopter.

"Pa?"  Kennedy opened her eyes.  She'd felt every jolt during the short trip from the dock, and, and wondered if it would be too much to ask them to knock her out for the flight.

"Right here, my cha-nawoonit ecka-peta."  He grasped her hand, noting the bandage around her leg.  "What happened?"

"Got in the way of a couple of bullets." She winced as she rolled toward him a bit.

"A couple?"  He reached out, touching her forehead, and taking Aileen's hand as she caught up to them.

"My baby."  Aileen also touched her head, smoothing back tangled hair and trying not to cry in her daughter's presence.  "What happened?"

"I'm a little fuzzy right now, Mama, but I had a bullet in my shoulder and one grazed my leg."  She closed her eyes, growing dizzy again.  "Carson took good care of me though."

"I have no doubt."  He had a lot of questions, including why she said she'd 'had' a bullet in her shoulder, but they would have to wait.  Kennedy's face was ashen, her voice weak and hoarse.  He hadn't missed the tattered and blood-stained t-shirt Carson was wearing, one that was too big to be hers.  "You're going to be just fine."  He smiled reassuringly.

"Yeah."  Kennedy managed to smile back.  "After rodeo, skateboarding, and hell-raising in high school, what's a few bullets, huh?"

Joseph chuckled and Aileen smiled and then choked up, as the tears finally escaped.  Joseph hugged her against his side, still holding Kennedy's hand.

"I'll be fine, Mama." Kennedy smiled again, and then grimaced, as they strapped her into the helicopter, jostling her shoulder in the process.

They finished getting her settled, while Joseph and Aileen continued to talk softly with her.  Carson had stood quietly to the side, but as the medics moved aside to prepare for the flight, she scrambled in behind Kennedy.  The medic frowned.   "Ma'am, you need to leave now.  Only a close family member is allowed to ride with her to the hospital, and we don't have room for all of you, only one."

"Oh."  Carson looked down, her voice going soft.  "But I promised her I'd take care of her."  She looked up and spotted Joseph's sympathetic face, followed by Aileen's.

"She is my daughter's next of kin."  Joseph reached in and grabbed her hand, squeezing it.  "You take her with you.  My wife and I will be along as quickly as we can."

"You take good care of my baby," Aileen leaned in, hugging Carson again.  She leaned in again herself, just long enough to touch her daughter's arm.  "Baby, we'll be at the hospital as fast as we can."

"I'll probably be all better by the time you get there." Kennedy croaked.

"But sir."  The medic studied Carson, whose pale features stood out in stark contrast to their patient's.  "I really think you or your wife …"

"Either she goes, or I don't," Kennedy piped up.  "Now let's get moving while I still have blood left inside my body."

"Alright."  The medic waited for Joseph and Aileen to step back, then closed the door with a solid slam.  The chopper lifted off, and the park quickly fell away behind them, as they sped toward Alpine.


The waiting room was relatively quiet, a relief to Carson's ears after the constant thrum of the helicopter blades during the flight to the hospital.  She sat in a corner with a clipboard propped against her knee, meticulously copying down Kennedy's insurance and other information on the emergency room admission sheet.  Kennedy, of course, had insisted she just needed to go to her parent's doctor, and didn't really need to go to the hospital.

Carson snorted softly and shook her head.  "Stubborn …"  She looked up as a nurse approached her with a second clipboard.

"Ma'am, when you finish that one for your friend, we need you to fill this one out so we can get you admitted too."  She smiled and set the board down in the chair next to Carson, placing another pen with it, just in case.

"But I don't need admitting."  Carson picked the board up and held it out.

"Medic insisted when they brought y'all in.  Said you've been lost out in the park and they just pulled both of you from the river an hour ago."  She gently but firmly gave the board a little push back in Carson's direction.

"No, really," Carson gritted her teeth in a fake smile.  "I'm fine."

"Ma'am, I’m just following orders, and after all y'all have been through …"

"Look."  Carson set Kennedy's info aside and scooted forward in the chair, pulling the edges of her shorts legs up a little bit.  "We were only out there for a day and a night, and I stayed well-hydrated the entire time.  Even had a full bottle of sunscreen.  I'm not the one who got shot.  I'm hungry and I've got two skinned knees," she indicated her legs.  "If I can get a cheeseburger and a couple of band-aids, I'll be fine.  What I need …" she blew a puff of air upward in frustration, riffling her bangs.  "What I need, is to go be with Kennedy.  I know she's hurting.  If I can just be with her …"

"The medics said her parents are on their way. I’m sure one of them can sit with her while we take a look at you."  She wasn't smiling this time, her brown eyes gazing steadily at Carson in a stubborn stand-off.

Equally stubborn gray ones flashed in anger and Carson stood, placing her hands on her hips.  "I am not going to just sit in here while my partner is in there alone and maybe scared.  She's been shot for crying out loud.  If I need to talk to those medics, tell me where to find them," she glanced at the woman's name badge, "Myra.  It'll take her parents an hour to get here, anyway.  Please."

Myra sighed in defeat.  "Hold on."  She disappeared, and Carson hastily finished filling out Kennedy's information.  She sat forward, her weight partially braced on her hands on each side of her body, her entire stance one of intensely stressed unhappiness.  After a long few minutes, Myra reappeared with a blood pressure cuff and a stethoscope.

"They already did that to me once in the helicopter."  Carson crossed her arms and sat back.

"Humor me, and after that I'll take you to see your … partner."  The Hispanic nurse stood rooted in place, waiting for her decision.

Carson blinked.  Had she used that term?  She ran their conversation through their mind and blinked again.  She had.  Hmmm.  "Okay."  She looked up meekly and held out her arm.  She hated blood pressure cuffs almost as much as she hated needles.  It was over quickly enough, and she relaxed, waiting quietly while Myra made some notes on her otherwise blank chart.

"Hang on another minute."  The nurse fished two large band-aids out of her pocket, along with a sterile alcohol pad packet, which she ripped open as she knelt down.  She made quick work of Carson's knees, watching as Carson flinched slightly as the alcohol stung her tender skin.  After an application of antiseptic cream, followed by the bandages, Myra gave her a little pat on her calf and stood.  "Come on.  Your blood pressure is on the low side of normal, and you're too darned feisty to be in too bad of shape.  But this is a rain check. Once your partner is settled in a room, it's your turn, got me?"

Carson started to protest but her jaws snapped close with a click as the nurse shook a warning finger at her.  "Oh, okay."  She stood and followed her out of the waiting room into the hallway.  A security guard approached them and held out a white paper bag.

"This what you ordered?"  He handed the bag to Myra, who promptly handed it to Carson.

"Ask her," she nodded her head in Carson's direction.

Carson frowned and took the bag, which bore a bright Sonic logo.  She peeked inside to find a … "Cheeseburger.  And curly fries."  She dug further.  "And a vanilla shake."  She reddened a little in embarrassment at her earlier outburst.  "Thank you.  How much do I owe?"  She started to fish out her wallet, only to feel Myra's hand on her arm.

"It'll be on your bill."  She gave Carson's sleeve a tug.  "Come on.  I think I can find you a clean pair of scrubs to replace that shirt.  I know the ripped look is in nowadays, but I don't think that's exactly what the fashion magazines have in mind.

In short order she was standing dressed in pale blue scrubs, with her nose pressed to the glass window of the emergency room. She sucked anxiously at the straw in the thick shake, in between bites of the best cheeseburger she'd ever eaten.  She felt a little guilty, given Kennedy was currently lying stomach down while three unidentified medical personnel hovered over her.  Carson fervently hoped the one poking at her lover's shoulder with an evil-looking metal instrument was a doctor.

She winced in sympathy, as she noticed that while Kennedy lay almost perfectly still, one nervous big toe was working away, wiggling in what she assumed was pain.  "Hold on, honey," she whispered, fogging the glass.  "Well, that was stupid."  She reached up, clearing the space so she could see again.  She finished off the burger and began tackling the fries, when Nurse Myra wandered by, depositing a bottle of Gatorade on the floor at her feet.

"When you finish the fries, finish that, please."  She forced a frown, trying to mask the smile that twitched at her lips.  "I figured you for the blue frost flavor, was I right?"

"Yeah."  Carson nudged the bottle with the toe of her hiking boot.  "I'm a bit partial to blue.  Thanks."

"Uh-huh."  The nurse shook her head in bemusement and moved on.

Carson turned her attention back to the window and the patient on the other side, noting they appeared to be sewing her shoulder back up.  "Hope they numbed that up for you."  She thought about that and decided the wiggling toe might also mean anxiety, rather than pain.  The woman sewing up the shoulder moved down to her leg, while another woman moved in and appeared to be placing a large padded bandage over the shoulder wound.

All three medical types moved in and flipped Kennedy, and one of them started an IV while the one at her leg worked on the other wound.  Finally, after an eternity, the woman who seemed to be in charge came out into the hallway, just as Kennedy's parents came rushing around the corner from the direction of the entrance.

"How is she?"  Joseph led Aileen by the hand.

The doctor looked from Carson to Kennedy's parents, and back, tugging her gloves off as she began to speak.  "Who removed the bullet?"

"I did," Carson answered timidly.  Had she done something wrong?  Maybe she'd made it worse.  She swayed nervously from foot to foot, waiting.

"Good job.  I'm Dr. Williams."  She shook hands with all three of them in turn.  "Couldn't have done better myself.  She has just a touch of infection in the wound, but a round of antibiotics should take care of that.  Her main problem is dehydration and weakness from blood loss, although she didn't need a transfusion.  We started an IV to get some fluids in her, and she can go ahead and eat pretty much whatever she wants to."

"Thank goodness."  Some color returned to Aileen's worried features, and she hugged Joseph in reflex.

"I'm going to check her into a regular room, and if she behaves, she might get out as early as this evening, tomorrow morning at the latest."  The doctor gazed squarely at Carson.  "I understand we need to give you the once-over next."

"You go ahead and check me into the same room."  Carson felt suddenly compliant.  "Then you can examine me.  Deal?"

"Deal."  Dr. Williams moved on to talk to Aileen and Joseph, as a smirking Nurse Myra magically appeared, just as Kennedy was wheeled out of the room on a rolling stretcher.

"Mama. Pa?"  She saw her parents first, then grinned broadly as a very familiar face peered at her from close range.  "Sweetheart."  The toe was still wiggling away under the light sheet that covered her, and she smiled sheepishly as Carson gave it a tug.

"Toe's gonna fall off if you don't stop."  She leaned over and brushed her lips across Kennedy's forehead, oblivious to any onlookers.  "Come on.  I’m gonna be your roommate for a while."

"How's my baby girl?"  Aileen stood over her on the other side, with Joseph peering over her shoulder.

"Gonna be just fine, Mama.  I'm feeling pretty good right now."  Her eyes were slightly glazed, and her voice was giddy, and Aileen laughed knowingly.

"And you're on some heavy-duty painkillers."  She reached out, stroking her daughter's head, arranging her errant bangs.

"That would be correct."  Dr. Williams made a quick adjustment to the IV line, and stepped back.  "Get them settled, and I'll be by in a little while."

"Thank  you." Joseph shook her hand again, and then they all followed Myra and Kennedy's rolling transport toward a set of double doors leading to the small hospital's only wing of rooms.


The room was mostly quiet, save the light hum of the monitoring equipment Kennedy was hooked up to, and the soft luffing sound of the curtains that hung over the air conditioning vent, which was just under the window.  Carson sat propped up in the bed nearest the window, idly watching the day go by outside.  It was clear and sunny, and it would have been a perfect weather for hiking.  She sighed heavily, and glanced back over at Kennedy, who was fast asleep.

Her face was relaxed, and her chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly as she breathed.  An oxygen line ran to her nostrils, and they had loosely tied down the arm the IV was hooked into, to prevent her pulling it loose in her sleep.  Her free arm lay next to her body on top of the sheet, her palm up and open toward the ceiling.  In addition to a narcotic painkiller, they'd also given her a sleep aid, mixed in with the fluids in the IV bag.

Carson swung her legs over the side of the bed, padding across the floor in her sock-covered feet, stopping as she placed both hands on the edge of Kennedy's bed.  She'd endured her own round of poking and prodding and had been declared well, but in need of rest.  She'd gotten a bath, and had already napped for two hours, having assured Kennedy's parents they would be fine left alone for a while.  They had acquiesced, and gone to the park headquarters to fill out paperwork to get the records Kennedy would need to make an insurance claim on the 4Runner.  It was something practical and helpful for them to do, to keep them busy until their daughter woke up.

She looked up at the IV bag and snorted softly. Kennedy kept her system so pure, she could only imagine the happy dance her lover's corpuscles must be doing.  "They could've given you a couple of Advil and gotten the same result," she whispered.  She reached out, touching Kennedy's open palm with her fingertips.  The large tan hand automatically closed around them, and a little smile tugged at Kennedy's lips as she continued to sleep.  "That's it.  You have some sweet dreams, honey."

Kennedy's hand twitched again, holding onto Carson even more firmly.  She murmured a little and continued to smile, as she drew Carson's hand up to her chest.  "You awake?"  Carson held her breath, but got no response.  "Didn't think so."  She smiled herself, feeling Kennedy's strong heartbeat against her hand.  Her eyes blurred, and she blinked, clear salty tears trailing down her cheeks.  "I was so afraid when you started talking about dying last night."

She swallowed.  "I … I didn't think you really meant it.  You're too much of a fighter, but it scared me anyway.  I knew you must've been in a lot of pain to talk like that.  And that was so frustrating, because I couldn't make it better.  I felt so helpless."  She sniffled, and closed her eyes.  "I … I couldn't do much of anything."

"Are you kidding me?" a hoarse voice rasped, the vibration shooting through Carson's hand against Kennedy's chest.  Gray eyes flew open to see sleepy blue ones blinking up at her.

"You're awake."  Carson patted her gently on the hip with her other hand.  "How long?"

"Long enough."  She coughed and her nose twitched at the annoying apparatus wrapped around her septum.  "You did everything … everything, for me.  I'd be dead if not for you."

"No way."  Carson sniffled again and swiped her hand across her eyes.  "Please don't make me think about that, okay?" she whispered, touching Kennedy's face.

In her drug-induced fog, she saw the lingering fear in Carson's eyes, and squeezed her hand, still holding it against her chest.  "Can I take this thing out?"  She wrinkled her nose, trying to expel the oxygen feed. "I'm pretty sure I can breathe just fine without it."

"Doctor should be back around in a while, I'd imagine.  Maybe you should wait."  A petulant face scowled at her, and she reached higher, smoothing a frown from her lover's forehead.  "How do you feel?"

"Like something's shoved up my nose," she groused.  "Otherwise, I feel like I got shot twice.  But I'd feel a lot better if they'd let me go home and sleep in my own bed."

"They said they might let you out tonight if you behave."  Carson smiled as the scowl disappeared.

"I can be good."  Gaining a small measure of clarity, she looked around, and spied the few leftover bites of Sonic burger sitting on a plate on the nightstand.  "Hey."  She released Carson's hand and grabbed for the burger, dragging it over and onto the bed next to her.  "I'm starving."  She picked up the treat, her eyes gleaming in anticipation as she drew it toward her mouth.

"Hey!"  Carson intercepted her, covering her mouth.  "That's red meat."

"Donff crurf."  Dark brows frowned and she licked Carson's palm, grinning as the hand was removed in reflex.  "Now, where was I?"

"Honey, no!"  Carson took the burger away, as Kennedy's teeth clicked together.

"But I'm hungry," she blinked up fetchingly.  "Just a little bite, please?"

"And be wearing this burger a few minutes later?"  Carson moved it out of reach.  "Oh, no.  You've not eaten solid food in over 24 hours, you just got over a migraine, your system is full of happy pills, and you haven't eaten meat in how long?"

"Five years," Kennedy mumbled under her breath.

"Honey, if you want to venture back into the land of carnivores, I'll welcome you with open arms, but let's start with something a little more simple, like chicken breast."  She rested a hand on Kennedy's stomach.  "Your tummy wouldn't know what to do with a cheeseburger right now, I'd wager.  Besides, it's cold."

"Breast sounds good."  She eyed Carson's chest with a cheeky grin, admiring the warm blush that crept up her neck and across her cheeks.  "Gotcha," she took Carson's hand and kissed it softly.

"Are you sure you're in pain?"  A pleasant chill ran up her spine as Kennedy's warm breath lingered on her skin.  "'Cause you're not acting like a woman who's hurt."

"Pain's pretty tolerable right now.  Shoulder's achy.  And the leg.  But the sharp shooting parts are gone.  My head is fuzzy enough I figure they gave me something for it.  Am I right?"  Her head tilted back as she spotted the IV bag hanging behind her.  "Ah.  Yep."  A thought occurred to her and her head rolled back forward.  "Did I need any blood?"

"Nope."  She saw the relief in the blue eyes.  "But yeah, they gave you some pretty good drugs.  You slept for almost three hours."

"Really?"  She studied the light outside.  "Dinner time?"  She smiled hopefully as she looked back up.

"Hold on, and let me go see what I can get for you, alright?"  Carson slipped off the bed, and felt a tug at her scrubs hem.  "Yes?"  She stopped, leaning against the mattress top on one hand.

Kennedy trailed on finger up and down the hand in question.  "No jell-o."

"Okay."  Carson smiled.  "Any other requests?"

"No cream of wheat and no broth."  She thought for a minute.  "No nasty fruit drinks."

"Wow, you've got your hospital staples down."  Carson captured the wandering finger.  "You spent much time in this place?"

"I was on the rodeo team in high school, remember?"  She smiled.  "You've seen a few of the scars."

"I've seen all of the scars," she corrected her, with a wink.  "Okay.  Let me see what I can find you in the way of real food."  She slipped out into the hallway, spotting Nurse Myra.  "Hi."  She approached her with a bit of trepidation.  "You've already done so much for us, but …"

"What do you need, sugar?"  Myra tucked a pen behind her ear and lowered a clipboard, giving Carson her full attention.

"She's hungry."  She gestured toward the door to their room.  "She can have regular food, right?"

"Right."  Myra smiled smugly.  "Let me guess, she doesn't want hospital food."

"Worse," Carson leaned in closer.

"Worse?" Two black brows knit together in confusion.

"She's a vegetarian."  Carson nibbled her lower lip.

"Oh."  Myra scrunched her face up in thought.  "There's that one little granola-looking place down on Main Street.  Let me see what I can do, and I'll get back with you in thirty, okay?"

"Thank you."  Carson turned, and spotted Ranger Smothers headed her way.  She hadn't yet met the ranger, but easily recognized the uniform.  "Trouble," she murmured.

"Not on my watch," Myra gently pushed past her.  "Keena, give 'em until tomorrow, for crying out loud."

"Look, I'm up to my eyeballs in paperwork here."  The blonde ranger tilted her hat back.  "I've got fire reports, abandoned vehicle reports, property damage reports, two full shifts of overtime papers to fill out, oh, and let's not forget two separate crime scenes and the county sheriff breathing down my neck over three dead bodies."  She saw Carson's eyes grow wide.  "Whoops."

"Way to go, hon."  Myra lightly slugged her on the arm.

"I am so tired."  Keena covered her face with her hands for a moment.

"Yeah, and you need a bath too," Myra added helpfully.  "Why don't you go home, shower, take a nap, change your uniform, and come back in a few hours after these ladies have had a chance to rest a little while longer."

"You're right," Keena's shoulders hitched back and she stood up taller.  "Ma'am, will you and your partner be up for answering a few questions later?"

"Not sure," Carson met her with a steady gaze.  "If you want clear answers, you might want to wait until tomorrow.  She's higher than a kite right now, and starving.  Not a good combination."

"You still be in town all day tomorrow?"  Keena searched through a folder.  "I've got her folks' address down the road in Alpine."

"Um … yeah.  Here."  Carson pulled out her cell phone.  "Give me your number and I'll plug it into my phone, and call you in the morning."

"Good luck getting that to work in these parts," Keena chuckled.

"Yeah, I know, but I'll just store the number here and use the Nocona's phone to call you."  She paused, waiting, as Keena gave her the number.

"You sure you're not headed out of town until after tomorrow?"  She closed the folder.

"We're not even sure how we're going to get back to Austin just yet."  She frowned.  "Probably the Midland airport."

"Oh, yeah.  I forgot."  Keena grimaced in sympathy.  "Sorry about the 4Runner.  That's a shame."

"What's wrong with my truck?" a raspy voice called through the slightly open door.

"Oh.  Damn."  Carson winced.  "Her hearing is way too good."

"I need to go get her some food," Myra piped up.

"And I'll go get that shower, Keena added, as both women chose that moment to make themselves scarce.

"Chickens." Carson watched them disappear with lightening speed.  She turned and placed a hand against the door to push it open, and paused.  "Three dead bodies?"  She shivered.  "What the hell?"


Continued in Chapter 9

Return to the Academy