The metallic odor of blood mingled with the thick dust and acrid smoke from the explosives. The muffled sound of crying slithered through the noise of the bombs and the cracking timbers of the roof.
As the building collapsed around him, Zach Shannon dug through the rubble with his one good arm. He had to find the source of the sobbing. Someone was alive. It didn't matter if it was the enemy. It sounded like a child. He couldn't leave it to die.
With a strength born of pure adrenaline, he shoved a rough wooden table out of the way, and saw the girl, covered in debris, but mostly protected by the heavy furniture. Habiba. He'd met her a half hour earlier when he entered the house. She was maybe two, with a ready smile and huge dark eyes. Blood and tears streaked her face and clothes. Her mother lay beside her, dead. The woman's neck was bent at an impossible angle, and her dark eyes stared blindly, but the girl was alive. Zach could get her out, if the damn bombers gave him time.
Friendly fire. Yeah, right.
He tossed aside more scraps of broken plaster and eased the child out of her mother's arms, cradling her against his chest. He'd come here to talk to the father, had heard he was willing to sell some information about the dissident group who'd been targeting the American supply convoys. He'd feared that the dissidents would bring the wrath of the American military down on the small village and had hoped to protect it. Ironically, the bombing had begun just as the man had begun to speak. Now, he was dead, along with his wife, and damn near along with Zach and the little girl.
Zach was badly bruised and battered, but his legs still worked. His left shoulder was dislocated, so he carried the girl awkwardly in his right arm, whispering soothing nonsense to try to calm her. She still cried, but at least, she didn't fight him, just wrapped chubby arms around his neck and hung on. He made it to the door, or what was left of it. If he could get to his extraction rendezvous point, he knew his team would see that she got to a hospital. Then he could pass out, after the doc popped his shoulder back into its socket. Keeping the thought of clean sheets and good painkillers in his mind, he carried Habiba through the ruined streets of her village, hoping she didn't see all the c*****e as they passed.
He almost made it. Just before he reached the jeep he had stashed, the planes began another sweep. Light flashed in front of his eyes, blinding him at the same time as he was deafened by the blast. He felt himself falling and did his best to protect the child within the curve of his own body.
When Zach woke, the world had gone eerily silent. Slivers of sunlight filtered through gaps in the rubble that covered him. In a heartbeat, he remembered where he was, understood that the small form cradled in his arms was the child he'd been trying to save. She, too, was silent and far too still. Frantically, Zach used his one good arm to dig them out of the debris, then looked down at the limp form beside him. Her big, dark eyes stared blankly, and his shirt was soaked with her blood.
"Noooo!" Forgetting the dangers of drawing attention to himself, since there were already scavengers picking through the ruins, he screamed. Because of the damage to his hearing, even his own scream was silent to his ears. "Noooo!"
Zach's own screams woke him, as they usually did.
They weren't silent in the real world.
It was just a dream.
He repeated that mantra over and over as he untangled himself from the sweat-drenched sheets. Once his eyes adjusted to the faint moonlight filtering through the window, he remembered where he was - his childhood bedroom, back home on the family ranch in Hawthorne, Texas. Every item around the room was part of Zachariah Hawthorne Shannon's past - the model airplanes, the collection of Hardy Boys novels, even a couple trophies from regional and state baseball tournaments. The memories grounded him, comforted him as he fought to bring his heartbeat and breathing under control.
Only a nightmare.
Except most of it had been real. He could still see the blood, smell the smoke and hear the bombs.
But the little girl survived.
That was the part of the dream that didn't make any sense. He hadn't failed. Little Habiba had made it, with only minor injuries to show for her ordeal. He'd seen her once before he'd been shipped out of the field hospital. One of his men had smuggled her and her aunt into his room to say thanks. The aunt was taking Habiba home with her, to a village farther away from the fighting, where she'd be safe.
Zach had spent over twenty years serving his country. He knew he'd saved countless lives, and he'd seen far too many deaths. So why were his dreams haunted by a girl who'd survived? What was it about that last action, the one the military brass had swept under the rug as they'd processed his retirement?
None of it made any sense. He'd hoped that being home would put the demons to rest, but apparently, that wasn't going to happen. He was glad his parents' room was in a separate wing, and none of his siblings still lived at home. Nobody would have heard him screaming like a baby.
Think about something else. Zach made his way into the adjacent bathroom he'd once shared with his brother Quinn, who now lived in the old foreman's house, a mile or so away. Quinn had taken over operations of the business when their grandfather Hawthorne had died, and one thing Zach knew was that Quinn was the one who belonged here on the ranch, tending cattle and managing the herd. Which left Zach wondering what there was for a washed-up soldier to do, now that he was home.
After he drank a glass of water, the shaking subsided and he stepped into a cool shower to wash the sweat from his skin. After he was dry, he found a set of clean sheets and remade his bed. Then, pulling on a pair of sweatpants, he made his way downstairs. He wasn't ready to go back to sleep yet. He didn't want to take any of the pills the docs had left him with, but a beer sounded like a damn fine idea.
He'd been home almost twelve hours - but would the ranch house ever feel like home again? A light burning in the den told him he wasn't the only one up. He crept to the door and saw his dad seated in his favorite recliner, wearing a bathrobe with a glass of watered-down bourbon in his hand.
"Everything all right, son?" Walt Shannon gestured to the chair next to his and held out the bourbon bottle.
"Yeah, Dad. Just getting used to the time change, I guess." Zach took the bottle and helped himself to a glass and some ice from a bucket on the bar, then sank into the chair.
"Pull the other one." Walt sipped at his drink. "Believe me, I remember coming home from Nam, and I hadn't been in for twenty years. Civilian life takes some getting used to."
"You given any thought on what to do next?" Walt didn't pressure, just asked the question idly. "Seems to me you're not going to tolerate just sitting around for very long."
His father knew him well. Zach smiled. "Guess I need to come up with something to do. Quinn's got things covered here on the ranch." Zach had never held a civilian job; he didn't even know where to start.
"I could use another deputy." Walt had been the sheriff of Maguire County for as long as Zach could remember.
"Law enforcement?" Zach wasn't sure going back into that kind of field was the best way to make the nightmares go away. He also had some doubts about the wisdom of working for his father. Back before he'd left for the military, things had been tense between them, though they loved each other deeply.
"Think about it," his dad said. "Seems to me it would be a good fit for you."
"I will." Zach took a swallow of the bourbon and swirled the smoky taste around on his tongue. Nothing like the flavor of high-end corn whiskey to remind a man he was home.
After a long, comfortable silence, he said, "Dad - I'm sorry it took me six years to come home again." The last time he'd come to Texas for a visit, his youngest sister Una had decided to drive home from college in Austin to see the returning prodigal. She'd been killed in a crash with a tanker truck. Every time Zach had the chance for leave since then, he'd come up with some excuse not to come home.
Walt's lips set in a grim line. "I understand. Go easy on your mother, though. For a long time, she's felt like she lost two children that day. She's liable to be a bit on the clingy side now that you're back."
"A little?" The two men shared a companionable laugh at the understatement.