Chapter 1

1288 Words
Chapter One For the third time that morning, Cash Aiken’s hands began to shake, and not from the bitter cold. He scanned the hills, barren but for a scattering of trees, looking for any signs of movement, then shook off the feeling of dread constricting his breathing. This wasn’t Afghanistan. He was in the Flint Hills, where the buffalo roamed and the deer and the antelope played and all that jazz. Freezing his a*s off on a six-hundred-fifty-mile trek along the Santa Fe trail. In January. On a newly gentled mustang he’d only met and learned to ride a month ago. Happy f*****g New Year. Travis Kincaid, the reason he was on this crazy trek, trotted up beside him. “We’re gonna stop on the other side of this rise for lunch. You okay with that?” Keeping his eyes glued on the horizon, Cash nodded once. Travis spurred his horse ahead and called out over his shoulder. “Only another twenty minutes. We can do it.” Cash shuddered and inhaled deeply, searching for calm. It was only a sense of loyalty to Travis and the slain members of his unit that kept his a*s in the saddle. He’d made promises and to date, he’d done a piss poor job of keeping them. But Travis was the kind of leader you followed into the brink. The kind of man who kept everyone focused on the mission and getting everyone out safely, even when that mission went FUBAR. An icy blast of wind pummeled him and he flinched as a tree branch snapped in the distance, clattering to the ground. Cash lifted his gaze to Sterling Walker, who rode maybe a dozen yards ahead. The guy seemed perfectly at ease on a horse. At peace with his surroundings. Why the f**k couldn’t he be like that? What kind of a man had he turned into, that he jumped at the slightest noise? He spurred his mount, Samson, into a trot and moved to catch up with Sterling. The irony that the weakest link had been assigned the strongest horse, wasn’t lost on him. How the mighty fall. Sterling gazed at him steadily as he pulled alongside. “You okay, man? You look a little green around the gills.” “It’ll pass,” Cash answered gruffly. “Always does.” With the help of medication. But he didn’t know Sterling well enough to admit that. And it didn’t matter anyway since Travis had trashed his stash of pills before bringing him to Resolution Ranch. Company helped. Gave him something to focus on besides the rising panic. “You should take a walk when we break for lunch,” Sterling suggested. “Work your muscles differently so you’re not as sore in the morning.” “Thanks.” Cash scrubbed a hand over his beard, nodding. He hadn’t shaved since… his little problem with loud noises had nearly cost a pretty lady her life. He shuddered, pushing the memory back down into the dark recesses of his mind. That part of his life was over. He’d washed out. No security or black-ops team would ever look at him again. Not after what happened last summer. The best he could hope for was to piece himself back together with a wing and a prayer. And the occasional shot of whiskey until such time as he found his mojo. God help him, he had to find it. He couldn’t go on living like this. A shell of a man. Barely even existing. Relief flooded through him as they pulled to a stop. By the time he’d watered and tended to Samson, his hands started to shake again. Grabbing Samson’s favorite nubby groomer out of his pack, he slipped his hand through the loop and began to work his way down the horse’s body. Lately, it had been the only thing that eased the shaking – placing his focus entirely on Samson. But today, his mind scattered in a thousand directions. None of them good. Forcing his lungs to take in a deep pull of the icy air, Cash tried again for calm. “How’m I gonna do this, buddy?” He murmured to the horse. “It’s only day one.” “Makes BUD/S look easy, doesn’t it?” Of course Travis would materialize out of nowhere. The man gave new meaning to the word stealth. Cash nodded, throat suddenly hot and tight. “I’m not sure I can do this,” he mumbled, threading his fingers through Samson’s mane. Travis clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Eyes up, Cash.” Heat flaming his chest, he met Travis’s sure, steady gaze. The man was unflappable. He’d always been the coolest head on the team. “You can, and you will. I’m not leaving anyone behind. And we’ll go as slow as you need, if that’s what you need.” “But–” Travis raised a hand, shaking his head. “No one’s quitting. We’re in this together. Minute by minute, until the minutes make an hour.” “And the hours make a day,” Cash finished, recalling one of the mantras they’d come up with during BUD/S to keep one another from ringing the bell. “Exactly. No quitting.” Cash squeezed Samson’s dark main. As hard as he squeezed, his chest squeezed harder, cutting off his air. “What if… what if I–” the words stuck in his throat. “What if you what? f**k up? You already did that and you’re still here. Fall apart? Near as I can tell, you were doing that when I found you, a breath away from alcohol poisoning. And you’re still here. So what is it? What’s the big terrifying thing that has you forgetting your training and letting fear have the upper hand?” Anger ripped through him, white hot. “f**k you, asshole.” What did he know about crippling panic attacks or not being able to breathe in a crowd? Travis had retired and jumped right into law enforcement. Travis laughed harshly. “For telling you what you already know? Have it your way. I will tie your sorry a*s to Samson and drag you all the way to Santa Fe if I have to. No. One. Gets. Left. Behind.” “I should,” Cash whispered, hiding his face in Samson’s mane. Travis yanked on his shoulder and spun him around, eyes blazing. “I oughtta punch your lights out for a bullshit comment like that. You think you’re the only one? You think you’re some kind of special unicorn that deserves treatment with kid gloves? f**k that, asshole. Sterling might be more comfortable with his a*s in the saddle than you are, but he’s one of us. Did you take a close look at him? He buried a buddy just a few weeks ago. You’re afraid of falling apart? Of not coming out the other side? You’re the one who decides if you make it. You wanna live? You want another shot at making something of yourself? Then you decide. You get back on that horse, and you ride. And when you get off that horse, you put one foot in front of the other and you keep on walking. The ambush? Doesn’t determine who you are. Your f**k-up with that country star? Doesn’t determine who you are. Only you determine who you are, Cash. Only you.” Travis jammed his hands deep in his Carhartt. “Lunch is ready at the fire. Join us. Or not.” His eyes grew flinty, piercing Cash right to his soul. “You decide. And for the sake of Hamm and Jonas and Simms, I hope you choose right.” Giving him a final look that conveyed so much more than anger, Travis turned and headed for the fire. Cash tossed the groomer to the ground, watching it bounce away from the sack, and stared up at the gray sky, searching for answers to impossible questions among the snowflakes slowly spinning down. It was only lunch on the first day of their journey. How in the hell was he going to make it to Santa Fe?
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