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It was hot as hell. The sirocco had screamed for days, hurling sand everywhere including, uncomfortably, in his boxers. How was that even possible through the stiff fabric of his dress uniform? He’d been up for fifty-one hours on a mission and only through the mercy of God or fate—something well above his paygrade—had the winds stilled long enough for him to get back to base to participate in this mournful send-off.
Remington Cross, who hadn’t been called Remy in over twenty years—only Cross—had less than an hour before he had to turn around and fly out again on another mission that might be his last. Maybe. He didn’t usually prognosticate gloom and doom. Not that anyone would describe him as sunny side up, but since he’d enlisted at eighteen, determined to do something good with his life, he’d operated with the deep-seated belief that failure was never an option.
Twenty years he’d served. Fifteen of them in special forces. Twelve of them—off and on—with Jace McBride. And now what? The man who’d convinced him to put in his papers to retire along with the four others standing grim and silent, was finally going home to Marietta—in a box.
Cross gripped the handle on the side of the coffin. The material of the draped flag brushed his fingers, soft and vibrant in a world with so many hard beige edges. He kept his mind blank—Jace had taught him how to do that—fall back on training; don’t think, just do; follow orders; complete the mission, no matter how many obstacles loom. He waited for the command of their new team leader—Wolf Conte, who made up their sixth. When it came, he lifted the precious cargo in time with his brothers. Shoulders back, spine ranch-fence-post rigid, face as stoic as theirs, the six men carried their former team leader, the man who had held them together through hell, into the cargo plane’s belly.
This was not the first time he had carried the flag-draped coffin of a comrade to the hungry mouth of a homeward-bound plane. But it was the hardest.
Jace had been a much better man than Cross could ever be. And when Cross had been delayed on his last mission—his fault—Jace, though he was due to return home to his family in a couple weeks and off active rotation, took Cross’s place.
I should be in the box.
The guilt clawed through him, burning his esophagus and blasting his skin more viciously than any sirocco. Jace had a family waiting for him. A failing ranch he intended to save. Dreams.
Cross had no one and nothing.
As five of them watched Jace’s coffin be secured, Rohan Telford ducked back into the hangar and then returned holding a small cooler.
“Jace would have done it for us,” he said soberly, cracking open the cooler and pulling out Jace’s favorite beer.
“Damn, cowboy, lost my best friend and now you’re going to make us drink Moose Drool.” Otis Miller always tried to keep things light when they rarely were. “I hate you.”
Rohan handed out the beer one bottle at a time. There was one six-pack and, judging by the waft of cool mist that escaped, Rohan had used dry ice.
“I don’t even want to think about who you had to screw to get that here,” Cross said, feeling the rare need to say something—anything—because Jace had been a friend as much as a commanding officer and the only one he’d allowed in after a mission went sideways.
Cross had resisted the intrusion, embarrassed that Jace—a man he admired—thought it necessary. He could carry his own baggage and not bitch. But he hadn’t taken Jace’s ‘head checks’ personally. Jace had worried about each of his men.
“Got these for Jace,” Rohan said his voice tight with the same emotion that all of them were trying to lock down.
In unison they popped off the bottle caps with their thumbs. Cross waited for the words. But no one spoke. No one took a drink. He hated this. Jace was not the first brother he’d lost on the battlefield. He’d stopped counting the men he’d protected, respected and lost. That path led to the abyss. And some days he didn’t know why he still fought, Jace had helped Cross resist falling forever into the shadows.
Would Jace be the last one of his brothers to fall?
Cross looked around the loose ring of men. They must all be thinking the same thing as they eyed each other, trying not to be obvious. Jace would have laughed at their awkwardness—trying to avoid eye contact while they stewed in their snarled silence.
Except Huck Jones. His head was bowed, but not—Cross thought—in prayer even though Huck out of all of them was the most religious. He’d often led the prayers before a mission. Even Cross, who didn’t believe in anything except the men standing here, had dutifully bowed his head and let the beautiful words in Huck’s rich bass roll over him.
He put his hand on Huck’s slumped shoulder and felt the tremble. Regret that he never had the right words washed through him. Jace would have known what to say, how to help Huck let go of something he’d had no control over, but that would haunt him for the rest of his days if he couldn’t find a release valve.
Like you’ve let anything go.
Guilt was a harpy, who flew in, kicked you to the ground, shouted at you to get up even as her talons drove through your flesh pinning you to the hard dirt before she’d eat your dinner. Huck had been with Jace when he’d been hit. Huck was the most skilled with battle injuries, but even he had ultimately been unable to stop the bleeding, though he had helped keep the enemy off the rest of the team until help arrived. Too late.
“Fuck it,” burst out of Ryder Lea’s mouth.
Cross jumped. Not like none of them cursed. They did, but much less than other teams. It was the cowboy code—a holdover from their days growing up ranch in scattered rural towns across the American west. It was one of the things that had led to the team’s nickname—Coyote Cowboys. The moniker had started as an insult, but they’d owned it—even designed a crest that they’d tatted over their hearts.
They’d all been cowboys, who talked about returning to the land, although only Rohan and Jace had had family ranches to return to. Cross didn’t know about Wolf. He was from Texas and shut down questions faster than Cross.
Ryder losing control of his mouth should have broken the tension. But all of them were now so steeped in this blackest of moments, and Jace who’d always guided them back from the brink no longer could.
Hit with a rare need, Cross slightly lifted his bottle as they all watched the conveyer belt roll Jace farther into the cargo hold. “Jace. He led an exemplary life in the light, and we need to honor his memory by staying out of the shadows.”
“Jace.” They all clinked bottles and took a deep swallow.
Damn. That was cold and delicious. And he’d never liked beer.
The plane’s cargo door shut and, as one, they stepped back closer to the hangar so they didn’t get blasted by the engines as the plane taxied toward the runway.
They had only minutes before they too would have to get back to work. The mission hadn’t ended just because a good man, the best man, had fallen.
Cross sipped his beer and watched the plane pause, lined up with the runway. It was a long, long way to Montana with a lot of stops, and though they’d all put in a request for leave to accompany Jace’s body home, they’d all been denied.
Cross wondered what he was going to do now. Montana held nothing for him anymore. He’d only put his papers in to retire because Jace had been pushing him for more than a couple of years. Jace had wanted them to muster out as soon as they all could—within the next year as that’s when they would have the option to resign or re-enlist. Jace had pitched Marietta as if it were the magical land of Oz where they could all be washed clean—pool their resources, buy land, start businesses and build new lives. Jace wanted them all to start over. Together. Find peace. Build families. Craft a life with purpose.
Cross felt a cold, dark shadow waft through him. Without Jace, there was no plan. No ‘together.’
“We can be anyone we want in Montana,” Jace had stated more than once as if it were gospel. But without Jace, the Montana dream was dead.
So now what? Did he try to withdraw his papers or muster out in another two months and a handful of days and go where? Do what? His unit, his brothers—they were all he knew. But did he deserve their trust and respect now? He’d missed his extraction point, and it had taken precious days to ghost out and work his connections to return to base. Two days late. And Jace was gone.
He should be the one in the box—of course his mind returned there. But maybe not. He was seven inches taller than Jace. Broader. Maybe the hits wouldn’t have been lethal for him. But still, it should have been him.
The plane barreled down the runway. Slight lift and then faster acceleration as the runway ran out, wheels up.
As one, they raised their beers—Jace’s favorite brand, favorite flavor though he’d loved them all, and had dreamed of starting a brewery—and why not? He’d certainly tried to brew and distill plenty of beverages both on deployments and on base—secretly, yet not so secret.
Moose Drool. Cross looked at the label. A moose standing upright, skiing.
“He wanted us all to go skiing our first winter out,” Cross remembered, a little surprised to hear himself speak—again. Some kind of record.
“He wanted us to do a lot of things,” Wolf said. “Jace was full of big plans, and they were always in Marietta. He made that tiny town sound like Main Street in Disneyland.”
It was like that in a lot of ways. But Cross hadn’t confided in Jace that as a child he’d lived in Marietta, because then Jace would have wanted to know why he’d left, and Cross did his best to forget his past.
The plane had taken off and was fading into the hazy air and fuzz of heat, looking more like a mirage than a plane carrying precious cargo.
“Jace made going back home sound so easy.” Rohan’s lip curled.
“Don’t you got a ranch to get back to in Marietta?” Otis asked, his freshly shaved angular jaw pale compared to his deeply tanned face.
Rohan, looking unusually kempt—his sandy-blond hair freshly cut and slicked back—said nothing, just wiped his mouth with his forearm, and pocked the bottle. His vivid green gaze never stopped tracking the progress of the plane.
“Maybe we can build a future in Marietta,” Ryder Lea said. His thick dark hair was, for once, combed. “The Montana summers could warm our souls.”
“Yeah and the winters will freeze our balls,” Rohan said.
No one laughed. The silence felt toxic, choking off Cross’s air.
“He made Montana sound like salvation.” Otis stared at the empty, shimmering sky. “Like we’d pool our resources and start a church.”
“We do got Cross,” Ryder said casually. “Churches don’t get taxed.”
“We’d get smited walking into a church. I’m thinking cult.” Wolf Conte laughed grimly.
“Amen.” Cross finished his beer and stared at the bottle, not sure what to do next.
“Jace said something,” Huck finally spoke, his voice a tortured whisper.
The air around them went electric. Huck stared mutely at Wolf.
“Jace had a list,” Wolf said, his voice going leader on them. “Things he needed to do.”
End of Excerpt