“The question’s going to have to wait, since we’re losing valuable daylight.”
His slight smirk said he recognized a diversion tactic when he saw one, but he let her have it.
They had two hours left, she figured. She set the pace, and they walked in silence-which didn’t mean she couldn’t feel the weight of his thoughts, because she could. But he kept them to himself. It shouldn’t have made her like him even more, but it did.
An hour later, they cleared a ridge and came to a stop while Harley consulted her maps and GPS. “There,” she said, pointing to the next ridge over. “That’s where the first camera is.”
“Where did you plan on staying tonight?”
“There, or as close as we can get to it before dark.”
From where they stood at the cliff, they were overlooking a wide meadow, which was abundant with plant and small animal life that her coyotes depended on for food. Some large elk were grazing, their impressive antlers glinting in the waning light. It would take an entire family of coyotes to bring down one of those beauties. “I’m hoping to get a visual on some of the tagged coyotes,” she said, “if they show themselves. According to their trackers, most of the red group is in this area. There’s six in their pack and-” She paused. “Listen,” she said as the telltale buzzing of flies sank in, along with a sudden dread.
Stomach dropping, she followed the sound to a cluster of trees. At the base of one was a large burrowed hole in the ground, reinforced with a fallen log. A coyote den. Lying just inside was a far too still ball of fur. With an involuntary gasp, Harley crawled closer. “Oh, no.”
TJ dropped to his knees beside her and leaned in to look at the coyote. His expression was grim when he sat back on his heels.
“Dead,” she murmured.
“Not just dead.” He looked at her, jaw tight. “Shot.”
Her stomach dropped, but she brushed past TJ to look for herself, and felt her heart squeeze when she caught sight of the tag. Red. The coyote had been one of theirs. Throat burning, Harley consulted her GPS and her maps, and shook her head. “She was right where she should have been. She just got in some ass**le’s way.”
TJ covered the mouth of the den with large rocks, making it a grave so that other animals couldn’t get to it, but also marking the spot so that Harley could lead the authorities up there if she had to.
TJ called it in to the forest service, and then Harley worked on pulling herself together with sheer will as they hiked to the next ridge.
It was a challenging hike, and got more challenging as they climbed. The air was thin, and they were surrounded by peaks that had been formed more than 30,000 years ago beneath ice sheets and snowfields. Back then, the ice had piled more than 5,000 feet deep in places, and as it’d retreated, the meltwater had forced glacial troughs, forming the harsh peaks and outcroppings, creating a rugged, isolated, unfriendly land.
But wildlife tended to thrive there. Especially coyotes-at least when no one was shooting at them. Proving it, Harley watched as a group of them moved as one through the meadow far below, bounding through the tall grass calling and yipping to each other.
She pulled out her camera and lost herself for long moments, taking pictures with her wide lens. The moist air rode out on southeasterly winds. Clouds were still sifting trough the trees like wood smoke. The weak sun hung as low as possible in the sky, seeming to perch precariously at the horizon line for a beat, then sank down in a blaze of glory. After that…utter darkness.
In that darkness, the air was heavy with humidity from the storm and fragrant with late autumn wildflowers and pine. It was gorgeous, and Harley felt a rush of excitement and adrenaline from all of it, the moon-streaked landscape, the wildlife’s natural music.
“What now?” TJ asked when she’d put her camera away.
“Make camp.” Which was really his expertise, not hers. She felt a little nervous pulling it off in front of his watchful eyes, but he’d let her lead all day long, and didn’t seem in any hurry to take over.
She knew that was out of deference to her, that he wanted this to be her gig as much as she wanted it for herself. She appreciated it, more than he could know. Being out there, being in control and in charge, had fueled her soul in a way she hadn’t expected.
Even with the unexpected emotional trip down Memory Lane, and finding the dead coyote.
Standing in the clearing where she’d planned on staying the night, TJ shook his head, pointing to signs of a recent campfire. She stared at it, wondering if whoever had shot that coyote had camped there.
Beneath the ambient moonlight, he took her hand. “Not here.”
“A little higher?”
“Definitely.” He squeezed her hand. “I’d like our backs up against the mountain and a good view in front of us.”
She nodded, and for the first time all day, let him lead, which he did with expected efficiency, using his Maglite. He moved them along as fast as they could go in the dark, and in less than ten minutes, he’d found a better spot. It was higher and, as he’d wanted, had the added advantage of them being able to keep their backs to the wall.
As they stood at the new spot, Harley realized for the first time that they were going to spend the night.
Her body gave one traitorous little quiver of excitement, which her brain worked hard to shut down, though it wasn’t entirely successful.
It’s not like the last time you spent the night with him, she told herself. For one thing, this time, you’ll be fully dressed.