Today's Reading

The hiking trail was quiet, save for the birdcalls and the swish of needles in the frosted pines. Von relished the opportunity to get away from the yammering visitors at the wilderness camp. They were paying clients of Mountain Dog Wilderness Guides, his cohorts reminded him, but all they wanted to do was bend his ear about his military experience. He shut down that line of questioning as politely as he could manage, which wasn't very polite at all. Today they were all jazzed up about the earthquake. It hardly rated a blip on the weird-o-meter in his view.

He pulled an energy drink from his backpack. Bear gave him that look. How did the dog know the doctor had told him to ditch the drinks? Bear had the audacity to whiffle out a judgmental breath.

Von fingered the pull tab. "You're not my mother." 

Bear stared.

"I am a grown adult and I've cut back, haven't I? Some law against me having one now and then? I need the caffeine." Precisely what his doctor said he should curtail, but his fatigue, mental fuzz and lack of spunk were incomprehensible, and if a neon concoction of sugar and chemicals would help, so be it. A crutch, pure and simple, but he didn't know what else to do. He'd give it another fifteen minutes, he decided, and if the bracing air didn't wake him up, he was downing the energy drink, dog or no dog.

Bear barked, his attention now caught by a silver-tailed squirrel that appeared on a low branch, chittering its annoyance. Bear looked from Von to the squirrel, as if to say, "Easy jump. I can get him."

"He's living his best life so leave him in peace."

The Malinois cocked his muzzle and stared. Too many confusing words in Von's communique. "Leave it," he said simply. If dogs could give dirty looks, Von would have been drilled.

So many things had been confusing to his furry partner since Von's injury caused their exit from the air force three months before on the cusp of Von's thirty-seventh birthday. Hanging up his Grey Beret would have killed him if he thought it was permanent. Joining up with Tate and Camy at the Mountain Dog Wilderness Guides camp was another odd and painful adjustment, at least for Von. Leading extreme wilderness tours, survival classes and corporate camps was a massive career shift neither of them had gotten used to. He felt like an entertainer, a glorified tour guide.

All those wannabe outdoorsmen, like the Driscoll family and their two employees currently in camp, the camp Von's brother had founded. Memories of Ronnie made Von's stomach churn. The fresh pain of it hacked through him like a cleaver. Daily reminders of his brother made him think he'd made a huge mistake stepping into Ronnie's job. Temporary assignment, he reminded himself. With a sigh, he stowed the energy drink in his pack, pushed aside the battered book about rare seeds he'd intended to pore over and hunkered down on the trail next to Bear. "I know you didn't ask for this, either." Bear hadn't physically needed to retire from special forces with Von, since he was a healthy six-year-old protection dog, but there was one problem the dog could not overcome. Bear could swim out to sea far past sight of the horizon, remain calm while parachuting from a helicopter, but he simply could not adjust to losing his "dad" Von. The air force had tried to reassign their valuable canine asset, but some emotions went deeper than training.

"You picked the wrong guy to be your dad," he muttered. If his broken engagement with Stella had taught him anything, it was that Von Sharpe wasn't family material.

The squirrel wisely moved on. Bear's ears pricked and he trotted away, up the boulder-strewn hiking trail they'd tackled for their morning escape. From there, Bear would have an excellent vantage point. Von chuckled. You could take the dog out of the service, but you couldn't take the service out of the dog.

A lone flake of snow drifted onto Von's beard. Soon, the whole Yosemite region would be blanketed with white from the glorious El Capitan in Yosemite National Park to the surrounding valleys and pristine meadows. Snow excursions wouldn't be a problem for Bear. Von might require some support for his stiff knee, which Uncle Sam wanted to label a permanent disability.

Not permanent.

Bear's ears arrowed up and his back went rigid. Von stared. Bear's hearing was four times better than Von's. Was he sensing another quake? The uptight campers would be all in a twitter about that.

When his own subpar human ears picked up engine noise a moment later, he blinked in disbelief. A car? Driving along what was clearly a hiking trail? Sure, it joined up with the main road in another mile but there was no legit reason a vehicle should be encroaching on a byway meant for hikers.

Anger warmed his belly. He stood next to Bear, glaring down at the turn where the vehicle would soon become visible. Too fast, he thought. The driver was not only taking the wrong road, but he or she was also doing it at a ludicrous rate of speed. He pulled out his binoculars. Cloud Top, the nearest town, twenty miles away from the MDWG campground, had only a tiny police station manned by volunteers when the one assigned sheriff was in another part of the county, but Von would be sure that this license number was provided to the station anyway. Hand delivered if necessary.

A windshield reflected the sun, blinding him. It was attached to an older model white van with a tree logo painted on the side. The vehicle bumped and bounced over the dips in the trail. The driver was pedal to the metal. Likely some reckless kids out for a joyride.

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