She gave an appreciative sigh. “Do you think...it is him?”
“It could be,” he said. He slowly turned the bone.
In his hands, barely discernible thanks to the jagged holes and chew marks, was the partial face of what had once been a man.
The coroner laid the skull down on the black body bag. There was a patch of hair, dark with dried blood and grease, and an ear that hung limp, tethered by only a thin strip of pale skin. “Look at this mark right here,” he said, pointing to a jagged, round wound at the base of the man’s skull. “If this was the entrance of a bullet wound, it would be smooth around the edges, and depending on the angle, there would be a large exit wound.”
“So this wasn’t a homicide?” Casper asked as he leaned in closer to look at the mark on the bone.
“If you look right here,” Hal said, “the margins of the wound are jagged. It’s the type you normally see associated with a high-pressure compression wound, consistent with that of a bite. However, without the rest of the body, it’s hard to say if this wound was the cause of death or was caused antemortem, perimortem or postmortem.”
She looked away. To get through this she had to think of him as just another man. A random being. A victim of the fates. It was nature.
“Are you okay?” Casper asked, putting his hand on the small of her back.
She swallowed a bit of bile that had managed to sneak through her resolve. “I’m fine,” she said, her voice hoarse.
Hal zipped up the bag, hiding the gruesome head from view. “I’ll get this to the medical examiner. Maybe he can tell us a little more, but for now I’m going to rule the cause of death as undetermined. Don’t be surprised if this comes back as being likely due to unintentional injuries. This bite,” he said, motioning toward the bag at his feet, “would have been fatal.” He stood up and wiped off the knees of his pants.
Travis tapped Hal on the shoulder, drawing his attention. “You ready? The pilot is starting to get antsy.”
Hal nodded. “You guys need a ride out?”
Casper took a step toward the copter, but Lex stopped him as she looked over at Travis. The last place she wanted to be was sitting next to her ex-husband in a flying death machine. “Thanks, but we’ll hike out.”
“Are you sure? Alexis, I think you should get back to the station—” Travis started to protest, but stopped as if he had realized, a moment too late, that he no longer had control over her. “Or do whatever. You never listened to me anyway.”
It wasn’t that she hadn’t listened, it was simply that she wasn’t the kind of woman who was ever going to have her actions dictated to her—especially not by someone who had once said that he loved her. “Would you and John let the other rangers know that we have a possible dangerous bear?” She carefully sidestepped his jab. “We’re going to need to send up the biologists and a ranger in the morning to track this bear down. We don’t need any more tourists getting hurt.”
“Maybe you should worry about yourself,” Travis grumbled, glancing over toward Casper.
Casper smiled, the motion so wide that it made her wonder if he had misunderstood Travis’s tone. “Don’t worry about Alexis,” he said, motioning toward her. “She’ll be safe with me.”
Travis gave a tight nod and turned away, muttering unintelligibly under his breath.
Watching him walk away, she was filled with mixed emotions. She thought of the first time she’d met Travis. It had been her first day at work, he had been so kind in showing her around and when she’d gotten a headache, he’d driven three hours to get her Tylenol. At first he had been so good at the little things, the love notes and wildflowers left on the counter. Yet after a couple of years, things progressively got worse and she hated him and what he had done to her, the way he had always put her down and treated her like she was less-than. Then again, such hate could only come at the cost of having once loved.
Casper looked over at her, and she tightened her jaw in an attempt to hide her thoughts from leaking into her expression. She didn’t need him asking her any questions about her past. “Thanks for everything, Hal. And please let me know how it all turns out,” she said, giving the coroner a quick wave.
“No problem. But wait, what about the drugs?” Hal asked, motioning toward the backpack at Casper’s feet.
“This whole thing’s going into evidence once we get down,” Casper said.
“You sure you don’t want me to take them with us? I can drop them off in evidence for you. Would save you a couple pounds carrying it out,” Travis said.
She would carry a thousand pounds just so long as she never had to ask for Travis’s help. “Nope. We got it,” she clipped.
“My team’s at your disposal if you need,” Hal added and then quickly made his way to the helicopter, disappearing behind its doors. She reached down and took Casper’s hand and pulled him, urging him to follow. His hand was hot in hers and she let go, the touch a jolt to her cold, exposed skin. Casper looked at her, a shocked expression on his face like he was surprised that she had touched him, but she pretended not to notice.
Hopefully Travis was watching and could see that no matter how they had left things, she was moving on with her life.
The helicopter lifted off the ground, the wash sending bits of dust and debris in every direction. Travis sent her a look through the copter’s window as he said something on his radio.
Casper turned toward her. “You do realize that now we’re going to have to hike out...in the dark.”
“That’s the easy part,” she said with a wicked smile.
He raised an eyebrow in question.
“The hard part,” she teased, “is that you won’t be able to beat me.” She took off with a laugh, relieved that once again she was alone with the cowboy.
* * *
THE CBP’S CHEVY always seemed to list to the left when he drove down the road, and it squealed when he applied the brakes, but as they got to the bottom of the trail, he had never been happier to see his old, beat-up, Fed-issued truck.
“You’re crazy. You know that, right?” Casper said between heaving breaths.
He’d thought five miles uphill going in was bad, but basically jogging five miles down steep terrain carrying not only his go-bag, but also the missing hiker’s drugs, had nearly killed him.
Even in the light of his flashlight he could make out the beads of sweat that were dripping down Lex’s temples. Her hair was damp and her cheeks were red, but she laughed like her body couldn’t be aching as badly as his. “Come on, that was fun.”
“Having a heart attack is never fun. You could’ve killed me. I’m getting old, you know.”
She lifted her brow, giving him a sexy “come on now” look. Reaching into her bag, she pulled out two protein bars and handed him one. “Here. Eat this, old man. It’ll make you feel better.”
He took it, dropping his bags on the tailgate of his truck parked at the trailhead. She lifted her bag up and set it beside his.
He looked over at her and tried to guess at her age. She was young; the lines on her face were barely defined in the thin light, but she had the eyes of a woman who had had her heart broken more times than once. “How old are you?”
“Young enough to be okay with it, but old enough to know not to answer,” she said, her sexy smirk returning.
He laughed, and some of his tiredness disappeared. “You wanna ride back to Apgar with me or do you want me to drop you off at the nearest station?”
She dropped her hand down on her backpack. “Apgar would be great. I don’t