Found By the Mountain Man by Sadie King
The deer raises her head to nibble a berry bush, giving me the perfect shot at her elegant neck. Slowly, I raise my hunting rifle to my shoulder and ease off the safety.
I line up the crosshairs to the point at the base of her neck where her spine begins. It’s an awkward shot. A precise hit results in quick death, a slight deviation causes slow agony. But I never miss, or at least I never used to.
Except today my fingers tremble as I rest them on the trigger. The vibrations cause the rifle to shake.
Memories of different gun sites and different targets flood my brain. I never missed a shot when I was in the Marines. I’ve seen men crumple seconds after I pull the trigger, the life bleeding out of them.
My hand shakes, and I curse under my breath.
It’s a deer, not a human.
But I can’t get my hands to stop trembling.
I take a big breath and let it out again, trying to steady myself.
The crosshairs are jumping, making it hard to line up the shot. But if I wait any longer, the deer will move on and I’ll miss my moment.
I used to be able to shoot with my eyes closed and still hit a bullseye. It was that party trick that got me noticed in the Marines. It got me into the elite Scout Sniper training, a rigorous course that got me qualified as a HOG, Hunter of Gunmen, and got me a position as the Scout Sniper for my unit.
I close my eyes and pull the trigger.
The blast shatters the silence of the forest, birds scatter, and the deer bucks and takes off into the undergrowth.
The bullet didn’t even graze her.
Frustration boils inside me. Three years after leaving the military, and not being able to do the one thing I was good at still hurts.
Thick raindrops spatter the foliage around me, and I peer up at the sky. The thick cloud that’s been hanging over the mountain all morning is finally breaking. Slinging my rifle over my shoulder, I zip up my parka and trudge back though the forest.
I’m a mile or so southeast of my cabin. I only came out to check my traps, but when I saw the deer scat, I tracked it to this spot.
The rain gets heavier as I hike back. The canopy of trees provides some cover, but it’s heavy enough to get me soaked within a few minutes.
I’m walking with my head down, so I almost miss the woman. It’s her red cloak that draws my attention. Bright colors are rare in the forest.
She’s huddled under a giant sycamore tree. Her knees are tucked up to her chest, and her hands are clasped around her knees. Her dark hair is soaking wet and plastered to her skull.
I look around, but no one else is in the forest. Even the animals are sheltering from the downpour.
She doesn’t hear me, so I go closer and plant my feet right in front of hers. That gets her attention. Her head tilts from my boot-clad feet, up my legs and torso until her eyes meet mine.
Her face leaves me breathless. She’s startlingly beautiful and terrifyingly messed up.
The skin around her left eye is swollen and bruised, and there are scratches on her pale face. Rain runs in rivulets down her cheeks and drips off her swollen lips.
“Are you okay?”
She opens her mouth, but no sound comes out.
She unclasps a hand from her knees and holds it out to me. It’s a feeble gesture, and I’m not sure if she’s reaching for me or trying to fend me off.
Whichever it is, the action proves too much for her. The woman’s eyes roll back in her head, and she slides sideways.
I catch her just before she hits the forest floor.
Her body is limp and cold, and her clothing drenched. Whoever she is, wherever she came from, she needs my help. I can't abandon her in the forest during a rainstorm.
I slide my arms around her and lift her up. One arm goes around her shoulders and the other goes under her legs.
Her body’s soft with feminine curves, and as I pull her toward my chest, something stirs inside of me.
I don’t know who this woman is or where she came from, but I found her, and she’s mine.
She’s still unconscious as I carry her back to my cabin.