Random Encounter

by Londa Pfeffer

The gray Dodge Ram pickup truck cut through the early morning fog. At just past dawn the road held little traffic. That suited the truck's occupants, two Texas Rangers making their way to Midland to testify in a court hearing.

"Can you explain something to me?" Jimmy Trivette turned to look at his partner.

"What's that?" Walker responded.

"How is it that every time we go away together we end up chasing after bad guys and then having to come back to testify?" Thumping his knee to make his point, the black Ranger turned to stare out the window. "Why don't they ever take a break and go somewhere else?"

The older Ranger laughed, though his partner had a point. It had gotten to where even Walker felt he needed a rest from their vacations. After giving it some thought he said, "I don't know, Trivette. Guess you're just a magnet for trouble."

"I'm a--" Glaring at the other man, Jimmy said, "Don't go there, pal. I never had any trouble when I was in the Highway Patrol. Or even when I worked Narcotics! It's only been since we paired up. And I gotta tell you, it's getting old."

Though he doubted Trivette never had trouble on his own, Walker had to agree with the last statement. There had to be a better way to relax!

"I'll tell you what, Trivette. Next time we plan a trip we'll send out notices to the criminals that we'll be in the area. That way they can just turn themselves in before we get there, okay?"

"Ha ha ha, very funny."

U

Ricky Cobb inhaled slowly as he left the courthouse. The place always made him feel edgy, like someone would be waiting to ship him back to Huntsville. Thank God he only had to visit his probation officer once a month these days. He started down the steps.

"Hey, Walker, what time is it? My watch stopped." A black man in a suit and white Stetson nearly bumped into Cobb. Turning briefly, the man said, "Sorry about that."

Ricky froze in shock. That voice. He knew it from somewhere. Spinning around, he watched the man and his companion climb the remaining steps and pull open the doors to the courthouse. As the black man turned sideways to say something to his friend, Cobb caught the glint of sun off a badge pinned to the man's suit jacket. And not just any badge. The distinctive silver star of a Texas Ranger.

But he didn't know any Texas Rangers. He'd never run up against one of them. Wait a minute. Closing his eyes, Cobb allowed his mind to wander. Rangers weren't born to their positions, after all. The man's identity teased on the edges of his memory. Damn! If only he could ask Carly. She'd always had a memory like a steel trap.

Carly. That was it! Hard on the heels of the pain came the cop's name. Trivit. No, Trivette. Dectective James Trivette. His testimony at Carly's trial had sent her away for a life sentence. At least that's what it had turned into, even though the jury had only called for 18 months with time served. But she'd gotten in the middle of a fight and had been stabbed for her trouble. It took her a day to die, they said. Her and their unborn child.

The pain rose again. Carly had been the joy of his existence. Smart, loyal and caring, she'd changed his outlook on life. When he'd found out she was pregnant he'd agreed to stop running the drugs. He'd even gone so far as to find a straight job. But Carlos Spinoza hadn't taken well to their desire to get out of the trade. Less than a week after Ricky had walked out, the cops had busted in on an anonymous tip. They saw Carly walking out of the bathroom and searched it first, finding a kilo of heroin in the toilet tank.

Cobb never claimed to be a choirboy. The heroin was theirs, kept just in case they needed fast cash. And with his prior record and both his and Carly's fingerprints on the bag, they were both going down. He'd struggled with the cop holding him; Carly had come to his defense, kicking the cop who held her, James Trivette. He'd testified at her trial that she'd resisted arrest, assuring prison time instead of probation. And it had gotten her killed.

Life hadn't been the same for him since then. Oh sure, on the surface he did okay. He'd gotten a job and kept his nose clean. But that vital spark, the part of him that Carly had created and nurtured, had died with her and their baby. And James Trivette was directly responsible.

For that he would pay.

Running down the steps and across the street to his parked motorcycle, Cobb hopped on, gunning the engine and pulling out into traffic. Though he wouldn't have gone out of his way to spit on the bastard Trivette, he'd certainly take the opportunity when presented.

C.D. joined Walker and Trivette in the courtroom. He'd been subpoenaed as a witness as well. As usual, the three friends had been together when all hell broke loose.

They chose seats toward the front of the room, sitting down to wait for the proceeding to begin. It didn't take long, they'd arrived just fifteen minutes before the scheduled start.

The prosecutor called C.D. to the witness stand in late morning. Once he'd finished answering the routine questions the judge called recess for lunch.

"Damn, we gotta stop taking vacations together, boys." C.D. shook his head sadly as the three men stepped out into the bright noon sunlight.

Walker and Trivette exchanged glances, grinning.

"What?" the retired Ranger wondered, looking between them.

"Walker and I were discussing that on the way here," Jimmy explained, clapping C.D. on the back. "Actually, I bet you and I are safe together. He's the one who makes it dangerous."

C.D. chuckled at Walker's sour expression. Jimmy and Cordell often sniped at each other but neither took it seriously. Underneath lay a friendship solid as a rock.

"Fine. See if I ever invite either of you to the best fishing spot this side of the Mississippi," Walker vowed.

"Promise?" Trivette's face lit up.

"Listen, it's gonna be awhile for you boys yet," C.D. interrupted, trying for a change of subject. "I thought I'd head on down the road, visit an old friend nearby. But why don't we grab a bite to eat first? There's a good steakhouse here in town." Eyeing Jimmy, he said, "They've even got a salad bar that should hold you over until we can find some tufu."

Rolling his eyes, the younger man corrected, "Tofu, C.D. T-o-f-u. And that's not all I eat!"

"Besides the cookies and cream, you mean?" Walker asked innocently. Unknown to the three friends, Ricky Cobb had stationed himself casually in an unnoticed nook just a few feet away. With his Stetson and sunglasses he knew Trivette wouldn't be able to identify him even if he did see him.

"Ha, ha, very funny," Trivette said. "Let's go. I'm hungry!"

Grinning at his partner, Walker said, "Hope you have cash on you this time. I doubt that steakhouse takes plastic."

"I got cash!" Jimmy reached for his wallet to prove it.

"Good," the older man laughed, "then you can give me gas money too."

"Gas--?" Trivette cut himself off. "You're tightfisted, Walker. Bet whenever you open that wallet a whole bunch of relieved moths fly out!"

C.D. coughed to hide his snort of laughter.

"Absolutely," his partner agreed, still grinning.

They enjoyed a companionable meal. Walker and C.D. both had steaks, while Jimmy chose fish in keeping with his semi-vegetarian diet.

Looking at his watch while the waiter cleared their table, Jimmy frowned. "We'd better head back, Walker. Court's gonna be starting soon."

"Yeah, you're probably right." The older Ranger climbed to his feet. "See you back in Dallas, C.D."

"Right. Give me a call when you get on the road." C.D. waved at them. Seeing them reach for their wallets, he shook his head. "This one's on me, boys. My treat."

"Thanks, Big Dog!"

"I'll get the next one," Walker promised.

Jimmy was called to the stand once court resumed. His cross-examination took longer than C.D.'s, making Walker curious as to the direction his questioning would take

Since his testimony corroborated Trivette's the process went smoothly. The judge excused them by mid-afternoon, thanking them for their time.

"Whew. I'm glad that's over with," Jimmy said as they left the building. "No kidding," Walker agreed heartily.

Though the justice system required law enforcement officers' testimony, few enjoyed the process. It took time from what most felt was their real responsibility.

"Hey, mister." A tug on Jimmy's pantleg made him look around and down in surprise. A little girl of perhaps six or seven stood there, watching them solemnly. Her features hinted at a mixed background. Probably Hispanic and African-American, judging from the lighter skin and kinked hair.

"Well, hello there!" Trivette squatted down to be at eye-level with the child. "What's your name?"

"Raejean," she answered. Stepping closer, she challenged, "Are you really Rangers? My mama says you are."

"Yes we are, honey." Walker knelt next to his partner. Tapping his badge, he said, "See this? This is how you can tell."

"I wanna be a Ranger when I grow up," Rajeen declared.

"I bet you make a good one, too," Jimmy grinned at her. Looking around the front of the courthouse, he asked, "Where's your mama, sweetheart?"

At that moment the doors opened and a Hispanic woman stepped out, eyes scanning frantically. She spotted the child and relaxed visibly. "Raejean! I told you not to bother these men."

Both Rangers stood as she approached. Scooping the child into her arms, the woman smoothed her hand over the tight curls before giving her a kiss on the cheek.

"Please forgive my daughter's curiosity." Nodding to the men, she said, "My name is Anna Watters. My husband is a deputy here. I'm afraid our daughter has been influenced by him already." Her smile told them not to take her too seriously

"I'm Ranger Cordell Walker and this is my partner, Jimmy Trivette. It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

She freed a hand, exchanging handshakes with both Rangers in turn. "The pleasure's mine. We don't often see Rangers around here. What you gentlemen did is still the talk of the town."

"We were just doing our jobs," Jimmy assured, ignoring his partner's disbelieving look.

"Well, I'd better get this little lady home before she decides to run off to join the Rangers." To her daughter, she said, "Say goodbye, Raejean."

The child waved. "Bye."

Both Rangers bid their farewells, waving in return as Mrs. Watters set Raejean down, taking her hand and walking away.

Walker nudged his partner. "'Just doing our jobs'? That's not what you said earlier, buddy"

Trivette appeared not to have heard him, instead turning to search the immediate area. He looked in all directions, frowning.

Walker mirrored the action. Not seeing anything out of the ordinary, he turned back to his partner. The younger man still had not relaxed.

"What's up?" the older Ranger questioned softly.

Trivette looked around once more before shaking his head. "I'm not sure, man. I've had the feeling that someone's been watching us since we got here. It was real strong just a minute ago, now it's gone." He rolled his shoulders, trying to dispel the sudden tension.

"Probably someone you owe money to, Trivette," Walker joked, clapping his partner on the shoulder. "C'mon, let's get on the road. Otherwise C.D.'s going to wonder where we are."

Jimmy followed after him, hunching his shoulders slightly against the feeling that they were still being watched.

Walker decided to stop for gas before leaving town. They pulled into a station on the outskirts.

Stopping next to the pump, Walker hopped out of the truck and began the process of refilling the tank. Trivette jumped out to join him, looking around the area.

"Still have that itchy feeling?" Walker questioned. Though he had teased his partner about it, he'd been on the alert ever since. Trivette didn't get stirred up without reason.

Frowning against the blazing sun, the younger man shrugged. After a moment he said, "I'm not sure. Maybe it's just me but something doesn't feel right."

"Okay, let's keep our eyes open." Walker surveyed the countryside before striding over to the attendant to pay.

Jimmy nodded. For all Walker's teasing in other areas, he never questioned Trivette's instincts as a cop.

They climbed back into the truck and pulled out onto the road leading to Dallas. After several miles Trivette pulled off his Stetson, running a hand over his hair.

"Whew, man, it's hot." The windows were cracked open a little to allow some air to circulate but it didn't help much.

"Sorry about that. The shop told me the air conditioner was fixed." Walker shot an apologetic look at his partner.

"Yeah, well, next time we gotta take a long drive we're takin' my car, man. My AC works!"

"Your car is a matchbox, Trivette. It's not designed for the comfort of adults." The older Ranger grinned at his friend's outraged expression. Sometimes the game was too easy.

"Not designed--?!" The black man took a deep breath, about to launch into a heated defense of his beloved sports car. He didn't get the chance.

An explosion from the rear of the truck cut off anything Trivette might have said. In the same breath Walker found himself fighting for control of the wheel. The truck fishtailed across the road into the other lane.

Jimmy braced himself against the dashboard, all too aware of the semi coming straight for them. He clamped his jaw shut, not about to distract Walker by pointing out the obvious.

Rather than try wrestling the truck back into their own lane and possibly overturning them, Walker steered onto the shoulder of the oncoming lane. He managed just as the semi roared past, blaring its horn.

Both Rangers sat motionless for several seconds. Blowing out a long breath, Jimmy leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes.

"You okay?" Walker asked.

"Yeah. What the hell happened, man?"

"I don't know." Opening his door, the older Ranger climbed down, striding to the rear of the truck.

The semi had stopped further down the road. Its driver hopped out, running back to the Ram. "Are you boys okay?"

"Yeah," Walker said. "Sorry about that. Looks like a tire blew."

Trivette hopped out, taking a look around. The itchy feeling from earlier had returned full force. Shading his eyes with his hands against the strong afternoon sun, he examined the surrounding terrain. The rocky, hilly landscape could hide a small army. C'mon, Trivette, you're jumping at shadows.

"Well I'd offer to help change it only I have to have this load delivered in a couple hours or my family's not gonna be eatin' this week."

"That's okay," Walker assured. "We can handle it, right, Trivette?"

The black Ranger had continued searching the surrounding area, but his partner's question caught his attention. "Uh, yeah, sure, no problem."

"Good. Glad everybody's okay." With a wave the driver sprinted back to his rig and pulled out onto the road.

Noting his partner's tension, Walker quietly asked, "See anything?"

"No." Trivette tried to shake it off. "Guess it's all this open space, man. It's getting to me."

"Well, do something constructive, then," the older man grunted, loosening the nuts on the shredded tire. "Grab the spare while you're just standing around."

Shrugging off his jacket and rolling up his sleeves, Jimmy hopped into the bed of the truck and lifted the spare over the side. "Y'know, this wouldn't have happened if we'd taken my car. Working air conditioning, four brand new tires and a full tank of gas with better mileage that would've gotten us here and back--"

Used to the complaints, Walker tuned his partner out. Trivette and his cars.

Each one had a personality of its own according to the other man. Grinning, Walker considered how Trivette would react if he suggested maybe they were possessed.

          0                      0                    0

Ricky Cobb smiled. He'd hoped shooting out that tire would cause the Ranger to lose control, sending them into the path of the oncoming truck. But the man had quickly compensated, pulling them off to the side of the road.

Well, that would just make things more interesting. He'd just have to come up with another plan. Because one way or another, James Trivette had seen his last sunrise.

The ringing of a cell phone caught both men's attention. Walker looked up from tightening the lugnuts.

"Is that mine or yours?"

"Yours." Trivette reached into the truck for Walker's phone. "Yeah, Trivette."                   1-"Hey, Jimmy, where are you boys?" CD's slightly worried voice came over loud

“Hey, Jimmy, where are you boys?” C.D.’s slightly worried voice came over loud and clear. "I figured for sure you'd be on the road by now."

"We just got on the road, C.D. We got delayed at the courthouse and when we finally got on our way Walker's truck blew a tire." Glaring at his partner, Jimmy said, "I kept tellin' him we shoulda brought my car."

"Is everything okay? I could call some folks out that way to come give you fellas a hand," the ex-Ranger offered.

"Nah, we've got it under control, Big Dog. We should be back on the road in half an hour, tops. See ya soon."

"'We' he says," muttered Walker, twisting another lugnut with more force than it needed. "As if 'he's' been much help."

"Hey, I heard that," Jimmy warned, grinning.

"Good. You were supposed to," Walker shot back. His tone lacked any real anger. Neither man took the goading seriously.

"You don't appreciate how lucky you are to have me around, Walker," Jimmy chided, lifting the damaged tire and throwing it in the bed of the truck. Finding a rag, he wiped off his hands then frowned at the road dirt on his white shirt.  

Walker watched his partner with a grin. He'd long ago learned to ignore Trivette's griping. When push came to shove he'd rather have Jimmy Trivette covering his back than any ten men he could name. Though he'd sooner be tortured than admit that to the younger man.

"That should do it," Walker climbed to his feet, snatching the rag from his partner. "Let's get--"

Jimmy heard the crack of a rifle a heartbeat before Walker pitched forward. Moving quickly, Trivette caught the other man before he hit the ground. Easing his partner down, Jimmy pulled his gun, searching for the source of the attack. A sudden pressure in his chest made him gasp for breath but it disappeared just as quickly. Putting the odd feeling aside for now the younger Ranger considered how to get them out of this.

Taking a chance, he dove into the truck for the mike, only to find it dead. Damn! Bastard must have somehow gotten to it while they'd been in court.

The next shot took out a front tire. Jimmy didn't pay attention after that but suspected from the hissing sound that the radiator had taken a hit too. That put the truck out of commission. Damn! We're sitting ducks out here!

Checking his surroundings, Jimmy saw the shoulder sloped into a gentle hill covered with brush. If he could get Walker out of sight he'd be free to try calling for help.

"Walker, you with me, buddy?" When he got no response, he gently patted his partner's cheek. "C'mon, talk to me!"

Another shot pinged off the truck, making Jimmy duck back. It'd be easier to move Walker if the other man had some mobility.

"What happened?" the injured Ranger finally croaked, surprised at how weak his voice sounded. He winced as he tried moving his right arm and memory returned in a rush. Shot. . . I've been shot! Who--? Trivette, where's Trivette?

"Trivette?"

"Right here, partner." Their gunman kept peppering the truck with bullets; sooner or later another would find a human mark if they didn't get out of there. "Let's get you out of target range, okay?"

Slipping Walker's good arm around his neck, Trivette took a deep breath. "Think you can make it down this hill?"

"It'd take more than one bullet to stop me," Walker managed, sounding more like himself.

"Let's not invite trouble." Uttering a silent prayer, Jimmy hauled his partner to his feet. Ignoring the other man's hiss of pain he propelled them both forward, sprinting for the cover of the hillside.

Disoriented and shocky, Walker lost his footing, pulling them both off-balance. He felt Jimmy trying to compensate but knew it wouldn't work.

As they went down Trivette shifted desperately, hoping to cushion his partner's fall. The landing knocked his breath away and he lay gasping as spots danced before his eyes. Walker had landed partly on top of him and lay unmoving. Wriggling out from beneath the other man, Trivette gently turned him on his side, examining the wound. Checking Walker's chest, Jimmy cursed silently. No exit wound. Grabbing his handkerchief he reached inside Walker's shirt, stuffing the material against the wound. He's already lost a lot of blood. Shit.

Walker stirred, moaning.

"Easy, partner," Trivette soothed. "I'll get you out of here. Just take it easy."

Opening his eyes, the older Ranger focused with difficulty on Jimmy. "You . . . . okay?"

"Yeah. Must have been a lucky shot he hit you with." Trivette grinned, hoping it looked convincing. Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out his cell phone. "Oh my God."

"What?" When Trivette didn't answer, Walker grabbed his leg to get his attention. "Trivette, talk to me."

"This phone was in my shirt pocket, Walker. Take a look." Jimmy held the instrument up for his partner's inspection. That explained the odd sensation earlier.

Walker swallowed as he focused on the bullet imbedded in the casing. If Trivette hadn't had that phone in his pocket.

Taking a deep breath, Jimmy said, "Look, your phone's still back in the truck. I'm gonna try to get it, okay? You stay here, keep your head down. I'll be right back."

"No," Walker protested weakly. "He'll be able to pick you off."

"Hey, I'm faster than that," the younger man rebuked gently as he scanned the area for their assailant.

His partner found he didn't have the strength to argue. If they were going to get out of here it would have to be Trivette's doing.

Crouching low, Jimmy sprinted for the truck. The gunman caught sight of him, sending a hail of bullets in his direction. Using the open door for cover between him and the gunman, Trivette hastily searched for Walker's phone. He knew he'd thrown it on the front seat after talking with C.D. Where the hell was it? Feeling around the floorboards, he finally grabbed it. As his hand wrapped around it he felt the bullet hole through the casing. Damn! Good thing this clown doesn't have as much luck with living objects.

Quickly considering their options, Jimmy realized he was going to have to get Walker out of here on his own. Or keep them one step ahead of this nut until C.D. realized they were overdue.

In the back of his mind he wondered if Walker could hold out that long. He's no quitter, his small voice chided. And neither are you.

Decision made, Jimmy nerved himself to leave the relative cover of the truck. Keeping low he sprinted back down the hillside toward his partner. He'd almost made it when another crack sounded and fire lanced against his upper arm. The impact sent him sprawling and he rolled the last few feet to Walker's side. Guess I spoke too soon.

"Trivette?"

Hearing the worry in his partner's voice, Jimmy forced himself to sit up, favoring the injured arm. "I'm okay. It's just a flesh wound."

Trivette eased his white shirt off, digging in a pocket for his knife. Just a flesh wound, true. But even flesh wounds can bleed profusely, not to mention the risk of infection. Quickly tying a strip around the wound, he then applied a fresh dressing to his partner's shoulder.

"He's stopped shooting," Walker said, trying not to wince as Jimmy put pressure on the wound.

Trivette scanned the landscape, fruitlessly searching for their assailant. "Yeah, probably saving his bullets. Why doesn't he just come after us?"

Walker had no answer. Instead he focused on marshalling his energy for when they would have to move. It would only be a matter of time before the gunman flushed them out. Closing his eyes, he sent a quick, silent prayer to the spirits.

Jimmy took the opportunity to study his friend. Walker's silence didn't bother him; he'd long ago learned his partner could be a man of few words. No, it was Walker's willingness to let him take the lead that unsettled Trivette, crystal clear indication of the seriousness of the injury.

The scrutiny didn't go unnoticed. Walker opened his eyes to concerned dark brown gaze. Silent understanding passed between Jimmy wouldn't ask how Walker felt and Walker wouldn't lie.

"Hang in there, buddy," Trivette managed, lightly clasping his shoulder. "I'll get us out of here."

"You'd better," Walker returned, hoping he sounded menacing. "Otherwise you'll have to answer to Alex."

"Not funny, man. And I don't think this is what she'd consider a romantic declaration, Walker." Jimmy took a moment from searching the horizon to frown at his partner.

"No, probably not," the older man admitted, wincing as pain stabbed through his

shoulder.

"Damn! Who is this guy, anyway?" Trivette ground out, frustrated at the lack of

target.

As if in direct response, their attacker fired two shots into the air. Then a male voice called out, "Hey! Detective Trivette! Or should I say, Ranger? You figured out who I am yet?"

Trivette jumped slightly. Something about that voice prompted a memory, but he couldn't attach an identity to it. Too many angry faces over the years made distinguishing any particular one a challenge in the best of circumstances.

"Remember Carly Riddle, Trivette? Or what about Ricky Cobb? Mean anything to you yet?"

"Shit," Jimmy hissed, searching desperately in the direction of the voice. Memory returned in a rush.

"Who is he?" Walker whispered.

"I busted him and his girlfriend several years ago for possession of heroin. They both got jail time off my testimony. I heard Carly got into the middle of an argument shortly after she began serving her sentence." Trivette avoided his partner's gaze.

"And?" the other man prodded when it looked like his partner's silence would continue indefinitely.

"She got stabbed. Died the next day. She was pregnant, pretty far advanced. They couldn't save the baby either." Jimmy finally met his partner's look. "Cobb blamed me."

Walker nodded, all too familiar with the scenario.

"Tell you what, pig! I'm going to be generous, how's that? I'm going to give you the chance you never gave Carly. Just to show that I'm a true gentleman." Cobb laughed. "I'm going to give you and your friend a decent head start. If you're good enough, maybe you can get yourselves out of here. But if I catch up with you, you're both history! Got that! So if I were you I'd start walking. I won't be far behind."

"I think that's our cue," Walker said dryly. "Yeah, no kidding. You up to it?"

"Do I have a choice?"

"No." Jimmy supported his partner on his good side, practically hauling the other man to his feet. "Let's get the hell out of here."

C.D. checked his watch for the twentieth time. By now Cordell and Jimmy should be halfway home. So why the itch between his shoulder blades? The one that told him something had gone wrong?

"Hell, old man, you'll be jumping at shadows next." Grabbing a dishcloth he wiped down the bar for the third time.

He moved the phone to wipe an imaginary spot, glaring at the instrument as if it had personally offended him. If he called them and nothing was wrong they'd laugh like hell. But if something had happened and he didn't call.

Picking up the receiver, the bartender dialed Cordell's cell phone number. After five rings with no answer, he disconnected with a frown. Dialing Jimmy's number brought a similar response.

C.D.'s heart rate picked up and he took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. Realizing he still held the receiver, he hung up while deciding what to do next.

Maybe they were out of range. Or maybe they'd stumbled onto something. Either way, maybe Dispatch would know.

Reaching for the phone again, the ex-Ranger dialed the number from memory. He didn't recognize the young woman who answered.

"This is Ranger C.D. Parker. Have you heard anything from either Ranger Walker or Trivette recently?"

"They checked in at 1450 to say they'd be heading back to Dallas, but that was it, sir."

"Damn. Could you try patching me through?" C.D. drummed his fingers impatiently on the bar.

"Sure thing. Hold on." He heard her switch microphones. "Ranger Walker, this is Dispatch. I have a call from Ranger Parker. Do you copy? Repeat, I have a call from Ranger Parker, do you copy?" She got back on the line. "Sorry, Ranger. He's not responding."

"Roger, Dispatch. Thanks." C.D. hung up the phone. Wearily scrubbing his face, he weighed his options. No answer on either phone and Dispatch couldn't raise them. Most of the trip back to Dallas consisted of uninhabited roads. If they'd run into trouble no one would know unless they went looking.

Making a decision he picked up the phone, once more dialing Dispatch. This time he recognized the answering voice.

"Maizey, this is C.D. I need a helicopter, honey. I think Cordell and Jimmy are in trouble."

"Okay, hold on a minute, C.D." He heard muffled conversation, then, "I'm sorry but they're all out on runs right now. It could be a few hours before one's free. Wait a minute, C.D. Jim's here, he wants to talk to you."

"C.D., what's up? Maizey says Walker and Jimmy need help?" The calm voice belied the pilot's nickname of "Crazy Jim," earned as a combat pilot in Vietnam.

"Well, I can't be sure. They were on their way back from Midland when Cordell got a flat tire. But now they don't answer either phone and Dispatch can't raise 'em.  I'd bet my week's profits that something's happened, Jim."

"Okay, listen, I'm off duty, just stopped in to get my paycheck. I've got a friend with a chopper; guy owes me a favor. I'll meet you at the DPS heliport in an hour.

You know where they're supposed to be?"

"Sure. I can give you directions."

"Great. See you then."

C.D. knew he had one more call to make, and this one he dreaded most. When someone on the other end picked up, he said, "Alex Cahill, please. Tell her it's C.D. and that it's important. I'll wait."

Walker concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. The uneven ground made it difficult. The blazing afternoon sun didn't help either. At least the fiery pain from his shoulder had subsided to an aching throb as long as he didn't try moving it.

Trivette stumbled over a small rock and Walker couldn't hold back his gasp of pain. The younger man stopped near a large tree, carefully leaning his partner against it. Ripping a strip from his shirt, Jimmy carefully wiped the sweat from his partner's face before checking the wound. Fresh blood stained the makeshift bandage, but the bleeding had definitely slowed.

Reaching out with his good hand, Walker grabbed Trivette's arm to get his attention. Keeping his voice low, he said, "He's catching up."

"I know." Jimmy looked back in the direction they'd come.

The older man knew his partner's answer but had to try. "You'd make better time if you left me."

Trivette snapped his head around, staring at Walker in disbelief. Steady hazel eyes left no doubt of his sincerity.

"No way!" the black man hissed. "Remember that talk we once had about leaving buddies behind? I told you I wouldn't do it; I meant that. We'll get out of this. Together."

"And C.D. says I'm stubborn," Walker muttered, briefly closing his eyes. That made Jimmy grin. "Who do you think taught me?"

"He's gonna wonder where we are soon," the red-haired Ranger said.

"Yeah, I know. That's what I'm counting on," Jimmy said. "If we can just keep ahead of this guy a little longer. .

"You could. Alone."

"Forget it, Walker," the younger man said, shaking his head. Pushing to his feet, he helped Walker up. "We go together. I'm afraid of Alex."

Walker couldn't help snorting in disbelief. "Yeah, right."

"Don't underestimate the lady," Jimmy warned. "Sometimes she's a lioness with one cub. You.

The other Ranger chose not to respond.

C.D. swept the binoculars over the road ahead, searching for Walker's gray pick­up truck. So far the search had been fruitless but he wouldn't give up. Not until he found them one way or the other.

"D'you think they'd still be this far out from town, C.D.?" Jim questioned over the microphone.

"I don't know, Jim," the older man admitted. "I just don't know. But they've got to be here somewhere. Just keep going."

"You got it." The pilot pushed a little more speed from the chopper, keeping it as low as possible.

Fifteen minutes later C.D. pointed with a shout, "There! Up ahead. That's Cordell's truck. Can you set down near it?"

"No problem." Jim maneuvered the chopper to a field close by and landed. "Looks like they took off somewhere."

"Yeah." The ex-Ranger clambered out. Making his way over to the parked truck, his heart caught in his throat as he came around the front and saw the bullet holes.

A spot on the dusty ground caught his attention. Kneeling down, he brushed a finger over it. Blood! Cordell's or Jimmy's? Not that it mattered. What counted was finding them before whoever had done this had a chance to finish the job.

C.D. couldn't say what made him think his friends were both still alive and keeping ahead of their pursuer. But knowing Jimmy and Cordell he'd give good odds they were still on their feet.

Running back to the chopper, he climbed into the passenger seat. "Take her up, Jim," he puffed, trying to catch his breath. "They're definitely in some kinda trouble. I found some blood and the truck's shot to hell."

"Roger that." The pilot lifted off. "Any particular direction, C.D.?"

The older man considered the question. "Head towards those rocks. It'd be harder to track someone through there."

"You got it." Jim brought the helicopter around, beginning the search. As he began flying a search grid, C.D. called Dispatch to request ground support.

N

Regardless of what he'd admit to his partner, Jimmy knew they couldn't keep going indefinitely. Neither man had brought water and the brutal Texas sun beat unrelentingly on unprotected skin. Checking his watch he saw they'd been on the move for nearly two hours.

"Where the hell is he?" Trivette muttered, keeping them moving. The rocky terrain ahead might give them some shelter.

"Who?" Walker asked in response. He felt detached from his body. It made concentration difficult.

"Cobb." Jimmy stopped to listen. "He's playin' with us, Walker. Trying to see how far he can push. Well, I've had enough. It stops here."

"What do you . . . have in mind?" Walker's fogged brain recognized the determination in his partner's voice.

Finding a rock outcropping that provided some shade, Jimmy settled his friend to the ground. Tearing off another strip of his shirt, he wiped sweat from Walker's face before answering. "I'm gonna ambush him."

The older man nodded, understanding. "Using me . . . as bait. Good . . . . idea."

Grabbing his partner's good shoulder, Jimmy squeezed hard. "It'd better be, man. 'Cause if you die I'm gonna get White Eagle to teach me some of that Cherokee stuff and come after you myself."

That made Walker laugh weakly. "Go on. Get out of here before he shows up."

Hazel eyes met brown. In that moment all the things left unsaid no longer mattered.

"I'll get you out of this, partner," promised Trivette, pushing to his feet. He jogged off without looking back, feeling Walker's eyes on him.

As soon as he felt he'd be out of Walker's sight, Trivette doubled back. Finding that rocky ledge had been a stroke of good fortune. It provided the perfect ambush site. Sooner or later Cobb would come out of hiding. And when he did, Trivette would nail his sorry ass.

Vividly Jimmy's memory replayed a similar scene from several years ago. Only that time it had been him and C.D., and it hadn't worked. Well, this time's gonna be different, he vowed.

He didn't have long to wait. Cobb stepped clear of a tree a few yards away, approaching Walker, rifle at the ready.

"Well, looks like your friend decided to cut his losses and run," Cobb sneered. "No surprise there, the yellow-bellied coward."

Walker held his tongue, not seeing any need to defend his partner to this man. He edged his right hand toward his sidearm, but Cobb caught the movement and cocked the trigger of the rifle. "Uh-uh. I wouldn't do that if I were you, Ranger. Could get somebody killed."

Trivette, perched on the rock overhang, took advantage of Cobb's distraction to make his move. With a shout he jumped down from his hiding place, knocking the rifle out of Cobb's hands and bringing them both to the ground.

Cobb and Trivette climbed to their feet, circling each other warily. The ex-convict made the first move, diving at Trivette who stood his ground until the last moment, bringing his hands down to slam into the other man's back.

Walker watched the combatants carefully. Unfastening his gun, he drew it out. He couldn't get a clear shot yet but wanted to be prepared.

Another punch by Trivette knocked Cobb to the ground. He rose to his feet with the rifle barrel in his hands. With a yell he swung it full force into Trivette's wounded arm.

Pain and nausea drove Jimmy to his knees. His vision hazed as he fought to clear his head.

Cobb swung his foot, intending to kick the downed man in the stomach. Instead he found himself flat on his back, staring at the sky.

"Good move," Walker complimented.

Trivette laughed weakly as he pushed to his feet. Guess he'd learned more from his sessions with Walker than he'd thought.

"Give it up, Cobb," he advised, bending over and leaning his hands on his knees, trying to get his breath.

"Not on your life, pig!" the other man snarled, climbing to his feet.

The gleam of sunlight on steel caught Walker's attention. "Trivette, knife!"

The younger Ranger leaped back, but not in time to avoid the blade as it slashed across his forearm. Jimmy staggered back a step, knowing if he didn't take Cobb down now, he wouldn't get another chance.

It was Cobb's turn to grin. "What's the matter, Ranger?" He made the word an expletive. "Feelin' a little poorly?"

"Not so you'd notice," Jimmy managed. No way would he let this bastard get the best of him. Circling, he forced Cobb to move with him.

Tired of the game, the convict rushed Trivette, who held his ground until the last minute. Twisting to the side he caught Cobb's knife hand, bringing his knee up sharply while slamming the arm down.

Cobb screamed in pain, reaching for Trivette with his good arm. Closing his hand around the knife wound, he twisted savagely.

Trivette fought back his own scream. Black spots danced at the edge of his vision and he knew this was it. Dimly he heard Walker urge him not to give up; it could have been imagination.

Shifting his weight, Jimmy pulled Cobb off-balance and threw them both to the ground. They landed hard with Trivette on top. Pulling his good arm back, he punched Cobb across the jaw, watching in satisfaction as the other man went limp.

"Good work, partner," Walker managed, giving Trivette a weak grin.

Too winded to speak, Jimmy merely nodded. As he dug his handcuffs from his belt, he heard a noise overhead. Chopper?

"Walker, hear that?" Trivette gasped, looking skyward.

The other man shielded his eyes against the sun, searching for the helicopter. "Yeah. Gotta be C.D."

"Great timing," Jimmy muttered, snapping the cuffs on his prisoner's wrists. "Couldn't have gotten here ten minutes ago, could he?" With Cobb restrained, he crawled over to sit by his partner. Sitting close, he said, "Doesn't matter. We made it."

Walker nodded. "I knew you could do it, Trivette."

Jimmy did a double-take at the sincere praise; he'd expected sarcasm.

Shaking his head minutely, he wondered when he'd ever learn to read his partner.

"Cordell! Jimmy!" The familiar voice called from a short distance away. "You boys okay?"

"Over here, C.D.!" Jimmy called. "We're fine, but we could sure use a ride."

As C.D. reached them, he eyed the partners critically. "You both look like hell!" Digging out a walkie-talkie, he spoke into the unit. "Found 'em, Jim. They're gonna be okay but I could use some help gettin' em out of here."

"Roger that, C.D. See ya in a few."

Unable to resist, Walker pointed to Trivette. "Blame him, C.D. It's all his fault."

The ex-Ranger grinned as he knelt next to Jimmy. He wisely kept his comments to himself. Easing Trivette out of the remains of his shirt he fashioned a bandage for the knife wound.

"My fault? Walker, you--" Trivette sputtered to a halt, eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Wait a minute. Didn't we have this argument this morning?"

"Yep." Walker grinned. "Seems to me I won that one too."

"Why can't I ever win?" the younger man moaned.

Pointing to Cobb, now just coming around, C.D. said, "I think you just did, son." "Oh. Yeah, I guess I did."

At that moment Jim arrived. Taking a look at Walker and Trivette, he said, "You guys just can't stay out of trouble, can you?"

"Don't you start, too!" Trivette glared at the pilot. Pushing to his feet, he hauled            Cobb to his feet and shoved the prisoner in the direction of the chopper.

Jim stared after him, puzzled. "Was it something I said?"

"Never mind him," C.D. laughed, shaking his head. "He's had a bad day."

"I guess so! Let's get the hell out of here," the pilot said, helping C.D. get Walker to his feet.

"Amen!" the Rangers echoed.

As they made their way back to the chopper, Walker sent a silent prayer of thanks to whatever spirits watch over fools and Texas Rangers. Once again they'd  beaten the odds and come out on top.