Unjustified Claims

an excerpt



Chapter One

A sudden loud cry startled Brandt--a sharp sound of alarm, half shout, half scream--clearly and unexpectedly human in the wilderness. It broke off abruptly. Brandt whipped around, his attention yanked away from the pack of timber wolves he'd been watching in the valley below. He pricked his wolf-ears in the direction of the sound, listening intently. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a last flicker of grey as the wolf pack faded silently off into the forest.

Brandt hesitated. He'd been following this pack in wolf form for a week, day and night. He was beginning to know them, and they were relaxing and letting him closer. But, truth was, he was bored stiff. He was sick of himself and his black fog of depression and his stupid impulse to go run off into the woods and live wild.

There were tales of werewolves who'd done that for years--men who'd fallen deep into their animal selves, and lived simple, free lives. But either the stories were exaggerated, or the men involved had been even more messed up than he was. He'd thought he was ready to dump his stupid, pointless, warped-to-destruction human life, and submerge in his wolf like they had. Run, hunt, sleep, howl. Not think. Not feel. Not remember.

But somewhere nearby a human was in trouble. With one last glance in the direction the wolves had gone, Brandt turned and headed toward that scream.

There were no further sounds. He advanced slowly, all his senses on alert. The breeze soon brought the scent of human sweat and blood. Another hundred yards, and he could see the man, lying unmoving at the foot of a low embankment. He was on his back on the swampy ground, sprawled in a limp pose with his legs draped over a half-buried log. The sharp stub of a branch protruded through the meat of one thigh. The blood-smell was a vivid tang in Brandt's nose.

He crouched, watching, waiting for the man's hiking partners to come help him, but the woods were silent. The air held no hint of another human. The injured man bled slowly into the muddy water. Insects buzzed, bird song resumed. No one called or came out of the trees up above the crumbled bank.

Brandt whined under his breath. Stupid idiot. Hiking Minnesota's Boundary Waters alone was a really dumb idea. Brandt might be new to the area, but even he could figure that out. The park was huge, rough, and isolated. If you got into trouble you couldn't phone nine-one-one and expect an ambulance to show up five minutes later. Hell, he bet you'd be damned unlikely to even get cell-phone reception. Of course it was possible this man had been with a group and become separated and lost. In the best case scenario, there were people looking for him right now.

In the worst case, he'd bleed to death before they found him.

Brandt moved closer, his paws silent on the damp ground. The man's right leg was neatly skewered through the thigh, with six inches of hefty branch protruding above it. The blood dripped out heavily, although there didn't seem to be a major artery spouting. The guy had the beginnings of a tan, but under it his face was almost as pale as his white-blond hair. His eyes were closed, his nearly invisible lashes fluttering slightly. Brandt picked up the sound of the man's racing pulse, and his breath rasping fast and shallow.

That was a hell of a situation for the guy to get loose from. Lifting his own leg up off the snag would be a gymnastics maneuver to begin with, and he'd have to do it while in major pain and bleeding. But if he didn't get free, the only question was whether he'd die of the blood loss, dehydration, or infection. Even Brandt with his werewolf healing and pain threshold wouldn't have wanted to be in that fix.

As Brandt stood studying the situation, the man's eyes suddenly opened. For an instant, startled light-grey eyes met Brandt's gaze. Then the man began shouting a harsh, aggressive, "Yah!" while slapping his good thigh loudly with his hand. Startled, Brandt leaped back and to one side. As the man kept yelling, Brandt realized that his two-hundred pound wolf form was probably not a reassuring thing to wake up to. No wonder the guy was doing his damnedest to seem scary.

Brandt backed up smoothly, not making any sudden moves, until he was hidden in the shelter of the trees. After a few moments, the man on the ground quieted. He breathed in short, sharp jerks, blowing out each breath through clenched teeth.

Brandt waited. If the guy would just pass out again, Brandt figured he could maybe use his teeth on the fabric of the pant leg, yank upward and unsnag him, and be gone before the guy came around again. Unfortunately, although he was lying very still and swallowing loudly, as if nauseous, there was no sign he was about to pass out.

Eventually the man reached toward his leg, his shaking fingers feeling over his thigh, and then up the snag of branch that held him. He made small pain sounds, then grunted sharply. "Dammit! Of all the stupid, moronic, imbecilic, ignorant, half-witted, gormless, crack-brained..." About ten insults into it, the man stopped, took a deep breath, and fumbled around, his hand brushing futilely over wet weeds and muddy leaf-mold. "Damn!"

Brandt saw a backpack lying on the ground, well beyond the reach of even those long arms. The man turned his head, spotted it, and raised up on one elbow, straining toward it. His fingers couldn't connect. He fell back with a painful groan, his eyes closed.

What to do, what to do?

Brandt could shift back to human, but then he'd be naked, and he was a long, long way from his old life and any clothes he'd ever owned. Appearing out of the woods nude...that would take more explanation than he could manage. Almost better to appear as a wolf, even if it scared the guy out of his wits again.

He could go for help. But odds were it would take hours to find someone, and then in order to speak, he'd have to shift, and he'd still be naked...

He could leave this idiot to his fate, and go on his way. After all, anyone dumb enough to hike the deep wilderness alone could live with the consequences. Or die with them. There was no reason the man should expect to be rescued by a passing werewolf. Despite a touch of respect for the guy, who was still conscious and now trying to break off that fat branch-stub with his fingers, it really was none of Brandt's business. Shit happened.

Ditching the man would certainly have been Charles's Pack-safe solution, back when Charles had been Brandt's Alpha and Brandt had given a shit what he thought. That idea alone propelled him forward out of cover. He was never again going to care what Charles thought. To hell with Charles. His gut ached at that, an instinctive cramping he refused to acknowledge, so he narrowed his focus to the man on the ground.

He was only five feet away when the guy noticed his approach. For a frozen moment they stared at each other, then the man began yelling again. He scrabbled up a handful of mud and threw it at Brandt, his voice cracking as he shouted, "Get away, mangy bastard, not dead yet!"

Brandt ignored the throw, which missed, and the next one which spattered dirt into his ear. He bent over the backpack, grabbed a corner in his teeth, and pulled it over to the man on the ground. One brief tug, to move it the necessary two feet, and then he ducked back into the trees. He made his way around out of sight, and found another spot to look out.

For long minutes, clutching handfuls of dirt and stones, the man stared at the place Brandt had disappeared. Off in the treetops, a woodpecker hammered a rhythm on a trunk and then stopped. A chickadee gave its distinctive call, and was answered from further away. The man finally opened his fists, letting the mud trickle out. He patted the nylon pack, as if wondering if it was real. His hands shook visibly.

Eventually, eyes darting back and forth between his backpack and the edge of the clearing, the man opened a side pocket, and took out not a phone or radio, but a short tool. He unfolded a saw blade, and curled up painfully, bracing himself on one arm. At first he tried to slide the blade between his leg and the log, at the base of the snag. It took just a few minutes before he abandoned that, and dropped back down with a deep groan. For long minutes he lay flat, breathing painfully.

On the next try, he pushed up on one elbow while sawing at the wood just above his leg. After a few strokes he was forced to drop back again, panting with pain and effort. The scent of new blood and sweat rose in the air, but there was a hint of fresh sawdust too. Brandt saw the light on the saw blade shimmer, as it trembled in the man's grip. His arm sagged, but he braced and tried again. A minute later he took a long slow breath and managed another few strokes. And again. And again.

Brandt winced in sympathy. The guy's progress was slow, but cutting the extra six inches off that branch might let him lift up and get free. Eventually.

And then what?

Even when he got loose, he'd be alone, injured, and far from help. If there was someone around he could call, he'd be doing it now. Getting to safety with that bad leg would be a bitch and a half.

A werewolf would heal easily from that sort of wound, but Brandt knew that dirty punctures in humans weren't good news. Humans were much more fragile. Not that any of it was Brandt's problem, but he was developing a sneaking admiration for the man's determination.

He crouched lower, nose on his paws. There wasn't much more he could do in wolf form, but he couldn't make himself leave.

As Brandt watched, the man sank back yet again, his eyes closed. This time the blade dropped from his fingers and he didn't pick it up. His heartbeat slowed. Brandt whined under his breath. As the minutes went by, the injured man didn't wake again. Shit.

Getting involved was a really bad idea. But bad ideas seemed to be his thing lately. Brandt backed away well out of sight. He dropped onto a bed of dried needles under a pine tree, gathered himself for the effort, reached out for energy, and began shifting to human.

It was oddly difficult, maybe because he'd been a wolf too long, maybe because it was a damned stupid move. He held back a groan of pain as the reshaping of muscle and bone grated through him. His body shuddered, scattering pine needles, and the crushed-resin scent filled his nose.

He sneezed. Sneezed again, and curled around his chest, arms hugging his knees, eyes shut. Hands, not paws. Skin, not fur. He lay still, becoming aware of the cold air on his back, the stickiness of pine needles under his shoulders, and the lumpy pressure of roots and rocks against his hip and ribs. Damn. Naked and human in the great outdoors totally sucked.

After a moment he rolled over, crawled out from under the tree, and stood carefully. He felt dirty and vulnerable, and stupid, and a week's worth of unwashed. Not at all like himself, although the injured man wasn't likely to complain about, or even notice, his rescuer's smell. Or lack of grooming. Or lack of clothes. Actually, that he might notice.

Walking barefoot over the rough ground, Brandt returned to the clearing. The man still lay there. In his human form, Brandt couldn't hear a heartbeat at this distance, but he saw the man's chest moving in slow shallow breaths. Still alive.

Get in, help him, get out.

As silently as he could, Brandt crept forward out of the trees. He'd reached the man's side and squatted down beside him when those grey eyes opened again. And closed quickly. "Damned hallucinations," the man muttered, past his quickening breaths. He clenched his teeth, his eyes squeezed tight shut.

Brandt was fine with being a hallucination. He picked up the saw blade and attacked the snagged branch. With decent leverage and a steady hand, it took only a minute to get through it. Once the end had come off, he slid a hand under the man's impaled leg and lifted carefully. The man groaned, but didn't move, as the remaining stub slid out of his flesh. Blood welled from the wound in a thicker stream, dark and wet as it spilled over the leg of his pants, and dripped between Brandt's fingers.

Brandt eased the man away from the worst of the mud, laid him flat on the drier ground, and carefully straightened his leg. There didn't seem to be broken bones, although who knew what else the guy might have done in that fall. The man turned his head, blinked, and their eyes met again. This time he didn't look away. "You're real. Who are you?"

"The guy who just unshishkabobbed you," Brandt muttered.

"Thanks."

"You're still bleeding like a pig."

The man fumbled downward, clamped his hands around his leg and grunted painfully. "Yeah."

Brandt figured he could turn and go now. Or he could say fuck it, and do whatever else he could to help. He'd already been seen as wolf, and now naked. Maybe he'd figure out some kind of damage control by the time the guy had energy for questions. He rubbed the worst blood off his hands on his bare thighs, pulled the backpack over and opened it. "You got a first aid kit in here?"

"Lower pocket."

"Got it." Brandt dragged out a zippered plastic pouch with a faded red cross. "You'll have to tell me what to do." Telling this guy he should shift a couple of times to prevent infection wasn't going to help. The smell of his blood was one hundred percent vanilla human.

"I think..." The man took a few short breaths. "It probably should be washed out first. There's probably dirt and bark in it. Unless it's bleeding enough to do the job of cleaning it out. Damn it to hell!"

Brandt found the man's canteen and shook it. The contents sloshed lightly. "There's not much in here."

"Aargh. Okay. Water first. There must be a stream or something." The man turned his head painfully, and his gaze caught and stopped on Brandt's naked leg, moved upward. He blinked, and jerked his attention back to Brandt's face. "Were you...swimming?"

"Yeah," Brandt agreed. "I was." If the man could overlook his dry hair, Brandt was all for that explanation. "It's not far." He could in fact hear the sound of a stream only a hundred yards away--no doubt the source of the muddy bog. "It might actually work better to take you there, put your leg in the water, get it really washed out. Or no?" Would that worsen the bleeding? Which was more important? Damn, Brandt should have taken a first aid course sometime.

"We can try." The man struggled to sit up. Brandt slid an arm under his shoulders and raised him. They both looked at the ragged puncture site, raw and oozing.

"Better keep pressure on that," Brandt said. "I'll get you upright."

It took some figuring out, but eventually Brandt was able to lift while the guy pushed up to stand on his good leg. He swayed, though, pressing his fingers harder into his thigh as the blood flowed faster. "You know." His voice was thin. "I think I'm going to call blood loss over infection right now. You might have to catch me. Things are spinning."

"Over here. Let's at least get you further away from the mud." Brandt slid an arm around the man's waist and used his whole body to brace the guy a couple of stumbling steps away from the boggy cliff-base and onto more solid ground. There he eased him down, and went back for the supplies. "Now what?"

"Pressure wrap for now, I guess."

"I'll try."

"Rip the damned pants off first."

"Got it." A knife worked to open the hole in the camo fabric, baring a lean thigh dusted with blond hair and liberally streaked with blood. The man tipped his head back, pale and breathing hard. Brandt worked with gauze and padding to replace the guy's clutching fingers with a suitable bandage. "Tell me if it's too tight."

"Pull more."

Brandt snugged the top layer in.

"Damn, damn, motherlovin' ouch!"

"How's that?" Brandt used white tape to hold it. The result was lumpy and bloodstained, but looked secure.

"I guess we'll find out..."

"Hey." Brandt got an arm behind the guy before he could crash backwards, and laid him down on the leaves. "Don't pass out on me."

"Not trying to." The man peered upward, blinking hard. "Whoo. World's going around."

Brandt got up and found a spot where the swampy mud held a pool of brackish water. He crouched to scrub the blood off his fingers.

"Hey? You still here?" The man on the ground twisted, looking for him.

Good question.

The longer he stayed, the more complicated it would get. He was starting to kind of like this guy, for the stoic effort he'd made, and for not seeming fazed about Brandt's own naked state. But that lack of curiosity, or politeness, or whatever it was couldn't last. Best not to have to invent lies. Or worse, think about the truth. He should leave now.

Fade into the brush, shift back to paws that didn't attract every thorn and splinter for miles, and go on his merry way. Following a pack of dumb beasts who wanted nothing to do with him. Or hanging out in the swamps brooding. Or whatever other brilliant and cheerful activity he could come up with. Wondering how the injured guy was making out...

"Oh. There you are." The blond guy had rolled enough to catch sight of him again. "Y'know, I'm really grateful for your help. My name's Ethan."

He hesitated one more minute, and then gave in to his damned boredom and curiosity. "I'm Brandt."