I hefted the saddle and walked toward my horse. Shooting paint at a tree for later harvest is easy; shooting bullets at a man is hard. For the guy I would be hunting though, the thinking was the other way around.
I cinched Nutcracker’s girth buckle and my body armor chafed. As a sworn peace officer, I had to go out to look for the man; a return trip was optional.
To my right, the pack station’s screen door squeaked and I heard footsteps on the porch. I pulled the notice from my back pocket; I needn’t have bothered. The VW shimmering in the parking area belonged to someone on the most wanted list. The same man who sentenced my college roommate to life in a wheelchair.
“Nate.” Jennifer Strong’s blonde hair danced on the collar of a dusty white shirt and her hands slid into the pockets of jeans that must have been spray-painted on. “Getting near beer-thirty, ain’t it?”
“No rush. That beer just washes down SpaghettiOs while I eat over the sink.” I swung into the saddle. “The life of a divorced forester isn’t nearly as glamorous as one might suppose, just me and the dog.”
“Stud, you need to get out more. I bet if you asked out that filly you’ve got the hots for—Cat Diamond—she’d wet her britches.” She scooped a pinch of Elephant Butts tobacco into her mouth, and then offered me the pouch.
I shook my head. “From laughing maybe. Look, Jenn, we’re burning daylight, do you see that VW at the trailhead?”
“Uh huh.” Jennifer spat. “Held together by bumper stickers.”
I adjusted the heavy nine-millimeter pistol at my hip. “It’s registered to one Arthur Jacob Hunter III. Thirty-five, wanted for bombing the Hammond Lumber Company. Gulf War vet. You’ll recognize him if he’s shirtless; has an eagle tattooed on his back. FBI says he’s armed and dangerous.”
“You want to use our phone to call the sheriff’s?”
I shook my head. “This is terra incognita to them. I’ve radioed my plan to dispatch, requested assistance, and asked them to check in on me periodically. After all, it’s autumn; fire season’s over.”
“They said they’d consider it.” The Sig felt heavier. “Would you get the gate?”
“But he’s armed.”
“So they say.” I squirmed. “Look, as head cheese of Moses Mountain State Forest, I’m the closest thing to the law there is here. Sequoia National Park’s close; he could hike into there and catch a ride out with an accomplice Nut and I’ll mosey up the trail to Sharon’s lake and have look-see. The gate, please?”
“Not much daylight left. Going’s a bad idea.”
She had a point. I’m a treehugger with a gun. Blue paint speckled my hands, reminders of the earlier part of the day spent marking next season’s harvest. “The gate, Ms. Strong, please.”
Jennifer pushed it open.
I guided Nut through. “If I’m not back by sundown, call the cops. It’s about time they ventured into dark woods.”
I shifted in the saddle.
“Put this on.” She underhanded something to me that looked like a dusty blanket.
“A serape. Think of it as your invisibility cloak to cover that badge and gun of yours.”
“Not to mention my Leatherman tool.”
She rolled her eyes. “Plus, it’ll keep you dry, it looks like we might get a thunder-boomer.”
“Thanks. Got to go; we’re burning daylight.” Nut and I trotted through the trailhead parking lot onto Sharon’s Trail.
Sharon’s Trail climbs through the state forest's roadless area, a gray seral landscape of dead bark, dead branches, and dead needles.
Forests witness constant life and death competition, only the strong and cunning survive. When this place catches fire, only the thick-barked giant sequoias will be left standing. Maybe my life needed to catch fire to rejuvenate. Was that what I was doing? Playing with fire, acting like a cop, to rekindle my life after divorce?
Nut and I entered Camp 17: five campsites one hundred yards above Rattlesnake Creek. A camping permit fluttered on a fiberglass post. No gear or campers in view, only some fresh dirt at the far end of the campsite. I tied Nutcracker to a food locker and checked the registrant’s name against aliases listed on the FBI flyer. Nada.
A quick recon seemed prudent. Hikers had worn a trail down to the water. It occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I should avoid a well-worn footpath. After all, Prudence was my middle name—my parents have a lot to answer for.
I sledded my way down on loose needles and slid into the fire scar of a giant sequoia above the creek. Thunder rumbled in the distance. I rested my hand on the tree’s fibrous bark.
Below, a female moaned. “God, it feels so good.”
A couple was copulating on a sandy spot about twenty yards upstream. Clothing lay in a heap close-by. One of them favored camos. A sleeping bag covered the two from the waist down. I’d normally leave them alone, but above the waist on the man’s back, a tattooed eagle flapped its wings.
For effect, thunder rolled again.
I drew the pistol and aligned the sighting dots into the center of the eagle. The sun set behind Dennison Peak, darkening the forest. The tritium sights glowed spectrally.
“Freeze, Hunter. You’re under arrest.”
The girl’s voice bordered on hysteria. “What’s going on?”
The flyer hadn’t said much about her, Pamela something, nineteen, same age as my daughter; more smudge than description.
“I don’t know, baby.” Hunter kept his arms locked as though he was resting mid-pushup. “What’s this about, officer?”
“You under arrest for the bombing of Hammond Lumber.”
“He who does not punish evil commands it to be done.”
“Those were innocent people.”
“Innocent my ass; they fed the timber beast.”
Something metallic prodded my skull. “Drop the gun.”
I had been distracted; sucked into an argument. The man with the gun to my head was the reason Hunter hadn’t been worried about being sneaked up on. I hope was for Hunter’s accomplice to be distracted as well and use the seam between thought and action.
He called down. “Hey Ludd, what should we do with the Freddie—”
I twisted my head right and back, along the man’s arm. A bullet tore off a piece of my ear and the report deafened it. I twisted right, reached up, grabbed his gun and hand, tucked my chin into my chest, and pushed off into a downhill somersault. He rotated over my back. Centrifugal force pulled me and I landed on him. I had his revolver and we tobogganed down the slope. His head rammed a pillow-sized boulder with the sound of a cracking coconut.
Momentum flung me forward, rasping my ribs across the rock. My Kevlar vest cushioned the blow. I rolled over into the sandy area and came up in a crouch aiming at the sleeping bag about five yards from me. Pamela held the bag at her throat. She had the look of a calf caught in barbed wire.
Every fiber in me screamed run. I did—to the sleeping bag. There, I crouched and pointed the pistol back into the forest, searching for a target.
“Where is he, Pamela?”
Eventually her name seeped in. She screamed.
Hunter stood behind the sequoia. Flames erupted from a pistol that appeared in his hand. Something wet splattered on my arm. I pulled the trigger three times, orange streaks jumped from the revolver. What felt like hammers slammed my gut and chest, knocking the wind out of me. I dropped onto all fours. The scene wobbled in and out of focus. More shots thwipped past me.
I lost consciousness, came up, and dropped down again. I’d swear before I left for the last time I heard Jennifer Strong’s voice.
“Nate, Stay with me,” she said. “I used my Winchester. Ran that guy off. Help’s on the way.”
When I swam back to the surface, I was freezing in sodden clothes. Cold rain pattered on the ground, my face and body. Wind called through the trees. Someone lifted my torso, the raindrops stopped hitting my face, and my back warmed with contact of another human. I opened my eyes; Cat Diamond looked down at me and smiled.
Jennifer Strong knelt down next to me. “I told you this was a bad idea.”
“And you were right.” I filled my lungs with cold mountain air. “Geez it hurts to breathe. My chest feels like someone’s whacked it with a baseball bat.”
“Glad you’re alive enough to hurt,” Cat said. “Your armor stopped the slugs.”
I turned onto my elbow. Propane lanterns threw ghostly light on everything it touched. A man and a woman I didn’t recognize measured distances, mapped the scene, and photographed bodies.
Pamela’s gray body was slumped on its side in the sleeping bag.
The guy who’d held the gun to my head stared into the rain. Marble-sized drops bounced off dead eyes and the pooled water in his open mouth.
I dropped my head back onto Cat’s lap. “I was afraid I wouldn’t get a chance to dance with you.”
Cat winked. “The night is still young.”
“Yes, it is.” I smiled. “Say, would you like to join me for dinner?”
“I hear you like SpaghettiOs and a beer over the sink.”
“Someone’s spilled the truth.”
“I prefer wine with canned pasta.”
“Then, I’ll crack open a box of a dynamite Chianti.