02 June, 2012
2 June 2012
The road trip down to Arizona was an enjoyable one for Bud and Susan, stopping whenever it suited them to walk here or there and let Bud stretch his healing leg so it didn’t become too stiff with all the hours of sitting, talking, listening to music and generally enjoying one another’s company, and when after a brief stop for groceries they began climbing the long, winding gravel road up to Bud’s gate, both were in good spirits. Bud had somewhat expected the road to be snow packed, after seeing conditions back in the search area, but it was instead quite thoroughly melted out, gravel and mud with only the occasional hint of a lingering snow bank, and he was glad, as he had made no provision for keeping the driveway plowed in his absence, and had figured they’d have to park at the bottom and walk up. Not that he had any doubt about Susan’s ability or willingness to make that climb on foot, not after having spent the past two weeks climbing with her all over some of the roughest terrain in the Rockies, she leading the way a good bit of the time, but seeing as they had a good bit of luggage and the groceries besides he was happy to be able to drive. All of which, he knew, was really just his way of justifying the fact that he really didn’t want to put that many more miles on his leg, just yet. Thing had got him up to the ridge to meet Roger’s plane, but it had come at a cost, and he hadn’t been moving very fast at all, since.
Driveway was nearly as clear as the road had been, muddier, in patches, and he got out just below the gate out locked the hubs on Susan’s truck more in the hopes of being able to avoid too badly washboarding the driveway than out of any concern that they might not make it. They’d make it. He’d done that drive in worse conditions. Something wasn’t right, though, and he crouched for a minute there beside the front wheel of the truck, listening, testing the breeze that rolled down soft and ponderosa pine-scented from the surrounding hills, hair standing up on the back of his neck. Couldn’t figure it. Saw no tracks--either vehicle or boot--in the muddy turnoff leading from the road, no sign that anyone had been up there before them yet his sense of another human presence, a menacing, malignant force, lying in wait and about to spring, was so strong that it was all he could do to keep from hastily pulling Susan from the truck, rolling into the nearby ditch and taking up a defensive position.
Good thing he found himself able to resist that urge, as the next moment, on his feet and heading cautiously up to unlock the gate, Bud heard a rustle and a snap from down in that very same ditch--a small gully, more accurately, which ran alongside the road and was heavily timbered with chokecherry and small ponderosas--and turned around just in time to see four heavily armed men rush out at the truck. His response swift and immediate, there followed a standoff during which Bud’s .45 remained leveled at one of the men, reasonably close range, no way he could miss, and he’d caught them somewhat off guard, rushing at his back as they’d been, Susan’s shotgun on another from her position in the cab as hasty words were exchanged, identification shown on both sides and things began to settle down a bit.
Bud Kilgore was angry. For a number of reasons and at a number of people, but the one he chose to focus on just then involved the audacity of those four federal agents ambushing him on his own driveway, on his honeymoon, when he’d just been at Task Force HQ the day before where they could have asked him anything they wanted, and in a far more civilized manner. The AIC would hear of it, he let them know, Washington would hear of it, and they’d be doing temp work out of the nearest agency office before they ever found themselves in a position to ambush a man and his wife on their honeymoon, again. Quiet and professional, the men let him finish his rant, motioning Susan out of the truck--she complied, only so that she could stand with Bud--and never relaxing their attention on the bed of the truck, inching closer until finally Bud got their attention with the pistol, temporarily stopping their advance.
“What’s this, now? Not only disrupt a man’s honeymoon, but now you’re intent on ripping up my lady’s truck? What’s the idea, here?”
“It’s authorized, Kilgore. Talk to HQ. Now are you going to let us have a look, or do we need to toss in a flashbang or two and see what comes out?”
“Doggone flashbang’ll break all the eggs and smash up the tomatoes and leave the sharp cheddar tasting of nitrate and fumes, and then what’re we gonna do for omelets? Mighty dirty trick, that one is. Threatening a man’s food supply, and on his honeymoon. Yeah, go ahead and have your look, but I’m telling you, there’s gonna be hell to pay for this one, fellas.”
Moving with a swift caution that definitely implied the expectation of something more alive and reactive than omelet ingredients two of the men ripped back the bed cover while the other two covered it with their carbines, rifling through the various bags and boxes contained therein with the precision and care of men who expected a trap. But found little more than the aforementioned groceries, bags of outdoor gear, warm clothes and two pairs of snowshoes. They looked disappointed, relieved and slightly embarrassed all at once, even taking the time to put things back in some semblance of order before stepping away from the truck. Bud was not impressed, climbed into the cab and shot the men a dark look.
“Now if you’ll excuse us, gentlemen, I’ve got a gate to lock and some phone calls to make. You boys better keep off my land from now on, understand?”
Not until they had turned the corner of the first switchback on Bud’s driveway did Susan dare to breathe again, letting out a long sigh and beginning to shake, shotgun still across her knees. “They were here for Einar, weren’t they? Thought we might have brought him down with us…”
“What if he’d said yes? And they’d all three been back there under that cover? It would have been the end for them…”
“Would have been the end for a lot of folks, that’s for sure. Not that we would have driven up here so casually if carrying that sort of cargo, but the crazy old mountain critter was probably right. Only place for them’s up there in those hills. At least for now. I still think we can work out something better for ’em, provided he’s ever willing to consider such a move, but for now they’d better just sit tight.