Casually dressed in a brown leather jacket, pullover sweater, jeans and hiking boots, Frank was looking forward to joining Milt and Mark for the rest of the weekend. Before leaving Los Angeles, though, Frank stopped off at his office more out of habit than because he expected any problems. But when he read the state-wide notice that a park ranger had been found murdered in the gatehouse at the southern entrance to Yosemite Park, dread shivered up his spine. He didn’t believe in coincidences and though he had no idea how Delarico or his henchmen had learned about Hardcastle’s plan to hide out in the park, he had no doubt that the ranger’s death was directly related. Unconsciously scowling with barely contained worry, he hastily found the number for the Park Superintendent’s Office and put through a call.
After introducing himself, Frank explained that a retired Superior Court Judge and another man had left for the park the day before, believing it would be a safe place for them to be in the days before the Judge was to testify at a murder trial after death threats had been made against his life. He described Hardcastle and McCormick, and the GMC, as well as providing the vehicle’s license number, and indicated that they would most likely have entered the park through the southern entrance.
“I know it may be a lot to ask, but I wonder if your park rangers could keep an eye out for them, and warn them that a hitman may have found out they’re there?” His frown deepened as he listened, unaware until then of the major storm system that had hit the park overnight. As if that wasn’t enough, worse weather, in terms of frigid temperatures and snow, was anticipated later that day. They couldn’t have picked a worse weekend for a spontaneous getaway to the park. “Yeah, sure, I understand the rangers are busy helping those stranded or injured by the storm,” he replied. “I’m just asking that they all keep a lookout for the vehicle. Your people also need to know that a hired and highly dangerous killer may be loose in the park.”
Frank’s lips thinned as he listened to all the reasons that tracking down his friends would be harder than finding two needles in the proverbial haystack. But the Park Superintendent finally indicated that they’d do their best and would advise Frank if they found the men. “I appreciate that.” Glancing at his watch, he added, “I’ll be heading up there in the next half hour or so, and will check in with you when I arrive. If nothing else, I can help track them down.”
After he ended the call, Frank contacted the District Attorney’s office, to let them know that their star witness in the upcoming trial was unaccounted for and might be in considerable danger. He promised to keep them apprised as events unfolded, and then put his staff to work tracing Delarico’s known associates. Frank wanted to know who might have been sent into the park to hunt down a witness and anyone unlucky enough to be with him.
Hardcastle’s harsh coughing woke Mark the next morning.
“Geez, Hardcase, that sounds like it hurts,” Mark empathized as he slogged his way out of his sleeping bag, which seemed determined to hold onto him until death did them part. Finally, he scrambled free and, shivering in the cold, he shifted closer to Milt, who was more feverish than he had been the night before. He found one of the water bottles he’d brought the Judge the evening before and uncapped it. When Milt took it, his hand was shaking badly, so Mark helped him sit up and he steadied the bottle while Milt drank.
“Thanks,” Milt sighed as Mark eased him back down. “Bad cold.”
“We need to get you to a doctor,” Mark asserted, but he couldn’t help the reflexive look over his shoulder at the tent closure or at the way the top and side of the tent were crushed by the massive weight of a fallen branch. “But first we have to get out of this tent,” he observed wryly. “And that might not be easy.”
Tense with worry, Mark scrambled across the tent floor to check out the obstruction in the dreary light of an overcast sky. He could hear the lazy plip-plop of water against the canvas, and wondered if it was still raining or if rain from the night was still dripping from the tree above and around them. The wind had faded away but the air was freezing. He shuddered with cold as he crouched by the opening and scrutinized the mass of branches blocking the way.
“Looks like the whole tree fell on us!” Mark exclaimed, aghast, but then he compared the situation to falling out of the sky when their pilot died and decided that, maybe, it really wasn’t so bad. For one thing, they weren’t ‘three hundred miles up from nowhere,’ and for another, they had supplies, shelter, and the Judge never left home now without Daisy; the fact that they were on solid ground already was also a plus. Add the fact that, so far as he knew, no crazy survivalists or corrupt local sheriffs were out to kill them, and they were way ahead of the game.
Nevertheless, he shook his head, still finding it hard to credit how bad their luck could be, as he hauled on his black leather jacket and zipped it up. Pulling his gloves from his pockets, he glanced back over his shoulder at Hardcastle who was blinking owlishly at him. “You stay there,” he directed with a no-nonsense tone, “while I see if I can shimmy out under the branches. If I can, there’s an axe in the truck that I can use to clear a better path.”
“What’s goin’ on?” Milt demanded, hoarse and still half-asleep.
“Oh, just a small delay in moving to more spacious accommodations,” Mark replied with a sardonic glance at the caved-in ceiling. Before leaving, he carried two more bottles of water, a bottle of orange juice, and the plastic container of aspirin to the Judge, laying them on the ground beside him. “The good news is you get to sleep in for awhile,” he added, determined to find the positive in their predicament. “Drink lots of fluids and stay warm, okay? I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Milt cleared his throat, grimacing at the soreness, and reluctantly nodded. “Don’t get lost and don’t go playing hero, y’hear?”
“Who me?” Mark quipped with fond indulgence and a crooked grin. Turning away, he crossed the tent and hunkered down in the opening to study the maze of branches. After a moment, he donned a pair of sunglasses that he pulled from his pocket, to protect his eyes. Then, pressing limbs aside, he shifted forward on his knees. Once outside the tent, he found it wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. The branches were thin and malleable, off-shoots of the heavier branch that was pressing down on the top of the tent. After zipping up the opening, he inched his way forward on his knees. Sliding on the icy, muddy ground, with little more than a low whimper at the cold slush soaking through his jeans, he managed to ease clear within a minute or two.
When he twisted around to look at the fallen oak that had come down on them, he blew a soft, awed whistle. Pushing himself to his feet, ineffectually brushing at the wet, freezing mud that covered him from the knees down, he studied the huge tree and the surrounding area. He could see that the creek had overflowed its banks during the night and had surged to within six feet of their tent. In the process, it had exposed and loosened the roots of the ancient tree, and the gale-force wind had done the rest. The poor old oak hadn’t had a chance; its thick trunk had landed just to the left of their tent, lodging against the picnic table and, from the look of it, the truck. Two, maybe three feet to the left and it would have crushed them during the night. The ragged, widespread branches hid the truck from his view.
Mark shuddered at how close they’d come to either being swept away by the flooding creek and drowned or crushed like bugs in their sleeping bags. Swallowing hard, he moved around the wreckage of the tree to inspect the damage to the truck.
“McCormick?” Milt called, his rough voice muffled by the canvas and the tree. “How’re you doing?”
“I’m out from under,” he shouted back, hoping the Judge could hear him. Sighing, he shook his head and his lips tightened with discouragement when he saw that their vehicle was crushed. The axe he needed was in the truck, where he couldn’t get to it without an axe to cut away the limbs and branches in the way. He couldn’t even get to the doors, to get in and try to drive out from under. From what he could see of the crushed hood, though, he figured the odds on the GMC even starting were probably about nil. He was going to have to find another way to get Milt off the mountain.
The freezing wind gusted, making him shiver. Hunching his shoulders and shoving his gloved hands into his pockets, he hurried back to where he’d started on the far side of the tent. “Judge?” he called as he hunkered down to peer through the branches. “Bad news. Can’t get to the axe. Can’t get inside the truck – it’s kinda crushed by this really huge tree. I’m gonna have to go for help.”
“Go? Go where?” Hardcastle demanded.
“Good question,” Mark mused to himself. Looking around at the wilderness that surrounded him, Mark felt completely demoralized. The lowering, leaden clouds overhead promised more rain or maybe – God forbid – snow. While the wind wasn’t as fierce as it had been overnight, it still cut through his clothing, chilling him to the bone. The narrow one lane bridge leading back to the main road between camps was the only place to cross the raging creek, but it was already a semi-submerged, sodden, muddy track. Frowning, he wondered why the heck the ranger had sent them so far into the mountains. Looked to him like they were the only people in this campground and he suspected that all the higher altitude campgrounds were also closed for the winter. But, then, he didn’t know that for sure and, to be fair, they weren’t where the ranger had told them to go. Maybe he’d find other campers in Porcupine Creek – and wheels, to get Milt to a hospital.
Even so, he couldn’t understand why the ranger would send anyone up the mountain, especially when rotten weather was forecasted.
Shrugging helplessly, he figured it was probably something as simple as all the lower campsites were already filled by weekend tourists. Just their luck to have arrived so late they couldn’t get anything better. Shivering and stamping his feet to keep warm, he knew they were in trouble. For one thing, they were in the wrong campground, and the ranger was the only person in the world aside from Frank, back in LA, who even knew they’d come to the park. So unless the ranger was back on duty and worried about them, no one would be looking for them, at least not until Frank arrived and wondered why they didn’t meet him in the Lodge’s dining room for lunch. Given the weather, Frank might decide not to make the journey, so they were back with only the ranger knowing they might be in trouble. But even if he did look for them, he wouldn’t find them where they were supposed to be.
God, he hated camping. Really, really hated it.
Chewing on his lip, he thought about his options. The next campground was about five miles back along the road; maybe it would have a working phone. Mark sure hoped so; it had to be at least twenty miles back to the village; a long way to walk in the freezing cold with a man who was running a high fever. Too far. But Mark wasn’t happy at the prospect of leaving Milt alone for the length of time it would take him to get to the village. Providing he could get there at all – what if the roads were flooded out, like Milt had suggested they’d be last night?
“Mark? You still there?” Milt called, sounding anxious.
Blowing a long breath, dejectedly noticing the fog it created in the cold, brittle air, he finally replied, “Yeah, I’m here, but I have to leave, at least for awhile. I’m going to head back along the road to the next campground. See if the phone is working there, to call for help. If it’s not, well, I may have to go all the way back to the village, or maybe just the closest gate where there’s a ranger station. I have no idea how long I’ll be.” Frowning, he sincerely hoped they didn’t have to worry about bears; surely they’d all be hibernating or whatever they did by now. “Will you be okay?”
“It’s too far to go back to Yosemite Village in this cold. Regardless of what you find, come back here. You hear me?”
“Yeah, yeah, I hear you, but –”
“No ‘buts’,” Milt cut in, then was caught by a spell of raw coughs. Mark winced, feeling helpless and not a little afraid of just how sick the Judge might be. Finally, the hacking subsided. “Come back an’ we’ll figure out the next steps together,” Milt managed, though his voice was thin and strained and he sounded breathless.
Mark was about to protest, but then he thought about it and nodded to himself. Milt was right. Maybe, once they looked at the maps and guidebooks he’d bought, they’d find a shorter route than following the road back to the village. And maybe the park rangers would come looking for them – or would even simply conduct a tour of the campgrounds to make sure everything was as it should be. Surely, they couldn’t be the only people in the wrong place at the wrong time. There had to be poachers and illegal campers trying their luck in the park all the time. “Okay,” he agreed. “I should be back in an hour or so.”
He rubbed his arms to get warm as he set out toward the gravelled road leading back to the main, paved route through the mountains. He slogged across the bridge and didn’t like the way it creaked and swayed under his weight. Would be just his luck to have the rickety structure collapse and toss him into the surging runoff from higher up the mountain. Beyond the bridge, the road was slick and muddy from the rain, but he loped along, hoping that keeping up a brisk pace would help him stay warm. The road climbed up through the forest; above him, wisps of clouds clung to the tops of the trees. By the time he finally reached the main road and turned to his left toward the closest campground, he felt the wind begin to pick up again. The slight rattle of the wind through the branches of the surrounding trees, the rasp of his breathing and the clump of his boots on the pavement were the only sounds in the leaden silence of the wilderness.
Mark was sure it was getting colder. Though he’d run most of the way, he couldn’t seem to get warm and the damp felt like it was burrowing through his leather jacket and jeans into the marrow of his bones. Keeping up a relentless pace, Mark soon reached the entrance of the White Wolf campground, which wasn’t far from where they’d taken a wrong jog in the darkness the evening before. The temperature had dropped quickly and the slush covering the road was beginning to freeze. When he got to the campground entrance, Mark found himself skidding and slipping on the ice, nearly falling, until he grabbed the sign that gave directions to the individual camp sites.
“Damn it,” he cursed, aggrieved by the bitter cold and rotten circumstances.
Sniffing against the chill, he studied the campground map on the sign and then set off up the lane into the grounds. He hadn’t gone far though when his progress was blocked by a raging creek that had overflowed its banks, like the one where they’d camped. Stymied, he looked up and down the rushing stretch of water. There had to be a way across. He had to get to a phone – who knew how sick Milt was? Mark was desperate to get him to a doctor.
Feeling nearly panicky with worry, recalling the map at the entrance, he hurried along the edge of the creek toward the location of the nearest phone. Mist swirled around him and the cold got colder. Fifteen minutes later, he looked across the flooding creek at the phone booth. Even from where he was standing, he could see the line had been cut, just like it had been in the campground behind him. Discouraged, worried, he turned to trudge back the way he’d come along the creek and then down the main road to the turnoff back to the Yosemite Creek campground.
As he picked up his pace, jogging now, anxious to get back to the Judge, a chill that had nothing to do with the dropping temperature shivered up Mark’s spine. What were the odds of being sent to an abandoned campground on the night before a monster storm? And what were the odds of the phones being damaged at the same time and in the same way?
One hell of a bad coincidence after another.
Mark wasn’t a big fan of coincidence.
In his experience, circumstances like this usually meant they were in deep trouble, but how bad could things be in a national park? It wasn’t like they were three hundred miles up from nowhere. Still, they were stuck in the wilderness, a lot of miles from a hospital. Looking around and up at the lowering sky, spotting the first flakes riding the wind, he gazed down at the raging creek and thought again of the cut phone lines.
Was it possible that Delarico had had them followed? Or had somehow known they were coming here? Well, not here exactly, but to the park? No, no, it was impossible. Nobody could know the Judge had headed up here to avoid trouble. And, sure, Delarico was powerful, but even he couldn’t arrange for a bout of pneumonia combined with potentially deadly weather. No, this was just their usual rotten luck when it came to camping and fishing.
“I HATE CAMPING!” he shouted at the clouds and trees in helpless frustration. There didn’t seem to be a way of getting Milt off this damned mountain and to help anytime soon.
Just as he was about to turn off the main road onto the narrow gravelled lane to the campground, Mark was startled by the distant rumble of an engine. The low mechanical growl was coming toward him from the direction of the Porcupine Creek campground, where they were supposed to be. Hope surged in his chest and he smiled in relief. The rangers must be looking for them. Or, if not park officials, maybe it was other campers who’d been sent up there by the ranger, like they’d been the afternoon before. Either way, a vehicle meant they could get Milt to a doctor, either in the clinic down in the village or in a nearby town. Arms tightly crossed, bouncing from one foot to the other to keep warm, he waited impatiently to flag down the driver and ask for help. Within a couple minutes, a light blue Ford pickup appeared around the next curve. Okay, so not the rangers – just another camper. No problem. Wheels were wheels, and that’s all he needed. Determinedly, he stepped into the road and waved the driver down.
“Hey, am I glad to see you!” he enthused when the pickup stopped beside him. “My friend is just down this road here, and he needs a doctor. A tree fell on our truck ….” Aware that the man was staring at him as if he had two heads, Mark floundered. “Well, anyway, we could sure use some help.”
“Uh huh,” the other guy grunted as his gaze flicked over Mark’s sodden, mud-caked appearance. The stranger looked to be in his mid-thirties, was dark haired with a heavy five-o’clock shadow and was garbed in jeans, hiking boots and a black leather jacket. “Hop in and show me where your friend is,” he instructed.
“Great,” Mark gusted with a wide smile as he climbed inside the blissfully warm cab. “Just head down this road about five miles, across a little bridge and we’ll be able to see the campsite.” He paused a moment to blow on his cold hands, but the stranger didn’t say anything, just nodded. “Uh, my name’s McCormick,” he added. “Mark McCormick.”
Again the man nodded. But he didn’t offer his own name. Mark shrugged and figured the guy just wasn’t all that sociable. There’d be time to get his name when they got back to Hardcastle.
Less than ten minutes later, they entered Yosemite Creek Campground and the driver slowed as they approached the old wooden bridge. The flooding hadn’t eased and water still rushed pell-mell under the structure with some spill-over onto the road bed.
“Doesn’t look good, does it?” Mark offered when the man stopped the truck rather than drive across the bridge. “We’re camped just over there,” he went on with a wave.
“Where?” the man asked, looking askance at the downed tree that hid both the truck and the tent from that angle.
“Behind the tree,” Mark replied. “Well, under it, actually,” he added as he slid out of the truck. “We should probably leave the truck here,” he explained with a worried glance at the rickety bridge. The driver gave a mirthless chuckle and nodded. Moving out ahead, anxious to check on the Judge, Mark hurried across the bridge and was conscious of how unsteady it felt as the stranger followed in his wake.
“Just hold it a minute,” the man called.
Mark turned back to face the man. “I’m just going to let my friend know I’m back, and see how he’s doing.”
“I said,” the guy replied, as he drew a pistol from his shoulder holster, “stop.”
Mark gaped at the gun as his stomach plummeted. “Who are you?” he asked, aghast at the turn of events. He’d thought he was waving down help, not some wacko thief or murderer. Swallowing hard, he fought back a sick feeling that meeting up with this guy hadn’t been an accident.
Too many coincidences.
“Your worst nightmare,” the man replied with a smug sneer. “I’m only after the old guy. You? Well, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he went on and leveled his weapon at Mark.
His mouth dry with sudden terror, Mark held his hands up helplessly as if they could stop the bullet that was being aimed at him. Desperate to escape certain death, Mark took a step back and looked around – but there was nothing, no possible weapon, nowhere to hide. He was going to die in this godforsaken campground and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do to stop it from happening. As if that wasn’t bad enough, guilt and grief filled him when he realized he’d led this killer straight to Hardcastle.
“Hold it!” Milt barked from somewhere to Mark’s left, up by the concrete bunker that housed the showers and toilets, the useless phone and the small empty office. Weak with relief, Mark thought the gravelly voice was the sweetest sound he could ever imagine hearing. “Drop your weapon!”
The stranger swiftly shifted his stance to shoot at Hardcastle, the blast of his pistol so close behind the shot from Milt’s gun that the sounds merged in one explosive report, like a crack of thunder, so loud that Mark flinched. Mortally wounded, the assassin staggered, trying to stay on his feet. His strength waning fast, his arm and aim unsteady, he fired his gun again, the bullet going wild. He tried to raise his pistol again even as he stumbled backward. Mark could see he was about to lurch into the raging creek and he leapt forward to grab the man’s arm – but all he caught hold of was the leather sleeve of the jacket. The stranger brought his gun arm up and around, as if intending to grapple with him or shove him away, and the pistol when off a last time. Mark jerked away as the weapon dropped from lifeless fingers, and the stranger fell backward into the rushing water and disappeared.
Stunned by the rapid turn of events, Mark turned toward Milt. The Judge was slowly approaching, weaving a little, as if he was dizzy, and his face was flushed with fever. But beneath the unhealthy ruddy blotches, Mark could see Milt was as pale as parchment.
“I am soooo glad you didn’t stay in the tent,” Mark gasped, feeling suddenly euphoric and panting a little as the adrenaline continued to spurt through his system, tightening his chest and making his heart pound. “I really thought I was a goner.”
Milt approached and patted his shoulder to lend support and reassurance. “I was checking out the facilities,” he explained with a gesture at the public restrooms. “And refilling our water bottles.” His eyes were reddened and he stood unsteadily, as if it took all his concentration to stay on his feet.
Stooping, Mark picked up the would-be assassin’s weapon. Only as he straightened did he become aware of a searing burn along his side. Twisting, looking down, he saw a hole in his leather jacket. “Oh, damn,” he grated and winced as the pain increased. “I think I’ve been shot.”
“What?” Gingerly, gently drawing Mark’s hands away, Milt opened Mark’s jacket and then his shirt, to get a better look at what they were dealing with. The inside of his jacket, and his shirt and jeans were sodden with blood.
“How bad is it?” Mark asked.
“Looks like the bullet cut a shallow trench along your hip, but it’s not deep. You’ll be fine,” Hardcastle told him.
“You sure it’s not serious? It’s starting to hurt like hell,” Mark argued, but more out of habit than concern. The relief coursing through him made him feel weak; or maybe, he thought bemusedly, that was loss of blood. Either way, if Hardcase said he’d be fine, he’d be fine.
“Hold on a minute,” Milt ordered as he led Mark to a picnic table and pushed him down on the seat. “Press down here,” he directed, and placed Mark’s hand over the wound. “I’ll be right back.” He hurried away, Mark assumed to get the first aid kit from their tent. Though it felt like an eternity of staring into the now thickly falling snow, Mark knew it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes before Hardcastle was back, his hands full of clean towels and one of Mark’s shirts.
“Couldn’t find the kit, but these’ll do. I’m gonna have to press down hard to stop the bleeding,” Milt said with grim resolution. “It’s gonna hurt.”
Mark nodded once. “Already hurts,” he grated and forced himself to again move his hands away from his body, to give Hardcastle room to work unimpeded. “Don’t cough right on the wound, okay?” he urged, trying for a crooked grin.
Milt just snorted, then swiftly covered the still oozing wound with a clean towel and pushed down hard. Mark gritted his teeth and did his best to simply endure. After a few minutes, the Judge checked the gash and grunted in satisfaction. He pressed a clean towel upon it and told Mark to hold it steady. Then he looped the shirt around Mark’s body, under his jacket, before tying it tight over the towel. “There, that should hold it, at least until we can get you to a hospital for a couple stitches.” Hardcastle reached into his jacket and pulled out the aspirin container and a bottle of water. “I did find the aspirin. Here, you should take a couple for the pain. Sorry, kid, we don’t have anything stronger.”
“That’s okay, thanks,” Mark replied, popping two pills and washing them down as Milt sank down on the bench beside him, coughing raggedly. The brief spurt of activity along with the coughing jag seemed to have drained every last drop of Hardcastle’s energy. Arms wrapped around his body, his head bowed, panting for breath, he sat hunched against the cold wind.
“Oh, God,” Mark breathed, forgetting his own wound as all his worry about Hardcastle rushed back, nearly overwhelming him. “Judge?” he asked, as he dropped to one knee in front of Milt, “are you okay?”
Milt looked at him, but his gaze was bleary, unfocused, as if he was on the verge of passing out. He frowned, clearly struggling to concentrate but was overcome by more deep, hacking coughs. A low, barely audible moan betrayed how much the painful coughing was wearing him down. When the spasm passed, Hardcastle blinked heavily as he patted Mark’s shoulder reassuringly, while he fought to catch his breath. Finally, he was able to rasp, “It’s just a bad cold, okay? Don’t get all worked up about it.”
“Just a cold, yeah,” Mark echoed, his tone disparaging and he shook his head. “More like pneumonia.” Pressing his lips together against further comment that wouldn’t help, he looked at the pickup on the other side of the bridge, squinting a little as he peered through the thickening veil of falling snow. “C’mon,” he urged, standing and looping a supporting arm around Hardcastle. “We’ve got to get you to the truck and out of here, before the weather gets any worse or that bridge washes out completely.”
“What about the main road? Is it flooded?” Milt puffed as he leaned heavily on Mark, and struggled to put one foot ahead of the other. He sounded as if he expected bad news but hoped for a miracle.
“Not yet, at least not as far as I could see. But the entry into the nearest campground was blocked by an overflowing creek or river or something,” Mark told him almost absently, while he concentrated on supporting Milt despite the searing pain in his side.
Hardcastle began coughing again and stumbled, but Mark held him up and kept him moving, half-dragging him forward. As they got closer, Mark studied the old bridge, and the water rushing over it. He was desperately afraid it wouldn’t hold their combined weight, but they didn’t have much choice. Gingerly, Mark stepped out onto the wooden planks, drawing Milt along with him. Icy water rushed over their boots, as high as their ankles, and splashed upward, wetting them to their knees. The bridge swayed and creaked, but Mark forged onward, determined to get Hardcastle to safety.
Finally, with a gust of relief, he stepped down onto the solid ground on the other side. Once he’d helped Milt up into the still warm cab, the Judge sank back against the leather with a grateful sigh, and his eyes closed in weary relief.
Though anxious to get away, Mark also knew they might need some supplies before they could get off the damned mountain. A glance in the bed of the truck showed some basic camping gear, including a couple sleeping bags, a nearly empty cooler holding only a few bottles of beer, and a propane stove. Hurrying back to their camp, Mark squirmed through the branches covering their tent. Between the killer’s gear and what was in the cooler, he figured they could last at least a day and another night, if they had to … if they couldn’t get off the mountain. He found and stuffed their first aid kit inside his jacket, and hauled their cooler out from under the tree. Filled with all their water, juice and perishable food supplies, it was heavy and, when he lifted it, he staggered a bit under its weight. The pull on the damaged skin and muscle along his side was exquisite agony but he sucked it up. With a litany of low curses about camping in particular, and the great outdoors in general, he slid and stumbled onward, splashing his way across the increasingly wobbly bridge.
It felt like a journey of a thousand steps, but at last he was able to heave the cooler up and over the side of the truck bed and pretty much dropped it onto the snow accumulating in the back. He grabbed the sleeping bags from the back of the truck, shook snow off them, and pushed them onto the floor in the middle of the cab. Returning to the cooler, he pulled out several bottles of water, which he also put in the front of the truck, between them, on the bench seat. Though he hated to leave the rest of their gear behind, he knew the one and only priority was to get Milt off the mountain before the weather got any worse.
After a brief, fast look around to see if he’d forgotten anything vital, glad to get out of the sharpening wind, he climbed up behind the steering wheel. There were no keys, but he made short work of hotwiring the vehicle. Slamming it into reverse, he gunned the engine and spun the wheel, turning the truck back toward the wooded lane to the main road. The backend fishtailed a bit on the icy gravel beneath the snow before the heavy duty tires got a grip. Windshield wipers flapping and the heater blowing full blast, they were soon ploughing through rapidly deepening drifting snow. Behind them, the ruts left by the tires were filled in seconds, until there was no sign that they’d ever been there.
Several minutes later, Mark turned onto the smooth broad swath of snow, all that could be seen of the main road. With no little surprise, he spotted a tall, pretty young woman garbed in jeans and bomber jacket, riotous dark curls framing her face, about a two hundred feet away at the side of the road.
“Thank God!” she called and waved joyously as she jogged toward the truck.
“What?” Hardcastle mumbled, jerking awake when the truck jolted to a stop. Looking around, he narrowed his eyes. “Who’s she and what’s she doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” he demanded suspiciously, his hand slipping inside his jacket to grip his pistol.
“Probably another camper stranded up here and just glad to see someone else,” Mark returned. Shaking his head at Milt’s caution, he argued, “Hey, c’mon, you already dealt with the hired gun. Besides, does she look like an assassin?”
“Does anybody?” Milt snapped, but Mark ignored him and jumped down out of the truck to meet her.
“I was afraid I was the only person stranded on this mountain – why in hell the rangers sent us up here, I have NO idea,” she continued, talking fast and sounding breathless. “I’ve been going from camp to camp but you’re the first person I’ve found. You know the road is flooded out in both directions? And none of the phones I’ve found so far work.”
“Where’s your car?” Mark asked, with an appreciative smile for her long legs – she had to be as tall as he was – and silky curls, as he moved forward to meet her. “Were you camping alone out here?”
“Just over there,” she said with a vague gesture at the park on the other side of the road. “Makes for a great retreat,” she went on as she sidled in closer and batted her long eyelashes. “You know, a chance to regroup, enjoy the beauty of nature?” Ruefully, she glanced up at the snowflakes falling thick and fast from the overhead clouds. “Well, usually, it’s great. Not so much this time.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” But once again he looked around, wondering why she was hoofing it. She had to have a car to know the road was flooded out in both directions. Besides, nobody would walk into this park, and they sure wouldn’t walk up into these mountains. It didn’t make any sense for her to be out in the worsening weather rather than inside a warm vehicle. “Did your car break down?”
He only saw her abrupt, rapid movement out of the corner of his eye, but instinctively he was already jerking away when the Judge shouted, “Look out!”
But he hadn’t been fast enough. He grunted in sharp surprise when she jammed the muzzle of a gun into his injured side, which made the dull pain he’d grown almost used to erupt into sharp shards of agony.
“Hold it right there, cutie-pie,” she drawled, looping an arm around his throat to hold him close as a shield between her and the truck. Instinctively, he grabbed her wrist to pull her arm from his throat because she was pressing hard enough to choke him, but she only dug the muzzle in harder. “Hardcastle!” she shouted toward the truck. “Come out where I can see you.”
“Don’t do it, Judge,” he yelled, knowing she’d kill them both.
“You better hope he does,” she murmured seductively. “I’d hate to have to shoot off an ear just to get his attention.”
Mark gulped and strained against the pressure on his throat. His mouth was dry and fear quivered in his belly. The wound in his side burned like fire, but that was the least of his problems. Hardcastle was sliding out of the far side of the truck. Mark knew he had to move, had to do something, before the Judge was in the open and vulnerable but, unsure what to do or how to distract her, he froze in frustration and self-condemnation. How could he have been so stupid as to let her get so close, just because she was pretty and looked so innocent? But, watching Hardcase edge closer and start to poke his head up over the hood, Mark told himself he could worry about how stupid he’d been later, if he was still alive. He had to stop her – but how?
She brought her weapon up, leveling it at the Judge, and Mark knew he was out of time.
Feigning weakness, but still holding tight to her wrist, he unlocked his knees and dropped, taking her down with him. She yelped, then cursed, when the unexpected move pulled her off balance. Mark grabbed her gun arm as they went down, and held the weapon well away from his body. Using his greater weight and strength, he twisted her over and onto her back, pinning her beneath him. Fighting like a wildcat, she kneed him viciously and punched him hard in the side, right over his earlier wound. Blinding agony burst like fireworks shooting through his body. With a low shout of pain, he fell away. Free of his weight, she rolled up to her knees, her revolver coming into line for a kill shot.
Hardcastle fired, the sharp report loud in the silence of the falling snow. The bullet blasted through her jacket straight into her heart. She arced backward, her arms flying up and her revolver spilling from her fingers. In a breathless heartbeat, she was sprawled on the hard, cold earth, her eyes staring unblinkingly up into the swirling snow.
Before Mark could do more than ease onto his back, Milt was there, dropping to one knee beside him. “Easy, kiddo,” he rasped hoarsely. “You okay?”
Looking up at him, Mark could see the worry written on Milt’s face. “Yeah,” he puffed, still trying to get his breath back as he fought the tidal waves of pain. “Just terminally stupid,” he added with a small groan as he tried to push himself up. Hardcastle lent him a hand and soon had him standing on his own two feet, still bowed with residual pain.
Hardcastle dusted the snow off him, then cast a grim look at the dead woman. “Yeah, well,” he muttered, then sighed and shrugged. “Guess we can’t leave her here. Better put her in the back of the truck.”
Mark grimaced at the idea of touching the body, but he nodded. Straightening his back, doing his best to ignore the cramping pain that still radiated from his groin and the torn flesh over his hip, he dropped to one knee to draw her limbs close to her body and then gathered her into his arms. Dragging in a deep breath, fighting a growing nausea, he heaved her up. Milt steadied him when he staggered a little. Wordlessly, he carried her to the truck and laid her down on the icy bed near the tailgate. He wished he had a blanket to cover her, but he didn’t.
“You okay?” Milt asked again, his voice low and roughened by all the coughing.
“Yeah,” Mark sighed but then anger surged. “How the hell’d they know to find us up here, huh?”
“I don’t know, kid,” Hardcastle replied. Pallid and out of breath, he gripped the edge of the truck bed and closed his eyes to fend off a bout of dizziness. “I’m not feeling too good,” he whispered huskily, almost as if he wasn’t quite aware of speaking aloud.
“Oh, God, I’m sorry, Judge,” Mark blurted. “C’mon, let me help you back into the truck.” As quickly as he could, he got Milt settled, and then hastened around the hood to climb in beside him. “You hungry?” he asked, but Hardcastle just shook his head.
Mark could feel the fever radiating off his friend, and he knew that it had to be very bad. Pulling the first aid kit from inside his jacket, he rummaged in it for the aspirin and then tipped three tablets out of the container. “Here,” he said, “you need to take these to bring down your fever.” When Hardcastle took them, Mark quickly twisted the cap off a bottle of water and handed it to him. The fact that Milt downed the pills without argument, and swallowed water as if he was dying of thirst, didn’t reassure Mark in the slightest. He hastily shook out one of the sleeping bags and draped it over Hardcastle, to help him stay as warm as possible. Milt muttered in distant gratitude and fell into an instant, deep sleep.
Shivering from a chill that had nothing to do with the weather, Mark again hotwired the engine and peered through the snow swirling around them. The road had completely disappeared under growing drifts that looked like low rippling waves of snow for as far as he could see. About the best he could do was keep the truck in the middle of the clear space between the thick forests on either side of the road, and hope he didn’t inadvertently drive straight into a ditch. Gripping the steering wheel as if it was a lifeline, leaning forward to try to see through the snow, he shifted into drive and edged forward through the storm.
“Hang on, Judge,” he urged, low and scared. “Just hang on, okay?”
They hadn’t gone a mile when he was forced to stop. Massive, broken pines were lying half in and half out of the water that was washing across the road in front of him. “Oh, this isn’t good,” he muttered, awed by the flooding river that had had the power to bring down the trees somewhere up on the mountain, and then had carried them here where the combined force of the raging waters and the weight of the majestic trees had taken out a bridge. Now, the trees were acting as a partial dam and water was backing up around them, spreading onto the road.
Belatedly realizing the danger, Mark slammed the gear shift into reverse and stood on the accelerator to move the truck back and far away from the water reaching out toward them. An inch or two of water could float the truck and, if that happened, there’d be no way for Mark to stop them being carried into the raging torrent.
The engine screamed and the back wheels spun in the deep snowy trough they’d carved in the pristine snow. The surging icy water rushed ever closer ….