The story so far: U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent Angela Dimato is accompanying a group of volunteers on a habitat restoration project via raft in remote western Colorado. Their objective: remove invasive, exotic tamarisk trees and reintroduce native plants, with the goal of improving habitat for native wildlife, including the endangered southwestern willow flycatcher. The group of 14 volunteers and staff is diverse, and includes two ill-prepared, at-risk juveniles, Peter and Damon, performing court-ordered community service after setting fire to public land. Kate is the project’s crew chief; a grandfather/grandson duo, Bobo and Maxwell, are birders; and Danimal and his brother, Greg, own the rafting company.
The next three of four days the crew worked, the adults cutting the trees and the young people stacking the wood.
“It’s pretty sad when a 12-year-old kid can work circles around you, isn’t it?” Angela asked, plopping down to rest on a log beside Peter and Damon. Both young men were sweating, while Maxwell scampered up the slight rise from the river with an armload of wood in his arms.
Peter flipped back his hair. “You don’t have to rub it in.”
Angela studied the boys.
“I noticed you left camp after dinner last night,” she said. “Care to tell me where you went?” She and Kate had established a few “off-limits” areas—places where the thicket grew thick and there was a bigger chance of running afoul. Angela suspected that was the first place they’d gone.
“Nowhere,” Damon said.
His response was too quick. Angela knew she’d nailed it. “What gives?”
Peter’s legs were stretched out in front of him and he kept his eyes on his shoes. “We just went for a walk. We didn’t see anything.”
Now Angela knew something was up.
“Really,” she said, letting the silence stretch.
“Shut up, Peter.” Damon clambered to his feet. “Let’s get back to work.”
“Sit down!” Angela wasn’t about to let either of them off the hook. “I’m going to ask you again: Where were you?”
“We just wanted a smoke,” Peter said. “We went down river a little ways, so no one would smell it.”
Angela sensed there was more. “And?”
“We found this bird’s nest on the ground.” Peter said. “We figured if you found out about it, we’d get in trouble for it. When I went to hide it in the trees, we found this trail leading up from the river.”
Damon shook his head in disgust. “TMI, dude.”
“It was probably just a deer trail,” Angela said.
Peter shook his head. “I don’t think so. It looked pretty well-traveled. We followed it until we got about halfway up the hill, then we heard these two guys talking.”
“Nothing good,” Damon said. “They were arguing.”
She asked again. “About what?”
“They didn’t like that we’re down here working,” Peter said.
Damon nodded. “One of them said that if we got too close, they’d have to do something about it.”
“That’s when we beat it back here,” Peter said.
“And you didn’t think to tell me?” As the only law enforcement officer, it was her job to ensure everyone’s safety. It helped to know when they might be in danger. “Can you show me where the trail is?”
Damon shook his head and stepped backed. “I’m not going back there.”
Angela frowned. He seemed really spooked.
“I’ll go,” Peter said.
Angela walked Damon back to camp and told Kate where she and Peter were going. Bobo and his grandson had gone bird watching upstream, but everyone else was gathering to watch Danimal make lasagna.
“I need you to keep everyone here until Peter and I get back.”
Kate gave her a puzzled look. “Is something wrong?”
Angela answered truthfully. “I’m not sure. I need to take a look at a damaged bird’s nest Peter found. We’ll be back.”
After a five-minute walk along the river’s edge, Peter led Angela into a small clearing near the river’s edge. “This is where I found the nest.”
He pointed into the thicket, and Angela knelt down for a closer look. The nest—an open cup made of grass, strips of bark, and plant fibers, and lined with soft plant fibers and feathers—was torn and crushed on one side. She felt her pulse quicken. “This could be a willow flycatcher’s nest.”
“We didn’t see any eggs or anything.”
Angela stood up. “I want you to stay here while I go see what’s over the hill.”
“You’re not leaving me.”
“Why? Are you afraid to stay here by yourself?”
“You would be too, if you’d heard those dudes talking.”
“Okay, but stick close.”
She struck out along the red dirt path that wound uphill through a field of red boulders, pinyon-juniper and sagebrush into a narrow canyon. The wrens and bushtits zipped through the shrubs on either side of the path as they climbed, then suddenly the birds went silent. The lack of chatter raised Angela’s hackles. Glancing up, she watched a red-tailed hawk make lazy circles in the sky.
Before too long, they reached sheer rock walls that towered on both sides for about a quarter of a mile. The trail broke back into the light and crested a knoll. Slowing, she cautiously moved forward until she could see the path fall away and what appeared to be a camp in a small clearing ringed by tall ponderosas. Two tarps attached to the trees shielded two large tents. Chairs ringed a large fire pit. A mound of beer cans formed a small mound to the west, next to a stack of harvested firewood.
At the edge of the small clearing, a generator fed power to a Yeti Tundra 110 cooler. It required a permit to camp here, but by the looks of it, whoever stayed here had been around a long time.
Angela turned back to Peter. “It looks like the camp is deserted. I’m going to go down and take look around. You stay here and keep a lookout.”
“What if someone comes back?”
Angela patted him on the shoulder. “Remember the willow flycatcher call?”
“The one the kid and his grandpa taught us on the raft?”
Angela nodded. “Just make sure you whistle loud enough I can hear you.”
Before Peter could protest, Angela headed down the path toward the camp. Creeping up to the side of one tent, she peered inside, finding a sleeping bag, pillow and duffle bulging with filthy clothes. The second tent seemed a duplicate, except for a small bound journal lying on the ground.
Angela stooped down, picked it up and skimmed through the pages. The first entry caused a cold dread to seep through her bones—a dread punctuated by the sharp call of a willow flycatcher coming from the crest of the trail.