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 includes two teenagers, Peter and Damon, performing court-ordered community service after setting fire to public land. While camped for the evening, the boys sneak off for a smoke, and are surprised to hear two men arguing, angry about the group of volunteers camped nearby. One threatened the group. Clearly, the boys were spooked. Peter reluctantly agrees to take Angela to the spot where they had heard the men. Angela finds the men’s camp nearby, vacant. She instructs Peter to keep watch as she investigates, and to imitate the flycatcher song if the men return. At the disheveled camp she finds a journal, and reading it, realizes the scope of the danger—then hears the sound of the flycatcher.
Angela dropped the book and peeked out from the tent flaps. Peter stood above her in the center of the trail frantically waving his arms and gesturing toward the river. She sprinted up the hill toward him in time to hear voices approaching from below.
“Quick,” she whispered. “Get off the path.” If what she’d read in the journal was true, they were in more danger than she cared to admit.
Peter scampered into the scrub with Angela right behind. They hid behind a large boulder near the crest of the hill. Peering out, she watched as two men made their way toward camp.
Peter clawed at her shirt, pulling her back, and she swatted his hands away. She wanted to know who they were dealing with.
The man bringing up the rear carried a large fish. His companion carried the poles. It took a few minutes for them to pass their hiding place and reach the fire pit. When they did, the man in the lead turned around.
Angela sucked in a breath.
Delbert Sinclair snapped his head up.
She would have recognized him anywhere. Last August, the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office had circulated the man’s picture to all Colorado law enforcement. The fellow with him must be his partner, Leon Cranford. Nine months ago, the two had robbed the Cortez National Bank and gotten away with close to $300,000, igniting a full-scale manhunt that turned up nothing. It seemed as if the two men had disappeared without a trace. Most believed that they had headed for Mexico, and yet here they were.
“Did you hear something, Leon?” Sinclair asked.
The man turned and looked back. Angela and Peter held still for what seemed like an eternity. Cranford shook his head. “It ain’t nothing.”
The fear Angela had felt in the tent seeped deeper into her bones. What were they going to do? She and Peter could make a break for the rock passageway, but there was no way they would get through without being seen. Even with the element of surprise, there was no way she could take down both men.
“What now?” whispered Peter.
Angela brought her finger to her lips. Pulling the field book out of her pocket, she wrote him a note.
We wait until its dark, and then we get the hell out of Dodge.
She could only hope that no one from their camp came looking for them before it was safe for them to leave.
The sun set until 8:38 p.m., but it was nearly 10 p.m. before the sky was dark enough for them to make their move. Angela’s knees had grown tired, and her joints screamed at the motion of moving into position to flee. The men had been drinking for more than two hours and were carrying on a lively debate. Angela hoped their voices would drown out any noise Peter’s and her departure might make.
Angela tapped the teen on the arm and gestured up the path.
“Take the lead,” she mouthed. “Be quiet.”
The two of them inched their way around the shrubs, then picked up their pace on the path. Cresting the hill, Peter’s foot hit a section of loose gravel setting off a small avalanche of red dirt and rocks on the trail.
“What the hell?” Sinclair jumped up and grabbed a flashlight.
Angela pushed Peter over the hill, and then signaled for him to drop to the ground. She held her breath and listened. In the distance, she heard the hoot of a great horned owl, then a beam from a flashlight swept the ground within two inches of her nose.
“Come on back, Del. It’s just some dumb animal. You’ve been jumpy ever since the work detail showed up.”
“That’s because they brought a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent out here with them.”
The fact he knew she was along for the ride made her feel uneasy. A tug on her pant leg brought her attention around. Peter! She needed to get him to safety, and then she needed to call for backup.
Angela signaled for him to move, once again bringing up the rear. As soon as they cleared the narrow rock passage, Angela took the lead and picked up the pace. They needed to get back to camp before Kate sounded an alarm.
Kate was gathering the other campers, just as the two of them neared the campsite. “Where the hell were you?” she demanded once everyone had greeted them. “I was about to send out a search party.”
“We went for a hike and got a little lost,” Angela said, shooting Peter and Damon a warning glance. She hoped they were smart enough to keep quiet. There was no point in scaring everyone.
“Yeah,” Peter said. “She’s not very competent for a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent.”
Angela thinned her lips, but took the ribbing.
“Great,” Bobo said. “Then Maxwell and I are going back to bed. The birds get up early, and tomorrow we’re going to do a little birding downstream before the workday starts.”
“That’s not a good idea,” Peter said, before clamping a hand across his mouth.
Bobo turned back around. “Why not?”
Angela stepped forward. “The thicket’s impenetrable. We were forced to go around, which is how I got turned around,” she added, shooting a glare at Peter.
“I’ve got a compass,” Bobo said.
She decided not to say anything more, because it didn’t matter. She just needed to make a call and, by morning, this would all be over.
As the others headed off for their tents, Angela pulled Kate aside. “I need to use the satellite phone.”
Angela hesitated. Kate needed to know the truth. After all, she was the team leader and ran the show out here, which meant the safety of the workers was ultimately her responsibility. “Peter and Damon managed to find some trouble out here.”
“I’m all ears.”
Angela filled her in, watching Kate’s expression grow more and more concerned.
“What?” she said, when Angela was finished. “You can’t be serious.”
“I can. I am. Dead serious. The phone?”
Kate led the way to the rafts. The dry bag still dangled from its tie-off at the front of the raft. Kate undid the rope and handed Angela the sack. She reached inside, and felt her breath hitch in her throat.
“What?” Kate asked.