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 and are surprised to hear two men arguing, angry about the group of volunteers camped nearby. One of the men threatens the group. Clearly, the boys are 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 investigates, and realizes the men are fugitive bank robbers, and heavily armed. They hear the men approach, and she and Peter are forced to hide in silence until after dark to sneak back to their camp. There, their crewmates were about to start a search for Angela and Peter. To avoid panic among the volunteers, Angela reveals the situation only to Kate, the crew chief. They need to call the police. Kate retrieves the satellite phone from its safe storage—and finds it smashed to pieces.
“Someone doesn’t want us making a call,” Kate said, staring down at the phone on the ground. “I swear it was in one piece when I tied it into the raft. Do you think it could have been the fugitives?”
Angela shrugged. If not them, it meant the saboteur had to have been one of the crew, someone who knew about the fugitives and about Angela and the boys’ discovery. “It beats the alternative,” she said. “The men were fishing on the river. It’s possible they stumbled upon the rafts and disabled the phone to prevent anyone from reporting them.”
“So what do we do now?” Kate asked.
“Not much we can do tonight.” It was getting too dark for them to be on the river, and too dark for anyone to hike out. “We need to let the rest of the crew know what’s going on.”
“What if those men come into camp?” Kate said, her voice laced with fear.
Angela refused to think about it. “There are four of us. We’ll set up two-person shifts to keep watch, and head out at dawn.”
While the others chatted around the campfire, Angela and Kate pulled Greg and Danimal aside and explained the situation.
“Who wants the first shift?” Angela asked.
Kate and Danimal raised their hands. “We’ll be the ones steering the rafts with people,” Dan said. “It seems smart for us to get some sleep just before we head out.”
Angela conceded that he had a point. “Then Greg and I will take the second shift. It’s ten o’clock now. Wake us at two a.m. and we’ll switch out.”
Three hours later, Angela was jostled awake. Her eyes fluttered open.
“Everything’s been quiet,” Kate whispered before ducking back outside.
Angela grabbed her flashlight and followed. She watched Kate disappear into her tent, then made her way toward the fire pit. Greg stood there, stirring the ashes that were still wet from last night’s dousing.
“I’ll take Danimal’s spot,” Greg said softly, pointing upstream from camp.
Angela nodded, turned, and moved to a vantage point opposite, at the edge of the thicket. The best place to perch was on a small log, halfway between the path to the river and the path leading to the fugitive’s camp.
Before Angela had gone to sleep, she had pulled her gun and duty belt from the dry bag at the bottom of her backpack. Now, even recognizing that her 9mm pistol would be no match for the men’s rifles, she patted her holster, glad for the false sense of security it offered.
At first, every rustle and snap caused her to stiffen. A series of accelerating hoots told her a western screech-owl was hunting in the woods nearer the river. A rustle in the thicket signaled a small animal ducking for cover.
She wasn’t afraid of the woods, or of animals, or of being alone, for that matter, but she did fear the two men she and Peter had narrowly avoided earlier in the day. They were desperate fugitives, and that made them dangerous.
At the first hint of dawn, Angela stood, stretched, and made her way toward the river. A sharp, electric peent overhead signaled a common nighthawk hunting, and she looked up, spotting the long-winged bird flying in a looping pattern overhead. It wouldn’t be long before the diurnal birds awoke.
Nearing the beach, a sharp crack rent the night air. It took a moment to register.
Diving for cover, Angela pressed her back to the trunk of a large cottonwood tree. It was impossible to tell which direction the shot came from as the sound ricocheted off the stone walls of the canyon.
A second shot!
This one helped her pinpoint the shooter. Whoever fired the weapon stood behind her, likely somewhere at the top of the cliff face above the camp.
When a third shot exploded from the ridge, Angela realized the shooter wasn’t aiming for her. A sense of dread smothered her. In the dim light, she saw the three rafts. Two lay on the shore like flattened balloons, while the third quickly lost air. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the fugitives didn’t want the crew breaking camp.
The sudden shek, shek, shek of a magpie signaled the start of the dawn chorus, and the air soon filled with the sounds of doves, wrens, and grosbeaks. Then the orioles and kingbirds joined, building to a cacophony that rivaled the rising voices of the Tamarisk Removal Project crew members.
Spurred on by the singing of the birds, Angela raced back toward the tents. She needed to keep the crew out of rifle-shot range, and one of them needed to hike out and go for help—the sooner the better.
Kate had everyone assembled by the time Angela got back to camp. They all looked wide-awake, fear etched into their faces. Angela took a quick headcount. The two boys, Bobo and his grandson, Julia Glew, the six from the other raft, Greg, Danimal, Kate, and herself. Fifteen. Everyone accounted for.
“What’s going on,” Bobo demanded, one arm looped around Maxwell’s shoulders.
Angela explained the situation, withholding nothing.
“Are you saying we’re pinned down?” Julia asked, her voice higher than normal.
“I’m afraid so.”
“And there’s no way out of here?” Damon asked.
“That’s what we’re saying,” Angela said. “Without the satellite phone and with the rafts destroyed, the only way out is to hike. Unfortunately, that puts us directly in the fugitives’ line of fire.”
“Well we can’t just sit here,” Greg said. “What if we create a distraction? Make it look like we’re all heading downstream, then I’ll go south and hike over to the path on the backside of the ridge. It leads to the pullout at Bedrock.”
“It’s worth a try,” Kate said. “Maybe some of us stay undercover and get down to the river. There’s bound to be other rafts coming through.”
Angela considered the idea. “Okay, look, the majority of us need to stay in camp. Everyone’s safe here.” For now, she thought. “There’s no line of sight for the shooter, and no easy approach. Who knows how to shoot a gun?”
Kate, Dan, Bobo, and Peter raised their hands. There was no way she was handing her pistol to a teenager, and she couldn’t shake a niggling thought that one of the crew had damaged the satellite phone. Who else knew it was there?
That left one logical choice. “Bobo. I’m going to give you my weapon. Let’s hope you don’t have to use it. Dan, you need to hug the edge of the thicket, taking cover in the trees. Make your way toward the rafts. We need to pull all the supplies we can, and hopefully focus attention on you. Stop when you get to where you can see the ridge. Once you’re in position, Kate and I will head downstream through the thicket, and try and draw the men off the ridge. When you see them move, signal Greg to go. Once he’s clear of the campsite, signal Bobo.” She turned to the grandfather. “When Dan gives the signal, whistle like a southwestern willow flycatcher. Once Kate and I hear that sound, we’ll return to camp. Everyone clear?”
“I want to go with you,” Peter said.
Angela shook her head. “No. You need to stay here.”
“No.” Angela looked at the crew. “Ready?”
On her signal, Dan headed for the edge of the thicket and edged his way toward the rafts. Once he reached the cottonwood tree where Angela had taken refuge, he stopped. Angela and Kate headed for the thicket.
“Don’t go fast,” Angela said. “We want to lure them away from their posts, not get caught.”
“Trust me, I don’t want to die,” Kate said.
They pressed forward, Kate leading the way. About a hundred yards in along the narrow deer path, Angela heard the crack of a rifle. A piercing scream filled the air; someone had been shot!