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 troubled youth, Peter and Damon, performing court-ordered community service. While camped for the evening, the boys sneak off and encounter two men, which Angela recognizes as fugitive bank robbers, and heavily armed. To avoid panic among the volunteers, Angela reveals the situation only to Kate, the crew chief. When they attempt to call the police, they discover the satellite phone to have been smashed to pieces. Who is responsible: the fugitives, or a saboteur among the work crew? At dawn, a gunshot cracks through the air—then two more, coming from the cliff face behind Angela. As Angela returns to camp, she sees the targets: All three rafts have been hit and deflated. The volunteers are alarmed, so she explains the situation: The only way out of the canyon is to hike, which would put them in the line of fire. They concoct a plan: Some of the crew will stay at camp. Angela gives her gun to Bobo, a birder. She instructs raft guide Danimal to retrieve supplies from the rafts while she and Kate head downstream under the protection of a thicket, hoping to distract the shooter. Another gunshot pierces the air, followed by a scream! Someone has been shot!
Angela and Kate headed back to camp. Above them, in the direction of camp, a pair of turkey vultures spun lazy circles in the sky. It did nothing to relieve her anxiety. It was too soon for them to swoop in and feed, but they seemed to be hovering.
“What the hell happened?” Kate yelled, thrashing her way through the thicket.
“Slow down,” Angela said. Though they were not out in the open, they were still far enough away from camp to be targets. “Stop charging through the bushes. We don’t want the shooter taking potshots in our direction.”
That seemed to sober Kate up. She slowed her pace, dropping behind Angela as they picked their way cautiously toward the clearing. Reaching the edge of the thicket, Angela sucked in a breath, stepped into the clearing, and came face-to-face with the barrel of her pistol.
Bobo cleared his lungs, took his finger off the trigger, and held out the pistol. “Here, you take it.”
Angela found it difficult to breathe. Taking the gun, she jammed it into her holster and willed her heart to stop banging against her ribs as she walked into camp.
A quick head count came up short. The six crew members from Dan’s boat were huddled together on a log at the base of the cliff. Bobo had taken a seat next to Maxwell in the opening of their tent. Near the base of a large pine, Peter worked to calm Damon, who was hysterical and hyperventilating.
“Bend over and breathe through your hands,” Angela said, walking over and forcing the boy to double in half. She glanced at Kate. “We’re missing three.”
“Danimal went down to the rafts.”
Angela wet her lips. They knew the fugitives had a long gun and the trajectory to shoot that far. “One of us should go check on him.”
“No need,” Bobo said, jerking his head toward the path leading down the river. Danimal was jogging toward them.
“Where’s Greg?” he demanded, puffing as he reached camp. Stretching backwards he placed his hands on the do-rag on the top of his head.
“He hasn’t come back,” Bobo said.
“And where’s Julia?” Angela asked.
“We thought she was with you,” Peter said.
Angela looked at the others. They were all waiting on her. Now that criminals were involved and someone was shooting at them, she had surfaced as their natural leader.
“Okay, first things first, we know which direction Greg was headed. Two of us need to go and see if he made it out, or if he’s somewhere on the trail in need of help. Danimal and I will go.” It only made sense. Danimal was the only one strong enough to carry his brother if the need arose, and she was the one with the gun.
“What about Julia?” Kate asked.
“We need to wait and see if she makes it back on her own. Meanwhile, while Dan and I are gone, everyone needs to stick together. Keep an eye on the entrances into camp. Remember, there are two of them and fifteen of us¾”
“Thirteen,” Peter corrected.
“The point is we know they’re armed, but they have no idea who among us might have a weapon. We need to set up a watch on the entrances to camp and come up with a signal to warn each other if a stranger heads our way.”
Maxwell puckered his lips and let out a sharp “whit.”
Smart kid. “That’s perfect, Maxwell. Try it,” she said to the others.
No one else was as good at imitating the southwestern willow flycatcher. The attempts would never fool an experienced birder, but for their purposes, it worked.
“Bobo, you and Maxwell go explain the plan to the others. Take Damon with you. Station yourselves in groups on either side of the camp and close to the cliff to keep an eye on the path to the river.”
“What about us?” Peter asked, gesturing between Kate and himself.
“Kate’s in charge,” Angela said. “You’re her new second-in-command. If we’re not back within 40 minutes, do whatever she tells you to do.”
Angela took point, with Dan dogging her heels. They could follow Greg’s boot prints on the path. No other prints marred the red dirt, making him easy to track. A half-mile up the trail, the boot prints disappeared, replaced by drag marks highlighted with blood.
“Greg,” Dan shouted.
“Shhh,” Angela whispered. “Follow the marks, and keep your voice down.” They had no way of knowing where the shooters were and the last thing she wanted was to get shot.
The tracks disappeared 30 feet off the path, beside a cluster of large red rocks. A moan signaled a presence behind the largest stone.
They found Greg in a crumpled heap among a set of large boulders. Dan bent over his brother and jostled his shoulder. Greg groaned.
From the puddle of blood, Angela knew he’d been shot in the leg. Ripping open his right pant leg, she could see the bullet had gone into his thigh.
“Danimal, give me your do-rag.”
He frowned, but pulled the bandana off of his head and handed it to her. It was wet with sweat, but it would have to do.
Angela quickly untied the back, twisted it into a roll and cinched it around Greg’s leg above the wound. “He’s in shock, and he’s lost a lot of blood. Let’s get him back to camp.”
Dan reached to pull him up, then froze.
He didn’t move, so Angela leaned forward, and saw the snake. It was heavy bodied with a triangular head and diamond-shaped patterns along its back. A western diamondback rattler—and it had also seen them. Startled, it had coiled a few feet from Greg’s head.
Angela guessed it to be about four feet long, which meant its maximum striking distance was approximately three feet. They were right on the edge of its range, too close to the snake to wrestle Greg out of the rocks safely.
Slowly she pulled back.
Greg moaned, and the snake raised its head. It assumed a threatening posture and began to fearsomely rattle its tail.