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 happens upon the camp of two fugitive bank robbers, 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 the next morning, gunshots crack the air: All three rafts have been hit and deflated. The volunteers are alarmed, and Angela explains the situation. The only way out of the canyon is to hike, which would put the crew in the line of fire. They concoct and implement a plan: Danimal retrieves supplies from the rafts; she and Kate head downstream, hoping to distract the shooter; Greg hightails it to a path that leads to nearby town, where he will get help. Another gunshot pierces the air, followed by a scream! Someone has been shot! Angela and Kate rush back to the campsite; Greg and Julia are missing! Angela and Dan follow Greg’s footprints, and in a half mile, the prints turn to drag marks, and blood. They find Greg crumpled behind a pile of boulders, a bullet in his thigh and in shock. As Dan approaches to lift his brother to his back, he stops: A rattlesnake is coiled next to Greg’s head, and the hissing, rattling snake is clearly feeling threatened.
“Don’t move!” Angela ordered, keeping her voice low and steady.
“What are we going to do?” Dan asked, freezing in place. Greg moaned again, and the snake rattled harder.
Angela reached for her 9mm, then thought better of it. The odds of her killing the snake with one shot were slim, and it might provoke the reptile to strike. If she could get behind it, she might be able to distract it.
Backing up, she stepped out from the shelter of the rocks and quickly glanced up toward the cliff top. The sun dropping low on the ridge blinded her, but she saw no sign of the sniper. Unlike the snake, he prowled the ridge, ready to strike without warning. The last thing she wanted was to end up like Greg, with a bullet in her leg. In reality, the fugitives were likely halfway to Utah by now, she hoped.
She looped the rocks. Finding a long stick, she positioned herself 180 degrees opposite Dan. “We’re only going to get one shot at this,” she said softly. “I’ll try and make the snake turn. You grab Greg and pull him out of striking range.”
“This is crazy,” Dan said.
“You have a better idea?”
The snake had settled down, but hadn’t backed away. When Dan shook his head, it rattled some more.
Angela tapped the rock with the stick. The snake lifted its head into defensive mode. She tapped again and its rattle buzzed at full speed, its full attention still on Greg. All she was doing was irritating the diamondback.
She leaned on the stick, then noticed that at its end, the wood formed a small hook. “Dan, I’ve got an idea. When I snag the snake, get Greg off the rocks.”
“Are you crazy?”
Maybe, but what other choice did she have? Angela moved closer, then struck, hooking the snake around its neck and yanking it toward her. The snake twisted and lunged and landed on the ground a yard from her feet. It coiled and rattled. Angela stood still and waited, holding the stick like a sword between them.
After what seemed like minutes, the snake took a defensive pose and slithered away. Once it had moved out of sight, Angela blew the air out of her lungs in one, long sigh of relief.
“Angela?” Dan yelled.
“Right here.” She rounded the boulder and found Dan on the path, Greg slung over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
She glanced up at the mesa again. Still no sign of anyone. If they went back to camp they would be right where the fugitives wanted them: trapped, with no means of escape. Based on the sabotage to the rafts and the satellite phone, someone on the crew was helping them. Julia Glew? She’d been unaccounted for this morning.
“Dan, hold up,” she said, grabbing his elbow and pulling him close. “Once we’re round the bend, there’s a short section where the path can’t be seen from above. I’m going to break off, try to scale the cliff and go for help.”
“What are we supposed to do?”
“Give me ten minutes, then head for camp.”
“They’ll see that you’re gone.”
“Right, but by then, I’ll have a head start and be hard to find.”
As they rounded the next curve, Angela broke off and skirted the base of the cliffs to the north. At the bottom of one crack, she stopped. She could see handholds and footholds climbing three-quarters of the way up. Above her, cliff swallows zoomed around in intricate aerial patterns, sunlight flashing off their dark blue backs and pumpkin-colored rumps, their white foreheads shining like headlamps against their brick-red faces.
In the shadows below, Angela reached for the first grip and pulled herself up. Hand over hand she climbed the sandstone wall, slowing as it became more difficult near the top. Reaching up, her hand struck a cluster of gourd-shaped mud nests under the horizontal overhang. She moved left. Stretching for a new handhold, her feet scrabbled for a nook, sending small rocks skittering down the cliff face. Gaining purchase, she hugged herself close to the rock and drew a deep breath. Just a few more feet.
Slithering over the top edge, Angela crawled into the shrubs and lay still. After a few moments, confident that she hadn’t been seen by anyone, she raised her head and looked around. The mesa was empty. Now was her chance. She could hightail it down the path to Bedrock and bring back help. Instead, she opted to head for the fugitives’ hideout. She was a law enforcement officer, and the work crew was her responsibility. They already had one injured and one missing, and there was no telling what the fugitives might do if they figured out someone had gone for help. If she could, it was time to put an end to this.
Angela slowed when she heard voices. Creeping forward on her hands and knees, she found herself looking down into the fugitives’ camp. From her vantage point she could see the entire camp—the entrance on the opposite side, where she and Peter had hidden. She could see the tents, the fire pit, and Delbert Sinclair and Leon Cranford. Both men were standing, with Julia Glew duct-taped to a chair between them.
“Please, just let me go,” she begged. “I promise I won’t tell anyone that you’re here.”
“Shut up,” Leon said, turning to Delbert. “What do we do now, Del? We got ’em locked down in the canyon, but we can’t keep them there forever.”
“We don’t have to. All we need is to get through till morning. By now the work crew knows that we have Ms. Glew, and that all they have to do to get her back safe and sound is stay put. We’ve got transportation out of here at daybreak.”
Angela sat back on her heels. Glew was their hostage, not their accomplice, which meant someone else was helping them, someone who refreshed their supplies on a regular basis, someone who had access to the rafts and the satellite phone.
She might have suspected Dan, if she hadn’t witnessed his brotherly concern firsthand. Greg had taken a bullet. For most of the work crew, this was a first trip on the river. Bobo had Maxwell to look after. Peter had been paralyzed with fear when they’d been pinned down near the entrance to the fugitives’ camp, and Damon was a follower. That left only one person: Kate!