Peril in the Pines Ch. 01byHansTrimble©
Author's note: This story contains crime, suspense, gunfighting, and killing, as well as love, joy, and happiness. It's really about the interplay of all of those activities and the emotions that naturally accompany them. Human relations play a big part in it, and the importance of close friendships built on respect and trust. It contains almost no sex; the seven chapters contain 55,000 words and I'd hate to have you wade through all that looking for something that's not there. The principal character is recruited into law enforcement, so if you have an aversion to police work, maybe you ought to look for something else to read.
All that being said, I invite you to read on and then tell me how you liked it, especially what I should do to improve my writing for your greater reading enjoyment.
ESCAPING TO EDEN
The only sound in the forest was the breeze swishing through the tops of the tall pines. On the forest floor, the thick mat of needles was like a soft, spongy carpet that cushioned each footstep. As we carried our picnic provisions between the tree trunks, each step was as silent as if we were tiptoeing, and the music of the wind sighing through the trees was like the background score of a suspense movie. We found a tiny clearing, just wide enough to accommodate our blanket, and set Jan's backpack down in a corner and my cooler next to it, agreeing to all these decisions in muted voices, barely above a whisper. Looking around, we were fascinated by the solemn beauty of the place. It could have been a majestic cathedral.
I lay down on the blanket and motioned for Jan to lie beside me. Our eyes darted everywhere, taking in the interplay of light and shadow, of brown trunks, light green undergrowth, and darker pine needles.
Jan rolled onto her side to face me and softly said, "Hold me, Jack." I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and gently pulled her close. I could feel her breath against my neck. "I love you, Jack. It's so still here, like being in a world of our own, without another soul to break in on our privacy. This is our own little Garden of Eden, and all the world beyond these trees doesn't exist any more."
"You're right, that's just what it feels like. Lying here, I can feel every muscle in my body relaxing. And I can feel your heart beating. It's so peaceful, and the trees sort of recede into the background so I can concentrate on you. This is the only way that I ever feel totally at peace, when I'm holding you, looking at your face, your body, and feeling you warm and soft in my arms. Comfortable? Can I do anything to make it better for you?"
"I'm all right now. My shoulders were a little tired from hunching forward carrying the backpack but they're feeling better now. Could you rub them a little?"
The invitation was unmistakable, and I had to suppress the impulse to reach over suddenly and rip her clothes off. Instead I made myself move slowly, undoing one button at a time, but I didn't stop at two or three; instead I let my fingers march steadily down to the very last one. I pushed the shirt open, and Jan raised up halfway to let me take it off and toss it over by the backpack. I pushed her blonde hair back from her shoulders and rubbed the places where the straps had pressed against her tender skin. Then I slipped the bra straps down off her shoulders and rubbed those spots, too. Finally I reached around back and unhooked the bra, which found its new home on top of the shirt. Jan smiled a little contented smile and did to my shirt what I'd done to hers, then lay down with her beautiful breasts pressed into the hairs of my chest. We lay still, just enjoying the feeling of skin on skin and the intimacy we had achieved without saying a word. "I love you, too, Jan. Loving you is the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I want to hold you like this forever."
Then a bullet slapped into a tree trunk about four feet from our heads with a cracking sound, followed immediately by the distant report of the rifle that had fired it. I instinctively tightened my grip on Jan and rolled up over her to shield her from harm. I could feel little pieces of pine bark fluttering down onto my bare back.
Jan struggled a little, and I whispered, "Stay down. We make a small target down here on the ground. That shot may have been to scare us into doing something, and if we stand up and run we may be shot down. If the message is just supposed to be for us to get out of here, somebody will warn us off. Let's just wait and see what happens. You stay where you are." I rolled off her and reached over to the backpack, lifting the flap on the side so I could pull my pistol out of it. It was a 9mm made by Daewoo, loaded with thirteen hollow point cartridges in the magazine and one in the chamber. It was an accurate shooter, a good defensive weapon at twenty yards but useless at a hundred, which I guessed was the distance from us to the rifleman. With my other hand I grabbed Jan's shirt and quickly rolled back to her side, laying the shirt over her, and spreading it out so it covered the gun on the blanket between our bodies.
"Just lie still. If they just want us to clear out, they'll tell us. If they want to kill us, the shooter will have to get closer to get a clear shot between the tree trunks. I'm hoping that he'll come right up close to say something, so I can get a shot at him. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
"Jack, I hear somebody coming!" I laid a finger across her lips and inched away just enough to free up my right hand and arm. I picked up the pistol and shoved the safety off with my thumb, and then tried to hold it loosely so my hand wouldn't shake when I raised it up. Jan was trembling with fear. I was afraid, too, but tried not to let my body fail me when I needed to act quickly. I recall bargaining with my body, thinking that when this was over I'd allow myself the luxury of going all to pieces, if only I could maintain control when I needed it.
A man approached and stopped just beyond the blanket. He was tall and lean, wearing jeans tucked into work boots and a plaid shirt with the sleeves torn off. He had a week's growth of beard, and dark hair sticking out from under a grimy John Deere cap. In his right hand he held a 30 caliber bolt action rifle with a scope, pointing down at the ground. He looked us over and said, "Well if this ain't cozy. Listen, I'll give you two kids a chance to git outta here. You got one minute to git outta my sight 'fore I start shootin'."
Way back where the gunman had come from, a man shouted, "Put 'em down, Newt. Can't have 'em runnin' their mouths to the law. Remember, they've seen yer face."
Newt's hand holding the rifle started to move, and stopped. He was thinking, apparently something he didn't do often and couldn't do quickly. I guessed he was hesitant to murder us in cold blood, and he might be thinking of the hard work of dragging our bodies away through the woods and digging a grave. While he thought it over I lifted my pistol, still covered by Jan's shirt, and got off a quick shot in his direction. It hit him high in the left thigh. He screamed at the pain but didn't move very much, and most important, didn't drop the rifle. I pulled the pistol free of the shirt and got off an aimed shot to the middle of his chest. He staggered but still didn't drop the rifle, so I put one into the middle of his forehead and that closed the deal. The rifle finally fell free and Newt went down in a heap and didn't move.
The voice from back in the trees shouted again, "Good job, Newt. Leave 'em there for now. We can drag 'em out later. Come on, we got work to do."
ESCAPING FROM EDEN
I put the pistol's safety on, shoved it into the top right hand pocket of my cargo shorts, and slipped my shirt on without buttoning it while I whispered to Jan, "Put your shirt on and get out of here, quietly. Out where we parked the Jeep you can get your phone to work to call 911. Here are the keys, but don't start the Jeep yet because he'll hear it. I've gotta go after the other guy. Wait ten minutes and then drive out to the road to lead the deputy in. Take Styrofoam cups out of the cooler to mark your trail, so you can bring him back to the right place."
I picked up the rifle and brushed off the pine needles. There was no way of knowing whether the scope had hit the ground, but it didn't show any signs of impact so I hoped it was still zeroed. I popped the magazine free and found that it still held three cartridges. Newt was facing up and to his right, so his shirt pocket was where I could reach it easily, and I found five more, which went into my pocket. With the magazine out I cycled the bolt to clear the chamber, added the cartridge that was ejected to the ones in my pocket, and pulled the trigger to get the feel of it and to make sure I knew which way to push the cross-bolt safety to be ready to shoot. The good news was that the trigger pull was light, so it would be easy to shoot accurately. The bad news was also that the trigger pull was light, so in my nervous state I'd have to keep my finger way clear of it till the exact instant when I wanted to kill something, or I'd risk a wild shot. I shoved the magazine back in place and cycled the bolt to load the chamber. Then I pushed the safety on, popped the magazine out, topped it up from my pocket, and pushed it back up into place. Okay, that gave me six shots in the rifle and more in my pocket. I figured I might need three shots at the most for whatever was up ahead. Plus, there were still eleven in my pistol. So I'd have plenty of ammo. My problem was to find a safe place to use it and still be able to walk away.
I stood straight up and looked through the trees in the direction that Newt had come from. I could barely see a man there, bent over doing something that I couldn't make out. It didn't look like anything that had to do with shooting. I headed that way, knowing that for the first thirty yards or so I'd be so far away from him that I'd look like Newt. How would Newt walk? He was taller than I was, so he'd take long strides, and he'd probably roll as he walked, something that always drove my platoon sergeant crazy in basic training. I went slowly, trying to imitate Newt, as I picked my way around trees and sparse undergrowth and made sure I didn't trip over any exposed roots. I tried to let the repetitive motion of walking relax me and get my breathing back to normal.
The man up ahead was concentrating on his work. I hadn't seen him look in my direction so I kept walking straight toward him. Halfway there I found a good place to kneel and study him through the rifle scope. He was the opposite of Newt, short and stocky. I could see a holster on his right hip, and a handgun in it with black grips. He seemed to be picking up many small things and throwing them into a box or small cart. He lifted each of the things easily with one hand, so they couldn't be all that heavy. I could see some blurs in the scope from twigs in the way, which could deflect a bullet slightly. I moved over a few feet and found a big tree branch lying on the ground that would make a good shooting rest. When I lay down and aimed at the man, the sight picture didn't show any twigs so I figured this was as good as I could get: down low, steady as a rock, and a clear line of fire. My platoon sergeant would be proud of me. The distance favored the rifle. Unless he was the reincarnation of Ed McGivern he'd have almost no chance of hitting me with a handgun unless he got closer.
The voice of Sergeant Roberts came back to me, saying "When you are attacking, remember that the enemy is on his own turf. He knows all about the place. You don't. Use your eyes to learn all you can about your surroundings." Thanks, Sarge. I tried to imagine where the man's chest would be when he stood up straight, and I aimed at that spot. I could still see him in the scope, and watch what he was doing. He seemed to telegraph his moves, moving his shoulders before he moved his arm to throw. He never straightened all the way up, but I could see that when he came up partway he moved his head before he raised his shoulders.
Rather abruptly, the man ran out of things to pick up and throw. He straightened up slowly. "Newt, what the hell's taking you so..." His shirt pocket came up to the crosshairs, and I touched off a shot. He staggered a little and went down. I cycled the bolt and pushed the safety on as I stood up and started walking slowly toward him. I paused before coming out of the trees, and stepped behind a thick trunk, transferring the rifle to my left hand and drawing my pistol with my right. He wasn't moving, but I couldn't see his right hand or his face, so he was still a threat. I waited for what I judged to be five minutes without moving a muscle, and he still hadn't twitched. Time to move in.
It seemed strange to look at the man on the ground and know I'd killed him without ever getting a good look at his face. He'd died wearing an angry scowl. His right hand gripped his pistol, which was out of the holster. So I'd come close to taking some incoming fire. I felt his neck for a pulse and didn't find any. There was blood on his shirt pocket where the bullet had entered, and a splatter of blood drops on the ground in back of him from the exit wound. I safetied my pistol and put it back into the top right hand pocket of my cargo shorts. Then I gently took the pistol from the hand of the dead man, pushed the safety on, and slipped it into my top left hand pocket. After a quick tour of the area and a final 360 scan from where I stood, I headed out.
I felt like Rambo with all the weapons I was carrying. I was wishing that Newt had put a sling on his rifle so I could have my hands free. The two loaded pistols, weighing about six pounds, kept dragging my shorts down on my hips and about every dozen steps I had to pause and hike them back up. I found our blanket and took a can of beer out of the cooler. It really hit the spot, and I kept sipping it as I walked along the trail that Jan had marked. As I came out of the woods the Jeep was where I had parked it but turned slightly, and a Sheriff's car was behind it with a deputy outside the open driver's door, fiddling with his lapel mike.
Jan came running to me with a shout. I cleared the rifle and set it down on the ground, and took her in my arms, lifting her right up in the air. When I set her back down the deputy had already walked over to us. He was about my age, slender, dark haired, stood about five foot ten. I handed him the rifle, magazine, and all the extra cartridges, and we walked back to his car, where I used his hand mike to give a statement of what had happened. He asked a few questions to clarify important points, ending up with the one that I had known was coming: "Why did you go on into the woods stalking the other man after Newt was dead?" I explained that I had knowledge of two men in the area, one who had a rifle and was about to murder us, and the other one who had ordered him to do it. Killing the rifleman had saved us for the moment, but the other man obviously wanted us dead, so we could not be safe until I had neutralized him one way or another. I got up close enough to observe him, and saw that he was carrying a weapon and was therefore dangerous. He had already said he wanted us dead. I was alone with no backup. I couldn't walk up to him because I couldn't tell whether there were more people nearby. So the only safe way I could neutralize him was to shoot him from a spot beyond easy pistol range. My judgment was verified when I later found that he'd died with his pistol in his hand, already out of his holster and ready for a shootout.
Then I had to apologize to the deputy for not handing him the pistols already. He put gloves on, and I held my top left pocket open so he could reach in and lift the dead man's pistol out, which he cleared and bagged. Then we did the same thing on the right side with my pistol, which had killed Newt. Relieved of my arsenal, I felt light as a feather.
"There's another deputy on his way. When he gets here, do you think you can lead us in there to see the bodies?"
I tipped the beer can up and drained the last mouthful from it. "Now I do."
QUESTIONS AND THE RIGHT ANSWERS
Sheriff Peterson was obviously used to asking questions and evaluating the answers. He was probably in his fifties, stocky but not flabby, and had gray eyes that stared through round, metal-framed glasses without revealing any emotion whatever. He was gruff as I sat across the table from him in his interview room. It made sense that whatever his normal disposition, he would habitually act like this when he sat down to interrogate a witness or suspect, so I didn't take it personally when he fished for ways to trip me up and catch me in a lie. He wrapped up his barrage of questions with, "You should've waited for my deputies to get there instead of going on a commando raid of your own."
"Actually, I'd have preferred to do that, but it would have exposed Jan and me to too much risk. Those guys were too ready to shoot people. I dropped Newt in self defense, but it was a close thing. I'm pretty fast, but I could easily have died there without getting off a shot. And if I had, Jan would have been next. If I'd been alone I would have run to the Jeep and taken off right after killing Newt, but I had to protect Jan and the only way to do that was to establish and hold a perimeter for her. I couldn't set up a defensive position around our picnic site because it's so hard to shoot through the thick woods. If those trees had been thinned out fifty years ago it'd be a different story. I needed to expand our perimeter to where it would be defensible, and do it right away."
"You trying to tell me that you thought all that out? You didn't just panic and go on a hunt for the guy who had said to kill you?"
"Sheriff, if I'd acted out of panic I'd have run out of those woods screaming my head off and I might still be running now. When that bullet hit that tree, just a little over my head, it switched me into the combat mindset that brought me home in one piece. The principles I was taught are sound, and there are hundreds of veterans out there who would have done exactly what I did. That kind of thinking made us survivors and not white crosses in a grassy field. We were taught these things by combat veterans, we studied them hard because we knew it wasn't a game, and they kept us alive. Over there we were up against enemy combatants a lot smarter than Newt and most of them amazingly fast.
"Face it: if I'd been one of your deputies you'd be shaking my hand and congratulating me now for two righteous kills, instead of growling at me like a bear."
"What'd you do with the young lady who was with you?"
"Calmed her down, kissed her soundly, and dropped her off at her mother's house. I'm sure she's still there if you want to have her brought in. She was so scared that she was shaking like a leaf, and I figured a little TLC from her mother was what she needed."
"All right, that's all for now, but I may want to talk with you some more so don't go too far."
"Agreed. What're you doing for lunch?"
"What? What business is it of yours what I'm doing for lunch? Why would you ask such a question?"
"Because I've got a pretty decent picnic lunch in my cooler, enough for two people, and the ice is melting fast. Shame to let it go to waste. I'd be glad to share it with you. We could eat right here. Interested?"
"So then you could go down to Pete's Bar and brag about having lunch with me, is that it?"
"Not my style. I speak when spoken to, answer civil questions accurately, and brag to nobody about anything. I'm a survivor, and survival is a matter of preparation and sound tactics, plus a lot of luck, so it's nothing to brag about. I'd enjoy eating with you because I respect you, not because you're a trophy to hang on my wall. Now again, how about lunch?"