Caine York closed the lid on the ice chest and popped the top on his soda. He glanced across the cabin to where Ned Jeffries was finishing cleaning his rifle at the table.
"What time did you say they’d be here?" he asked, and took a sip. The next second, he made a face and nearly spat out the cola. "Damn, Ned. How long have these been sitting here? Damn thing’s nearly flat." But at least it was cold, he admitted to himself, and that’s what was important at the moment. Caine eyed the can and debated whether or not to finish the drink.
"I dunno." The man glanced up and grinned. "Last winter? Check the expiration date on the boxes."
"I threw the boxes out."
"Well..." Jeffries shrugged to show it wasn’t his concern. Caine took another sip but didn’t pursue the issue any further. At least it was something to drink, and it felt good going down, flat or not. Next time he would tie a string around his finger, if that was what it would take to remember to pack some water.
"What time did you say they’d meet us?" he nudged the man again.
Caine checked his watch. "It’s nearly seven now. Hope they don’t stand us up."
"Tree huggers?" Jeffries snorted. "When they get passionate about something, they’re the least likeliest bunch to stand us up." He threw down his oil rag and began to reassemble the rifle. Caine mentally followed the procedure as he stared out one of the two windows in the ranger station. His stomach clenched, letting him know the four or five soft drinks he’d had all day were poor substitutes for a decent burger, or a steak with fries. He glanced at his watch again.
"I hope we don’t have to pull this out, but you never know," Jeffries commented as he got to his feet and propped the rifle against the leg of the table. Caine noticed Jeffries had deliberately put the gun where it wouldn’t easily be seen by anyone standing outside the station and looking inside.
"You never know," he echoed as the muffled sound of engines caught their attention.
Jeffries pointed out the window. "They’re here. Let’s go see what so fucking critical."
Caine let his superior take the lead, and followed him out the door as two trucks pulled up next to the station. Six people emerged from the first truck, and two from the other. Caine recognized Ty Olssen, but the others were fresh faces to him. Olssen headed the Green For Life activists. All state park rangers were well aware of the group, what they stood for, and—more importantly—what they could do if they were pissed off.
"Ty." Jeffries held out a hand in greeting.
"Ned." The big, burly man always looked like he could be the perfect model for a lumberjack. The guy had shoulders that could carry freshly-cut, full-length tree trunks. He gave Caine a hard stare. "You look familiar."
"Ah, yeah. Now I remember. You’re one of them who helped with that bear relocation last year." The guy looked back at Jeffries. "Is it just the two of you?"
Jeffries raised an eyebrow in the direction of the rest of Olssen’s entourage. "Is it just the eight of you?"
Olssen grunted. Caine made a mental note that the guy was not easily amused.
"Do you want to meet here or inside?"
"We won’t take long," Olssen rumbled. "We need your help." His eyes swept over to where Caine was leaning against one of the park ranger jeeps. "We have information about illegal logging taking place in the upper north quadrant of the park."
"You got proof?" Caine asked.
One of the men detached himself from where he had been waiting by the truck. He carried a large brown envelope in one hand and a piece of equipment in the other. The envelope he handed to Jeffries. The equipment he tossed on the ground at their feet. Caine recognized it as part of an engine to a grapple skidder used to snag and drag trees. He whistled softly to himself.
"That’s one piece of equipment that’s not going anywhere soon. Bet you pissed them off big time."
Jeffries examined the photos inside the envelope. "How’d you get these?"
"Low-flying robot plane." Olssen grinned. "Little hobby of ours."
Caine snorted and pushed himself away from the jeep to walk over where Jeffries handed him the pictures. They were printouts of the digital shots taken by the camera mounted inside the plane. Someone had figured out a way to control the robo-plane’s flight path and take pictures, all via computer. He knew the military had something similar, albeit much more technologically advanced. Still, the group’s ingenuity impressed him. "Smooth," he complimented. "Can we keep these?"
"Yeah, and the engine bits, too," Olssen said.
"Any idea who’s behind it?" Jeffries asked.
Olssen shook his head. "We got some pretty good shots of faces, but their trucks are deliberately blank, and they’re wearing nondescript clothing. No company signs. No nothing. It’s no one we recognize." He waved at the photos. "We tried to fly low enough to get a license plate number, but weren’t able to."
"How long have they been encroaching?"
"We became aware of them six days ago," one of the other activists chimed in.
"Eleven days ago," another voice rang out.
Every man froze in place, then turned as one to see the young woman approaching from beyond the tree line. Caine quickly scanned the forest behind her, but she appeared to be alone.
Olssen whirled on Jeffries. The man’s face was dark with anger. "Is she one of you?"
"No," Jeffries began to say. Almost simultaneously, one of Olssen’s men raised a pistol and aimed it at the girl.
Caine reacted instinctively. He jumped forward and hit the underside of the man’s arm. The arm swung upward as the gun went off in the air. Caine snagged the man by the collar of his t-shirt and almost jerked the guy off his feet. That was one of nice things about being nearly six foot five, and Caine took advantage of his height every chance he needed to.
He gave the activist his angriest glare. "Pull a gun again in front of me, and I’ll break your hand off at the wrist. Am I clear?" he whispered through gritted teeth. The white-faced man nodded, and Caine dropped him to his feet.
The young woman remained frozen in place. It was obvious from the expression on her face that she was a breath away from bolting.
Caine took a slow step toward her and held out a hand. "It’s all right, miss. You’re safe. Can I help you? Are you lost?"
She didn’t look like she belonged to the group of activists. Neither did she look like a lost camper or hiker. A good scrutiny of her sagging jeans and the t-shirt that fit her like a blanket confirmed Caine’s initial impression that this girl didn’t fit any stereotype he was familiar with. In all honesty, Caine couldn’t begin to put his finger on where she might be from, or why she was there.
The young woman scanned the area, her eyes darting from face to face as if trying to determine if she was in more danger by being there. Caine looked down to see the activist still holding the gun.
"Drop the pistol, asshole."
The sound of the weapon hitting the dirt was unusually loud.
"You said the loggers showed up eleven days ago. How do you know this?" Caine asked her. "Do you have proof?"
"Proof?" She focused back on Caine. "No, but I saw them."
"You saw them?" Jeffries asked. "How?"
"I li—... I was walking through that area and saw them."
She was lying. Or, at least, she was lying about some of it. Somewhere Caine could sense there was a thread of truth to what she was telling them, but what part? "What is your name?" he asked her.
"Well, Jill Lattimus, may I ask why you’re here?"
"My family lives north of the park. The loggers are slowly making their way in that direction, and they won’t stop, they won’t go somewhere else, and they won’t leave. Please... can you help us get rid of them?"
The gleam of tears appeared on her lower lashes. Lashes that were so pale in color, they were almost white. At the same time, the sky overhead began to cloud up. Caine felt the first faint drops of rain. He turned to look at the others.
"Let’s go inside and toss this around a bit more. I want all of you—" Jeffries gave the men and the girl a glance to let them know they were included. "—to show us on the map where all this is taking place. There may be more to this than a simple case of poaching."
The men agreed and began to file into the cabin. Caine gestured again toward the girl as the rain started to fall harder. She didn’t budge.
"You’re getting wet."
"So are you."
He glanced up at the clouds and laughed, and started to make a comment about the lunacy of remaining outside when he felt her slip her hand in his. The suddenness of her action surprised him, but not as much as the fact that she had taken the initiative to lead him toward the station.