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Trappedby April Christofferson
Will McCarrolls foul mood escalated with each of Kolas steps down the rocky trail that led from his backcountry cabin to the Pebble Creek campground.
Hed been waiting for this to happen, for the middle of the night call hed just received on his two-way radio.
“Hurry down here, Will,” Betty Stanmeyer had shouted over the two-way radio she wasnt supposed to have. Betty and her husband, Hal, served as campground hosts at Pebble Creek. “Someones been shot.”
Will had to count on his mares familiarity with the narrow, rocky trail, as well as her surefootedness, to move at the slow gallop hed pushed her into. A hint of a full moon filtered through branches of Douglas fir, but not enough to give light to the ground beneath. As they finally broke through the tree line, Will gave Kola a knee in the ribs. Shed developed a habit of pausing at this point, in response to knowing thats what Will wanted—to pause at his first chance of the day to look at the Lamar Valley unfolding beneath them; to look out at the land he loved, the land hed devoted his life to.
A life that had become a lot more complicated since the arrival of Magistrate Judge Annie Peacock.
Tonight Will couldnt afford the pause.
“Keep moving, girl,” he urged.
Will knew what to expect when he first caught sight of the campground. Hed been doing this—serving as law enforcement inside the park—for twenty-eight years now, so very little surprised him.
At the parks big camping grounds, kerosene lamps and flashlights usually danced like fireflies around smoldering campfires until the early morning hours, but the only thing Will could see moving were the untended flames of at least a dozen campfires. Tent flaps had been zipped tight for a false sense of security. The lights in Betty and Hals RV signaled theyd obeyed Wills order to return to it and lock up.
No sign of the law enforcement backup that Will had radioed for. Will glanced at his watch. He and Kola had made it down the hill in twenty-three minutes. The drive from Mammoth was forty-five minutes at best, without incident, and that was taking it at a pace that invited accidents.
A shout drew Wills attention to the back of the campground, the row of campsites that bordered the creek. Betty had identified campsite number twenty as where the shooting took place.
Will dismounted and looped Kolas reins around the trailhead sign. Then, drawing his 9-mm, he crouched low, heading toward the campground, which had now fallen silent. At this hour, he would have expected to see adults getting to know each other around campfires, after the kids had gone to bed. Usually he was called because someone had had too much to drink and was getting a little rowdy.
The silence as he approached was absolute.
Something had gone horribly wrong this August evening in this nations first national park.
As Will passed the outhouse that served the campground, he noticed the door facing the Northeast Entrance Road slightly ajar. A sixth sense, tuned by decades on the job, told him it wasnt empty.
Gun aimed squarely at the door, he approached and kicked the door open.
A slender East Indian woman holding a baby hovered against the back wall, pressed into it, crouching low, between the side wall and the toilet. She was dressed in a traditional sari.
She pulled the baby into the cave shed created of her chest and torso, whimpering. Will lowered the gun, and in the moonlight filtering through the plastic skylight above, her eyes registered relief, especially when Will stepped into the light and she saw his uniform. Reflexively she straightened a bit.
“He killed a man,” she said, as if trying to convince Will that something terrible had happened.
“Stay in here,” Will said softly. Nodding toward the door, he added, “And lock that.”
“My husband tried to help but he called him a rag head. He shot him, too. Hashmuk, he told me to run, to come here and hide. Im afraid hes dying, too.…”
“Ill find him,” Will replied. “Now lock the door behind me.”
Will waited outside the door, eyes trained on the campground now, to hear the click of its lock.
Skirting the north side of the campground, the side rimmed by Pebble Creek running down from Sunset Peak, Will heard another shout as he moved between RVs and tents of every color, size, and shape. With the moonlight blocked by lodgepole pines that sheltered the campsites, Will sometimes felt rather than saw the tent flaps open as he passed. Each time, he put finger to his lips to shush the relieved camper about to blurt out. When he got to the RV of the campground hosts, Hal Stanmeyer had been waiting, eyes glued to the path he knew Will would take. He stuck his head out of an open window.
“Two of them with guns,” he whispered, “at twenty. Two guys down. I think ones dead.”
Will nodded, kept moving.
“Wait for me,” Hal whispered.
“No. You stay in there. Call for backups.”
“Betty already did. Theyre on the way. Closest LE was at Roosevelt Lodge. Should be here within ten minutes.”
A lot could happen in ten minutes.
Still, aside from the shouts, it was the silence that bothered Will most. He moved forward.
Campsite twenty was one of the most coveted sites at Pebble Creek. Adjacent to the creek, campers loved to fall asleep to the sound of rushing water and wake up to the sight of sunshine reflecting off the current, and the expansive view, to the south, of Round Prairie. Getting a site anywhere near twenty was considered lucky.
But not tonight.
Will saw the twisted legs first. Hiking boots still crusted with mud from the rain earlier in the evening jutted out from between two tents packed closely together at campsite twenty. Both tents stood dark and silent, but as Will crept forward, he could hear a voice. He thought it was the same one hed heard earlier, only now, instead of shouting, it was more of a rant. Will couldnt make out the words.
He paused at the boots, felt for a pulse. None. A handgun lay still partially clasped in the mans right hand, and blood trailed off into the dark.
Will inched forward alongside the tent, toward the campfire, toward the voice.
A solo man sat hunched over on a ring of short logs that surrounded the fire pit, head in his hands, alternately sobbing and talking to himself.
“What did I do? What did I do?”
A Colt .45 lay at his feet.
Wills eyes surveyed the rest of the campsite before he straightened, walked toward the man, his own gun drawn and aimed at him, finger off the trigger.
“Police officer, dont move.”
Kicking the gun out of the young mans reach, he added, “Youre under arrest.”
The young man—he couldnt have been over twenty-five—looked up, anguish in his face.
“What have I done?”
“Stand up. Hands in the air.”
Complying, the young man looked over, and, as if seeing the body for the first time, began to crumple. Halfway to the ground, Will shoved him face down on the dirt.
“Hands behind your back,” Will ordered, kneeling over him as he lay prostrate on his stomach. Double locking the handcuffs, Will began reciting his Miranda rights as he patted the skinny torso and legs down.
“Hes my best friend,” the young man sobbed.
Rage engulfing him, Will rolled the young man over, forcing him to look into Wills eyes.
“He was your best friend.”
The young man, clearly still drunk, lunged for Will, as if Will had been the one to pull the trigger.
Will took him down with a knee between his legs.
Gasping for air, he moaned, writhing on the ground.
Hal had materialized, and behind him, other campers.
“How many shooters were there?” Will said to no one in particular in the group.
Several shook their heads. While at first they seemed relieved to approach Will, when he kneed the kid, several fell back. But a heavyset man in long underwear stepped forward, saying, “Just two. Him”—pointing toward the kid, still writhing on the ground—“and him”—he pointed at the body.
Handing his gun to Hal, Will said, “Watch him.”
Walking back to the body, he trained his flashlight on the trail of blood and followed. It led to a tidy campsite, number eighteen, that hosted a new, family-sized tent.
Will stepped inside and found what he was looking for.
An Indian man lay on his side, holding his stomach. He appeared unconscious, but when Will touched him, his eyes opened.
“My wife,” he gasped. Blood trickled out of the corner of his mouth, where it held on briefly before falling to the nylon floor. “My baby.”
“Theyre fine. Theyre safe,” Will said quietly. “I give you my word. Now dont talk. Well get you out of here, to a hospital.”
A face appeared at the mesh window above where he lay. Will heard a gasp and looked up. Betty Stanmeyer.
“Get his wife,” he ordered. “Shes locked in the bathroom. And see if we have a doctor in the campground.”
Wide-eyed, Betty nodded then disappeared.
Will could hear her shouting, as she ran toward the outhouse, “Is there a doctor in the campground? We need a doctor!”
The sirens drowned her out.
Chaos ensued. Sleepy-eyed children emerging from tents were pushed back inside by terrified parents. Campers of all ages stood or squat, ready to flee if necessary, their faces lit only by the screens of their cell phones as they texted frantically to friends and family back home. Those lucky enough to have RVs locked windows and doors, cowering inside once theyd slid the last dead bolt in place.
As Will applied pressure to the bullets entry point—the mans lower abdomen—two figures appeared simultaneously at the tents door. One wore a rangers law enforcement uniform. Josh Kennedy. And the other carried a duffle bag, which he began opening as he hurried into the tent, falling to his knees next to Will.
“Im a surgeon,” he said. “Move aside.”
Within seconds, the woman from the bathroom rushed in, sobbing.
Her husband opened his eyes, reached for her hand, and muttered something in Hindi.
“Maam, youll have to back away,” the surgeon said. He looked from Will to Josh. “Whos going to assist?”
Will looked to Josh. “You alone?”
“Yes, but theres an ambulance on the way.”
“We cant wait for the ambulance,” the doctor declared. “This man needs surgery. Now.”
“You stay here, help him,” Will said. “Ill make sure there are no more perps.”
As he stepped out of the tent, Wills head swirled. He could not blot out another doctors voice, earlier, many years earlier. Just miles down the road.…
“Im sorry, she was already gone when I got to her. I tried to save the baby.…”
Demons taking him over now, even the heavyset man in long underwear stepped back when Will reappeared at the campfire at site twenty.
The kid still lay on the ground.
“Get up,” Will yelled, pulling him to his feet by his shirt collar. “What was worth killing your best friend for? What?”
The kid looked dazed, totally out of it.
“I dunno. I didnt mean to. We got in a fight. He kept saying I cheated.”
For the first time, Will saw the cards scattered on the other side of the campfire.
“He drew his gun first.” The young man looked around at the crowd of six or eight campers, mostly men. Zeroing in on one, he added, “Didnt he?”
“What about the guy who tried to stop you?” one of the campers yelled angrily. “The guy from India. He wasnt even playing cards with you punks.”
The look of terror and shock on the kids face made it clear. Hed been so drunk that hed forgotten about shooting the second man, who tried to intervene. He was sobering up quickly.
The camper in long underwear looked at Will. “Theyd been drinking and playing cards and arguing all night. Id asked them to quiet down a couple times. The last time, all I saw was that both of them were waving guns around. Thats when the Indian fella came over, to try to calm them down.” He looked pained. “I didnt see who got shot first. When I saw the Indian guy dealing with it, I figured it wasnt my problem. I shoulda backed him up. Im ashamed of myself.”
There was some mumbling and more than a few sheepish looks.
Will turned back to the kid and grabbed him by the elbow, shoving him.
He shepherded him in the direction of the highway, toward the Law Enforcement car that Josh had arrived in. But they had an entire campground, filled with campers, to pass through first.
Now that Law Enforcement had arrived, Pebble Creek campground came back alive. Almost in unison, people began venturing out of their tents.
Some swore at the kid, some prayed out loud. Most stood in dead silence, watching.
More lights and sirens announced the arrival of the ambulance.
Will and his prisoner marched on, ignoring the shouts and stares. Relieved of his duty in the tent, Josh appeared, silently walking on the other side of the kid. But then something caught Wills eye.
A middle-aged, balding man, wearing plaid shorts and a T-shirt, had just turned to reach for a camera that his wife held, arm extended out the window of their RV. A handgun stuck out of the back pocket of his shorts.
Wills arm shot out in front of the kid, stopping him. Turning to Josh, he barked an order.
“Take him on to the car.”
Then, without waiting to see if Josh obeyed, Will stormed over to the visitor, who had now aimed the camera his way. Grabbing it out of the mans hand, Will tossed it on the ground, then reached behind his bloated belly and one second later, held the revolver hed seen in the mans back pocket in front of his face.
Wills eyes burned with barely controlled rage.
The tourist ignored the camera but reached for the gun.
“Give that back,” he said. “You cant take it from me. I have a permit.”
He called over his shoulder, toward the RV. “Grace, get the permit.”
Gun in hand, Will turned back toward Josh, who hadnt moved an inch.
“What did I tell you?” he said. “Take him to the car.”
“Will…” Josh muttered.
By now Grace had appeared with a piece of paper in hand. She stepped in front of Will and waved it angrily in his face, her husband behind her, looking just as angry, but happy to let her take charge.
“You cant take that from him. Look. Heres his permit. The new rules in effect now. We can bring guns into the park, as long as we have a permit.”
Will stepped toward her. She was a big woman. He wanted to deck her.
“Not in this park,” he said, shoving the gun into the waistband of his uniform. “Now get out of my way.”
A crowd had gathered around them.
“Who else has a gun?” Will shouted, his eyes scanning the group, which kept growing as more campers felt safe emerging from their tents and RVs.
“You heard me,” Will yelled. “Who in this campground has a gun?”
“On us?” one mans voice replied.
“Here. In the campground. In your tent, or your car, or a backpack.”
Timidly, a woman stepped forward.
“We have one in our car.…”
“Go get it,” Will ordered. “Who else?”
A burly man wearing a SARAH PALIN 2012 T-shirt stepped forward. “I have a gun, but Im not giving it to you. Its legal. Im legal.”
Will crossed the ten feet separating them. Came eye to eye with the man.
“Get the gun or spend the night in jail.”
“You cant do this,” the man said flatly, angrily, sizing Will up.
“Yes, he can,” a womans voice cried out. “Thank you!”
More voices joined hers.
“Take it. Take it from him.”
Will ignored them.
Reaching for a second set of handcuffs, he pulled them off his belt. When the man caught sight of them, he stepped back.
Wills hand shot out and grabbed him by the neck of his T-shirt.
“Get the fucking gun,” Will said in a low voice, but one so filled with rage that even a sixty-pound advantage, and arms muscled by hours in front of a mirror at the gym, seemed no match for it.
The man stood there for at least thirty seconds, his chest heaving with his own anger.
“Ill file a complaint against you, you son of a bitch.”
It looked like he might come unglued when his threat brought a snort of laughter from Will.
“Be my guest. Now get the gun.”
With one last withering look, the man turned and headed toward his campsite.
“Anyone with a gun had better produce it,” Will said to the crowd. “Now.”
With some campers cheering him, while two or three whod turned toward their campsites to retrieve their weapons shot profanities his way, Will followed the belligerent camper to his tent.
* * *
Claudette Nillson waited thirty seconds for a response. When one did not come, she stuck two fingers between her lips and let out an ear piercing whistle. That usually brought her German shepherd running.
“Tennyson!” If anyone were around, Claudette Nillsons whistle, as well as her shout, would have been heard up and down the Paola Creek drainage, which channels its waters to a section of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River especially favored by adventure-seeking kayakers and rafters.
Now her voice shrunk to a worried whisper. “Where the heck are you?”
At first shed just been frustrated, even uncharacteristically irritated at her errant German shepherd. After all, she only had a month to finish her thesis. Shed already taken Tennyson out for a hike, earlier that morning, and his running off on her now meant shed have to take another break from writing, just as she was on a roll. That was the problem—she was so intent on her work that she hadnt kept track of the time. It had been over an hour since Tennyson had whined to be let out, and now Claudette Nillsons instincts had her hurriedly slipping on her Chaco sandals and stepping off the porch of the tiny cabin shed talked her University of Montana professor into letting her use; she was to spend the months of August and September finishing the paper he, as chair of the wildlife biology department, had rather reluctantly approved: The Case for Ecoterrorism.
She jumped off the porch and cut across the dry, prickly growth, this time paying no heed to the noxious knapweed—a tall multibranched plant with purplish pink flowers—that she usually stopped to pull out by its roots. That had been one of the deals shed struck with her professor. Left unchecked, knapweed could—and would—take over native species. Claudette had bargained with Professor Vrable: if he let her stay in his remote cabin on the border of Glacier National Park for the two months she predicted it would take to finish her thesis, she would remove not only the knapweed, but the equally noxious leafy spurge as well. But now she was oblivious to her bare legs brushing against the invasive plants as she hurried toward Paola Creek, Tennysons favorite haunt. She was pretty sure thats where shed find him as, that morning, hed been almost impossible to draw away from the small creek, which had dwindled in size by half in the five weeks Claudette had been there. Shed had to call and call to get Tennyson to return to her side, and even then, hed turned back twice before Claudette finally clipped the leash she always carried on their outings—but almost never used—onto his collar.
“Youre trouble today, arent you big boy?” shed said.
Hed looked up at her with big, loving eyes, tail wagging. Stopping to hug him, she added, “Dont try to charm me.”
Now as she headed back to the same spot, she pictured those sweet eyes again.
“Tennyson!” she called.
Minutes later, her heart leaped when she saw his white shoulders, hit by a streak of sunlight filtering through the dense Western hemlocks lining the creek bed.
It took just seconds for it to hit her: he had not moved, not even shifted, at the sound of her voice.
She was running now, crying.
Copyright © 2012 by April Christofferson
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