Tobias added a single log to the blaze and leaned back against the tree. He felt reasonably safe in this little grove of pines, but there was no sense in pushing the luck he’d already pushed so many times to the breaking point.
At the bottom of his Kelty backpack, he pulled out the one-liter titanium camp kettle and filled it halfway with water from his last remaining bottle.
Dropped in a handful of sharp-smelling pine needles, fresh off the branch.
Kicked back waiting for his tea to boil was as close to human as he’d felt in ages.
He drank the pot of tea and let the fire die. Before he lost its light completely, he took inventory of the contents of his pack.
Six one-liter water bottles, only half of one still full.
Flint and steel.
A first aid kit down to a single pill of Advil.
A dry bag filled with buffalo jerky.
Pipe, book of matches, and the last of his tobacco, which he was holding on to for his final night—if it ever came—in the wilderness.
His last box of .30-30 Winchester cartridges.
A .357 Smith & Wesson revolver for which he’d run out of ammo over a year ago.
A leather-bound journal sealed in plastic.
He pulled out a stick of jerky and scraped off the carpeting of mold. Allowed himself five small bites before returning it to the bag. He finished off the pine tea and packed everything back. Shouldering the pack, he climbed twenty feet up to his perch in the tree and fastened the Kelty to a branch.
He untied his hiking boots—the soles long since worn through the tread and the leather beginning to disintegrate—and laced them to the tree. He slid his arms out of his Barbour duster. The coat was months overdue for a thorough waxing but so far it still kept him dry.
He maneuvered into the bivy sack and zipped himself in.
Wow, he stunk. It was almost like he’d developed his own musk.
His mind wouldn’t stop running.
The chances of a swarm stumbling through this grove of pines were admittedly slim. A small group or a loner—better.
Tree bivouacking was a good news/bad news proposition.
The good news—it kept him out of the obvious lines of site. Countless times, he’d heard a branch snap in the middle of the night and rolled quietly over to stare down twenty or thirty feet at an abby creeping past underneath him.
The bad news—if one ever looked up, he was treed.
He reached down and touched the smooth, leathered handle of his Bowie.
It was the only real weapon in his arsenal. The Winchester would get him killed in close combat, and he only used it anymore to hunt his food.
He slept always with his hand on the knife, sometimes waking in the dark, other-side of midnight to find himself clutching it like a talisman. Strange to think that an object of such violence had assumed a place as comforting in his mind as the memory of his mother’s voice.
Then he was awake.
He could see the sky through the branches above him.
His breath steamed in the cold.
It was absolutely quiet save for the slow bump bump bump of his heart beating in the predawn.
He craned his neck, stared down at the remains of his campfire.
White smoke trickled up out of the embers.
Tobias wiped the dew off the long barrel of his high-powered rifle and shouldered his Kelty. He walked to the edge of the grove and crouched down between a pair of saplings.
It was damn cold.
First freeze of the season couldn’t be more than a night or two away.
He took a compass out of his pocket. He was facing east. A series of meadows and forests gradually climbed toward a range of mountains in the far distance. Fifty, possibly sixty miles away. He didn’t know with any certainty, but he held out hope that they were what had once been called the Sawtooth.
If they were, he was almost home.
Raising his rifle to his shoulder, he stared through the telescopic sight and glassed the terrain ahead.
There was no breeze.
The weeds in the open fields stood motionless.
Two miles out, he spotted bison—a cow and her calf grazing.
The next stretch of forest looked to be three or four miles away. Long time to be in the open. He slung the rifle over his shoulder and walked away from the protection of the trees.
Two hundred yards out, he glanced back at the grove of pines dwindling behind him.
It had been a good night there.
Fire and tea and the closest thing to a restful night’s sleep as he could ever hope to experience in the wild.
He walked into the sun, stronger than he’d felt in days.
Between his black beard, black cowboy hat, and black duster that fell to his ankles, he looked like a vagabond prophet sent to roam the world.
And in some ways, perhaps he was.
He hadn’t made the notation in his journal yet, but this was day 1,287 of his trek.
He’d made it as far west as the Pacific and as far north as where the great port city of Seattle had once stood.
He’d nearly been killed a dozen times.
Had killed forty-four abbies. Thirty-nine with a revolver. Three with his Bowie knife. Two in hand-to-hand combat that he had come very close to losing.
And now, he just needed to get home.
Not only for the warm bed that awaited him and the promise of sleep without the ever-present threat of death. Not just for the food and the long-dreamt-of-sex with the woman he loved.
But because he had some news to report.
My God did he have some news.
Ethan followed Marcus down the Level 2 corridor past a series of doors labeled Lab A, Lab B, Lab C.
Near the far end, within spitting distance of the stairwell, Ethan’s escort stopped at a door inset with a circle of glass.
Marcus pulled out his keycard.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be,” Ethan said, “but I’ll have them notify you when I’m ready to go back to town.”
“It’s not a problem. I’ll be by your side the whole time.”
“No, you won’t.”
“Sheriff, my orders—”
“Go cry to your boss. You may be my driver, but you aren’t my shadow. Not anymore. And while you’re at it, wrangle up Alyssa’s reports on her mission.”
Ethan snatched the young man’s keycard, swiped it through the reader, and shoved it back into his chest. Stepping across the threshold, he turned and stared the escort down as he shut the door in his face.
The room wasn’t dark, but it was dim—like a theater five minutes before the movie starts. A five-by-five stack of monitors glowed on the wall straight ahead. There was another door to the right of the screens that was accessed by a keycard entry. Ethan had never been granted access to surveillance.