This is the last chapter we’re putting up because these four chapters are going in the back of the Vermillion e-book, so you should get first look. (If you buy the print, you only get the first two chapters because paper and ink are very expensive and we don’t want to pass the cost on to you.)
After this scene, trouble ensues. Well, more trouble.
I watched Rose go down the street for a moment, ignoring the old guy glaring at me from his truck. She was kind of hot, braless as she was under that loose dress—you can find out a lot when you’re searching for a wallet—and she had a nice swing to her step as she walked away. Insane and definitely bent, but cute. Then I looked at the old man in the truck who seemed impatient, so I retrieved the shoe box from inside the Amazon box and sat on the curb again. I tugged off my old boots and replaced them, wiggling my toes, reveling in the feel. Sometimes it’s the little things in life. I laced up and shoved the old boots into the box. I knew I should have changed out the socks, too, you learn that early in the Infantry, but as I said, Pike seemed impatient.
He was still frowning at me as I stood. “Where you headed?”
“Back to the A.T..”
“Get in. I’ll give you a lift to the highway.” This had echoes of the opening to Rambo, except I was too old and too tired to burn the town down and my knife was a lot smaller. More useful, but smaller.
I tossed the box with my old boots in a nearby trash can, put my ruck in the bed of the pickup, opened the door, signaled for Maggs to get in, and climbed aboard the old rust-colored truck. Maggs sat between us and I noticed she did smell a little raw. The girl was right. Maggs could use a good cleaning up. Of course, so could I.
Pike was rolling before I had the door shut, but he wasn’t moving fast as he did a leisurely U-turn to go back up the main drag. I noticed a pistol in an open top holster bolted to the driver’s side door, within easy reach of his hand and ready to be pulled. He noticed that I noticed.
“Name’s Pike. I’m the law.” He shot me a glance. “And you are?”
I’d had to give my name to Ferrell to get my boots, and I was pretty sure it was all over town by now, given the speed of the local grapevine, so I said, “Max Reddy.”
“Where you coming from?”
“Where you going?”
“Uh-huh,” he said, stopping at the lone stop sign on State Street and turning to look me over. “We don’t get many strangers here. No A.T. through hikers. Town’s too far off the trail.” He made it sound like I’d broken the law.
And we weren’t moving. Probably so Pike could stare at me. I noticed Rose was on the sidewalk, slightly behind us now and thought it interesting he hadn’t invited her in for the ride, although it would have been a tight fit with Pike, me, Maggs and her. That would have been even more interesting.
“You meander,” he said as if evaluating the statement. “So, you’re walking the trail, is what you’re claiming.”
“Yes,” I said, watching Rose swing by. A lot of energy in that woman. Hips that moved, too.
“There aren’t any trails from here to the A.T. so you have to move cross-country, which is tough bushwhacking in these hills.” He nodded his head toward the west. “A.T. is five miles yonder where it cuts this road. Hikers resupply in Bearton farther down the line. Post office there is just a half mile off trail. Either you’re really lost or up to something.”
I pointed down. “My boots were mailed here.”
He was evaluating me now and those eyes were keen, but he finally put the truck in gear and drove through the intersection, arriving at the dead end just as Rose was going into her store. He turned right and drove out to the highway, stopped at the edge of it, and pulled off the road to let us out.
“Thank you,” I said, opening the door.
His next words got my attention. “I expect you’ll be moving on right quick now, won’t you, stranger?”
Subtle he wasn’t. “Did you find the guy claiming to be this Oz’s son?” I asked, trying to level the playing field.
“Funny thing about that,” Pike said. “I did not. He seems to have vanished.”
“Isn’t that kind of odd, given its your town and it’s not that big and they were in a pretty conspicuous vehicle?”
“Do not push me, son.”
“I have no intention of doing so.” I got out of the truck and called Maggs to join me.
He grinned at me. It wasn’t heartwarming. “Got your wallet?”
I patted my pocket, and yes, it was gone. Great. I nodded to him, grabbed the ruck out of the truck bed, and he pulled away laughing as I barely got it out.
There was a story there, and I was going to move on before I heard it. Rose could have the damn wallet. It didn’t have anything irreplaceable in it, just a cover ID and money, and I had more cash in the backpack. My old boss Herc could get me another valid, backstopped ID and mail it to my next pick-up spot. Hopefully one closer to the trail and with fewer crazies.
Maggs and I moved on, crossing an old wood bridge and then into the woods, heading uphill toward the southwest so we could shadow the main trail again. There was a narrow trail winding through the trees and undergrowth and I followed that. Maggs moved parallel to me, but off trail to the left, which was her way.
About ten minutes later, I hit the tripwire.
The forest became quiet as I stood there, balanced on one foot. The good news: I hadn’t been killed immediately by an explosion because I hadn’t broken the wire since I’d spotted it a fraction of a second before my right foot touched it. My momentum, plus my fifty pound backpack, caused me to stretch the wire, but my combat-honed, peace-dulled instincts stopped me before breaking it. I remained frozen in place, foot a couple of inches above the forest floor, pressing against the wire, and considered my next move.
The bad news was that I was going to have to do something about this.
Looking left and right, I saw that the wire extended to trees on either side, went through green metal o-rings screwed into the trees, made turns, and continued on as far as I could see which explained why there’d been no big bang. It was an alarm, not an ambush.
There’s a limit to how long I can stand on one foot. I started to wobble. I slowly, very slowly, brought my foot back. I wondered about Maggs, but she was trained, having gone to school for a heck of long time topped with a lot of real world experience, to avoid such things as trip wires and stupid owners.
Technically, I didn’t own Maggs. It was more that she tolerated my existence. I took a quick glance to the left and she was perfectly still just before the wire, staring at me, with a look in her eyes I interpreted as ‘Nice move, genius.’
“A warning would have been nice,” I called to her.
She ignored that. She was a retired working dog, so she probably felt warnings were part of her old life.
Clear of the line, I looked about a bit more closely and spotted the reason for the alert line.
Ahead of me were large swaths of cannabis, aka, weed, growing in the National Forest, where the undergrowth had been cleared out of a couple of acres hidden under the trees. The plants were not there due to nature’s whims. Someone had planted them, and whoever it was probably didn’t want me wandering through.
I considered turning back, but that would mean going back to the road and making an even bigger detour from the Appalachian Trail than I already had. I was tired and grouchy and hungry and there were a lot of weapons back in that town.
I stepped over the wire and continued on, a bit more wary. Maggs lightly hopped over the line, which she hadn’t hit in the first place. Because.
I envision my innate warning system like a geiger counter and right now it began a very slow, low clicking in my head. I didn’t think weed was legal in North Carolina or Tennessee. I hadn’t bothered to check the news since starting the trail months earlier, so maybe something had changed and pot was legal in one of those states. Maybe aliens had invaded. Maybe world peace had broken out and everybody was high.
I was doubtful on all three, particularly the last one. I just wanted to keep my own peace.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m living in some sort of sadistic simulation and whoever was running it liked to mess with me because as soon as I thought about peace, two young men, almost boys, appeared to my right front at twenty meters, one of them carrying an AK-47, the silhouette of the assault rifle unmistakable and one I’d seen far too often in my past. Carrying one was legal in both states, as opposed to growing weed, which is a head scratcher if you think about it. They saw me at the same time I saw them.
They appeared related, solidly built with the same curly dark hair, probably brothers. I sighed, debating whether to turn back to Rocky Start. I glanced over and saw Maggs on alert. I gave her a quick hand signal to lay low and remain in place because people often mistook her for a wolf. She crouched down and disappeared from sight in the undergrowth.
“Hey, you!” the one with the AK called out.
I turned around, ready to backtrack, resigned to a big loop around.
“Hey, I’m talking to you! Stop!”
He was yelling at me. I’d walked away from people yelling orders years ago, so—
A shot rang out and I froze. I felt, more than heard, the snap of a bullet going by, hyper-sonic. It wasn’t close. I knew what close was, and worse, what too close felt like, but still it was a bullet.
I turned around, not drawing the pistol inside my light coat because once you draw a weapon you use it, and when you use it, you kill, and I wasn’t in the mood to kill at the moment. Or die. It was just weed, after all.
The guy with the AK looked a little surprised, as if he hadn’t meant to pull the trigger, which really didn’t matter, because he had. Guns don’t shoot themselves. His buddy was slightly behind him, apparently not armed. AK guy was holding the rifle at hip level, approximately aimed in my direction. Worse, his finger was still inside the trigger guard. They both were dressed in dungaree coveralls with concert t-shirts underneath.
“Geez, Reggie,” the unarmed one said, shaking his head. “Why’d you do that? You might have hurt somebody.”
A genius at work. I held up both hands. “Sorry. I wandered off the A.T.. Got lost. I’ll leave.”
“You a cop?” Reggie asked, trying to regain some bluster.
Sure, a cop just wandering around in the woods with a rucksack on his back. “I got lost,” I repeated.
Reggie was shaking his head. “No way, dude. Can’t have you going around telling people about the farm.” The two stopped about ten meters away.
The other boy looked at him. “Come on, Reggie, just let him go.”
After all I’d been through over the years, the concept of dying over a field of pot in the middle of bumfuck nowhere because a guy named Reggie was a paranoid moron seemed ludicrous. Then again, I’d seen people die over much less in much worse places. It would probably give the entity running my simulator a good chuckle before it moved on to tormenting someone else.
I tried once more. “I’m through-hiking the trail. I’ll be out of the area before you know it.”
Reggie looked back at his buddy, who appeared a bit out of it, perhaps partaking of too much of their product. “He’ll rat us out, Marley. We ain’t nowhere near the trail.”
“Dude, he’s a stranger,” stoned Marley said. “He got lost. Chill out.”
Reggie was uncertain and uncertain people are more dangerous, especially when they have their finger on the trigger. A person who was certain would have already killed me or let me pass through without raising the stakes. Reggie was lost on a middle road that didn’t exist.
Reggie and Marley, the Weed Brothers.
“I don’t know, Marley, man,” Reggie said. “What do you think Pike would say if we let him go? Pike would want us to protect the farm and he said we should be extra careful now.”
The local law grew pot. Pike had a weed farm and I’d just walked into it.
“We don’t tell him,” Marley was saying, which seemed reasonable to me. “He’s gonna be mad if he finds out you took his gun, and he’ll know you did if you use it.”
Marley had a portion of logic going inside his muddled head although he’d forgotten that his brother had fired a warning shot. Details make all the difference.
“We’ll tie him up and see what Pike wants to do,” Reggie said. “He’s been real upset since Oz died. And you know what he says about Outsiders.”
He made the last word seem like a profanity and definitely capitalized. I half expected a banjo to start playing. I didn’t want to see what Pike wanted to do, I’d had enough of Pike, he’d made it very clear he didn’t want to see me again, and no one was going to tie me up. I started walking toward the two which surprised both. “I don’t want any trouble,” I said.
“Stop,” Reggie said uncertainly, waving the barrel of the AK back and forth as if it were some sort of magic warding stick. Too much Harry Potter in his childhood.
“Let me just do this,” I said, which further confused both of them. But he still had that gun, finger twitching inside the trigger guard, and I knew I was going to have to get Maggs involved.
I whistled a two-tone note.
Maggs came fast and hard from the left, a big blur of fuzzy black streaking through the forest. She scared even me a little bit and we’d been together for two years. She was the fastest dog I’d ever seen. She went for Reggie because she knew what a gun looked like and if it wasn’t in my hands, then it was a bad thing.
Maggs didn’t like bad things.
She leapt and that was when the two stoners became aware of her, some latent caveman survival gene kicking in, way too late. Maggs hit Reggie in the shoulder with her chest, her jaws clamping on his neck but not closing as her sixty-five pounds of muscle and bone and claw and tooth took him down before he was halfway turned toward her.
She whined in pain as she did so, which upset me. Marley was turning in surprise to his brother but by then I had the Glock out and my finger was on the trigger.
But Marley was still trying to figure out what day it was, and Reggie had dropped the rifle and was on his back, whimpering in fear, as much he could with Maggs’ teeth on his throat, a command away from having it ripped open. They were just kids. My training and experience said to kill them, but common sense said they were idiots not enemies.
Worried about Maggs’ whine of pain, I tapped the barrel of my pistol hard against the side of Marley’s head as he was still trying to process what had happened—don’t do drugs, kids—and he crumbled to the ground, out cold. I knelt next to Reggie.
“I didn’t want trouble,” I said in what I considered a reasonable tone. “I don’t want any more. There’s no such thing as a warning shot, son. If you remember that, you’ll be a better person for this encounter. I’m taking the gun because I don’t want to be shot in the back and you don’t know what you’re doing with it. If I see you again, I’ll kill you. No warning, no hesitation. Just stone cold dead. Understand?”
He wanted to nod, but was too afraid of Maggs, her mouth clamped over his throat.
“Blink twice if you understand,” I said.
What was he gonna do with fangs pressing on his carotid? He blinked. I could smell urine and wasn’t sure which one of them it came from.
“Blink twice if you agree.” Because understanding wasn’t necessarily assent.
He blinked twice.
I stood. “Release,” I said in a command voice and Maggs let go. She looked up at me with those big brown eyes that could make the stoutest heart melt, even while she was ripping out a throat. “Good dog.” I knelt and checked her while Reggie watched, wide-eyed.
She’d caught her paw on the button of his coveralls and it had dug in under her pad. There was some blood. Nothing major. I stood, hefting the AK, and walked past them toward the gravel road they’d been coming up since it headed in the right direction, hoping my day was going to get better.
I figured it couldn’t get much worse.
Yeah. I know. Silly me.