It had started as an idyllic picnic. Sun warmed my face. Lake water lapped at my feet. Aspen leaves rustled in the breeze. My potential students and I had been chattering innocently, getting to know each other. I’d been talking up the benefits of martial arts, since I really needed to recruit these people. I was facing the looming threat of possible unemployment.
The four of us perched atop a cluster of boulders overlooking the postcard backdrop of mountain gold. I was savoring a homemade bun that the ranch’s cook—and most importantly, not me—had packed for our lunch and wondering how much better could it get for a wronged suburban housewife turned ninja super mom like me, Nell Letterly? That’s when two sharp pops split the air.
And they hadn’t come from champagne corks.
They were gunshots.
“Take cover!” Harlan shouted, as he slid off his rock into a crouch beside its granite bulk.
Andrea, the bubbling, petite pixie, and her shy opposite, Libby, both squealed and dove next to him. They cowered there like children in a thunderstorm rather than the twenty-somethings I knew them to be from their registration forms for the weekend self-defense workshop.
I wasn’t sure where the shooter was hiding, but it sounded as if the shots had come from near the northern shore of the lake. We’d stopped to picnic here on the eastern side, where the trail overlooked deep blue water. Needing to find out what was going on, I stayed where I was and looked up, scanning our surroundings. Ducks took off in a flapping frenzy of wings beating the glassy surface of the lake in a spray of drops. The stellar’s jay that had been eyeing our picnic squawked and sailed after them. Russet-colored grasses of the meandering meadow twitched and waved where a stream emptied into the northern end of this mountain lake. Where the sound of gunshots had come from.
“Was that a gun?” Libby said, choking on her words.
Harlan shushed her and then whispered at me. “Get down, Nell!”
Usually, students should address me formally, using my surname to show respect, but since these workshop students hadn’t signed contracts yet as my long-term students, they didn’t know the martial arts codes. I let it pass.
It was the middle of September, a little early for hunting season. I didn’t know exactly when the season started, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t for a couple more weeks. The fluorescent orange and pink vests that the folks down at the ranch had made us wear over our tee shirts had just been a precaution for our hike.
Apparently, I was wrong.
It wouldn’t be the first time. My teenage daughter, whom I’d left back home in Boulder for the weekend, could point out exactly how many times I’m wrong.
Dodging wild bullets wasn’t supposed to be part of the curriculum for our weekend workshop retreat.
I knelt down beside my three companions. We angled ourselves to keep the rock outcropping between the lake and us. Apparently, this part of the mountains wasn’t as remote as we had thought. There’d only been one vehicle at the trailhead, some kind of pickup truck parked next to the bar that blocked a fire road. The trail, which we’d followed instead of the road, took off from there, and we’d passed only a couple other groups of hikers along the way. They hadn’t been wearing hunter’s orange.
“This time of year,” I said confidently, “it’s a hunter.”
Despite my show of confidence, I couldn’t help but wonder what I had led my potential students into. I did not let on about my doubts, which kept cropping up like un-whacked moles.
Nor did I point out my tendency of late to stumble across dead bodies. Five of them in as many months.
“What if,” Libby said, “it’s…n-not?” Fear glittered through the brown curtain of bangs covering her eyes as she cringed closer to the rock.
“What do you mean?” Harlan said to her, his own eyes widening. The bony outline of his jaw jutted out in sharp lines, in need of a shave. The sparse bristles looked more like the prickles of a cactus rather than the beginnings of a beard. “What else could it be? You think it’s a sniper?”
Libby folded into a tight ball and quivered.
Andrea punched Harlan in the arm. “That’s not funny.” It was a classic front punch, and it made her look like a natural at the martial arts. She was almost as short as me, and she was a real, perky fireball, besides. With proper training from me—head instructor at Callahan’s Karate—I figured she could develop a wicked front punch.
“It’s not supposed to be funny,” he said. And I believed him. I suspected he didn’t have a funny bone in his body. “Now that there are so many terrorists in the news these days.”
“Do you really think terrorists would bother coming here?” I tried not to let my skepticism show.
“Why not?” he said. “You can’t rule them out.”
“In cities, sure. But in a place like this, you’d more likely find hunters.”
Libby glanced up. “You mean, they’re shooting animals?”
I nodded. Uh-oh. We were a group from left-wing Boulder, where the plains meet the Front Range four thousand feet lower in elevation than our current position. More importantly, animals rule. There are no pet-owners in Boulder. It’s the city of guardians of animals, and that included wildlife.
“Then,” Andrea said, “why on earth did you schedule the workshop here? In this place?”
“It was available,” I said.
That was true. Here we were in the height of leaf season, when tourists trolled the Rocky Mountain high country for aspen gold and tied up the majority of hotel beds on valuable weekends. There hadn’t been a lot of venues to choose from, due to our low funds, but I had a few chits to cash in on. Friends of friends came through for me, even though not all of the friends in the chain were all that friendly. We were lucky to have found this place. Well off the paved roads. Deep into the mountains. Far beyond the range of day hikers and casual tourists.
Not so far away for the hardier types, though, like backpackers. And hunters.
The annual show of gold, swathing the aspens with broad strokes, was supposed to sooth our souls. Heck, with my paycheck in question these days, any kind of gold was something less than a kick in the butt.
“We can’t stay here next to these rocks,” Harlan said, whispering. “We’re sitting ducks.”
“Oh, no!” Libby moaned. “What are we going to do now?”
“That’s stupid,” Andrea said. “If it’s just a hunter, as Nell says, then he’s not going to shoot us. He won’t, will he?”
“Right,” I said, appreciative of any kind of support I could get. “And no worries. He already knows we’re here. He’s hunting game, not us.”
“How can you be sure?” Libby’s voice quavered.
I wasn’t. But I couldn’t tell her that. I patted her shoulder. “It’s okay. We’re safe in our bright vests. That’s why the people at the ranch made us wear them.”
She didn’t look convinced.
“Well, if that’s all it is,” Andrea said, “then someone should go talk to him and make sure he knows about us. I’ll do it.” She jumped up from behind the rock and charged toward a faint deer trail that traced a route through the underbrush by the lake’s edge.
The deer’s path would have led to its death…
“Hey!” I called. “Come back!”
In martial arts, hesitating means you lose the point. So I sprang to my feet.
“You guys stay here,” I told Harlan and Libby. “And stay down, for goodness sake.”
This was definitely not a good idea, but I had no choice. I had to go after Andrea and keep her from becoming someone’s target practice.
No one shot us, so I kept going after her. That young woman was fast. She’d already disappeared from my sight.
I sprinted down the trail. Around me, aspens shimmered. The breeze not only stirred the leaves but also wafted the air with a hint of vanilla from the Ponderosas. Goosebumps tickled the back of my neck. Maybe we were running into a trap at the barrel end of a hunter’s rifle.
What if the hunter was colorblind? How would he know our darting motion wasn’t his prey?
“Don’t shoot!” I shouted, waving my arms. “We’re a group of hikers here!” I stretched up on my tippy-toes, making myself taller and bigger. It’s standard advice for meeting wildlife on the trail such as bears or mountain lions, and I hoped it would work for hunters as well. If he realized we were hikers and not game, he wouldn’t shoot us. Right? That was the theory.
I tried not to think about other possibilities to explain the sound of gunfire. If Libby’s fears were right and it wasn’t a hunter, Andrea’s headlong dash could insert her into someone else’s private argument. And if Harlan’s theory was right, the terrorist would be zeroing in on the commotion she and I were making. A shiver crept down my spine. As distressing as those thoughts were, knowing that my students felt trapped behind the rocks, with their safety possibly at risk, disturbed me even more.
“Andrea!” I called. But I couldn’t see her. Forging ahead, I patted my jeans pocket for some form of assurance. All I had there was a very old cell phone with no bars. No signal at all. I wouldn’t have known about the no bars part if not for all the selfies my gang kept pausing to take, all the way up here from the ranch where we’d recently checked in. Without bars, they’d wailed, how were they going to send photos to their social media feed?
“You’re not,” I’d told them. “The point of this weekend is to isolate ourselves from all the trappings of technology. For one weekend we are going to leave all those crutches behind and just connect with nature and each other. We are going to focus on awareness of our surroundings.”
Oh yeah. And now we might actually need that connection to the rest of the world if we were going to get any help. Except we couldn’t. The rational part of me still wasn’t convinced that the guy on the other side of those gunshots presented a true emergency, but the mom in me worried about accidents. Someone could end up lying in the grasses, bleeding out.
I ran faster. A moving target, at least, was more difficult to hit.
Overhead, a jet’s faint hum and its com trail reminded me just how far away other people in the form of potential help were.
Back at the ranch, there were plenty of people who knew we were out here. Willow, for instance, the driver from our carpool. She hadn’t joined us on our hike because she’d pleaded an altitude headache and had retired to her room with extra bottles of water. I figured the drive had tired her, or maybe she had just wanted to wimp out of extra exercise.
I couldn’t argue with biology, or physics, or whatever culprit it was that made the human body suffer at close to ten thousand feet in elevation. We were accustomed to a mile high, but not to this.
It was the same with my soon-to-be ex half-sister-in-law Gillian—Jill for short. She’d wimped out, too. But good old Jill. After some last-minute no-shows, she’d let me twist her arm to come along and round up our numbers to seven—the minimum number required by my boss.
And then there was Woody, our host at the ranch. He’d helped check us in when we arrived by car late this morning, and he’d given us a brief sketch of the grounds. We’d had to follow the driveway past the stables before finding the fire road that led to the trail that led up here to this lake.
There were others at the ranch, too, who knew we were out here, the staff who had handed out these vests. But right now, they seemed as far away as the passengers on that jet, disappearing out of sight.
I pressed on, pausing behind boulders and clumps of trees that dotted the trail and waving my arms when I moved out into the open areas of brush. Staying alert to my surroundings, I tried not to trip over loose rocks and tree roots.
I rounded a bend, and then nearly bumped into Andrea. She stood motionless in the middle of the trail with her hands planted on her hips. With her initiative, she would definitely make a good martial artist. Maybe not such a good student, since she didn’t listen very well to instructions.
“Is that him?” she said, squinting at some waving, russet grasses a hundred feet or so ahead in the meadow.
“I have no idea,” I said, “but we shouldn’t bother any hunter. He’s not going to shoot us in our orange vests. That’s why we wear them.”
She snorted. “What are we supposed to do? Cower behind rocks the rest of the day? Not me.”
The thudding sound of running footsteps pounded behind us, and I whirled around. Harlan’s head bobbed into sight as he ran around the bend towards us. He slid on loose rocks but recovered his balance well. “Did you find him?”
“There’s something over there,” Andrea said, pointing at the meadow.
I peered down the trail. “Where’s Libby?”
“Still hiding behind those rocks,” Harlan said.
“Let’s go make sure he knows we’re here.” Andrea charged forward.
“Hold on,” I said, hurrying after her. If anyone was going to be shot at, it would have to be me. I could talk a brave talk. That didn’t necessarily mean that I felt brave, but I was still responsible for this gang, even if they acted like a herd of cats. I needed to take the lead.
It occurred to me that Libby’s fears might be right, and the shooter might not be a hunter. Maybe he was a maniac who lurked in the bushes, waiting for us. Maybe—
“Oh!” Andrea cried, sliding to a sudden stop before I could overtake her.
I nearly bumped into her as I fought my momentum to stop beside her. She covered her mouth and stared at an area of scrubby trees at the edge of the meadow fifty feet or so away from us.
“What’s that?” she said, pointing at the movement in the underbrush.
Tiny, black heads bobbed there. Blackbirds. I crept closer.
The birds were having a convention. I was so intent on their frenzy that I almost missed the other thing. The barrel end of a rifle poked out of the grasses beneath a barberry bush. I froze.
In the next instant, I unweighted myself and side-stepped fast out of the rifle’s range. The rifle lay on the ground. It did not follow my movement. There was not so much as a jerk or twitch that would indicate someone’s antsy fingers holding it. My muscles relaxed. The rifle appeared to have been discarded there. I took another step closer.
Uphill, a few feet away from the rifle, the birds danced apart, revealing the object of their attention. Sprawled on the ground behind a twisted clump of cedars was a man’s outstretched arm. His rifle arm. It wasn’t moving.
When I saw the rest of him, lying face down, I could tell at once that he wasn’t alive. I did not need to see his face to know. The thin strands of white hair across a grayed, bare scalp told me it was Woody.
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