“How much longer can he stay up here?” Kennesaw asked as he and Ellison started down the road, away from the hideout.
“Not much,” answered the sheriff. “Sounds like he’s cracking.”
The cruiser reached the end of the goat trail and turned onto the ruts that wound back down into the valley. It was dark, and the moon was just a sliver. They had just reached the waterfall when Ellison spotted something in the distance.
“Stop! Kill the lights!” he ordered.
“Shut her down.”
“Sure thing, Boss.” Kennesaw clicked off the car’s headlights and killed the engine. “Did you see something?”
“Do you see that?” Bear rolled down his window, listening as he stared through the darkness. Through the trees and far below, several faint lights moved towards them. “Down there on the road, across the bridge.”
“I do now,” muttered Kennesaw, following the sheriff’s gaze. “Do you think it’s Acevedo’s men?”
“Who else would be driving out here right now?”
“What should we do?”
“Just wait a second. Let’s see if they turn and come up this way.” Bear leaned out of the window and listened. Whatever sound the approaching vehicles made was drowned out by rushing water. The spring storm was melting away. Soon, the valley roads would be channels of mud – impassable for days.
“It doesn’t look like they’re slowing down, Boss,” Kennesaw noted.
“I can’t tell,” answered the sheriff. “I lost their lights in the trees. Keep watching.”
The starlight illuminated the opposing ridge of icy peaks in shades of lavender and gray, while the black pines stood like silent sentries all around them. The water gushed from beside the cruiser, rolling down towards the valley floor where it joined the Mahonville River. Ellison continued to listen, searching through the shadowy forest for any sign of approaching headlights. Kennesaw rolled down his window to listen as well. He could hear better without the water rushing on his side.
“Do you see their lights?” he asked.
“No.” Ellison’s eyes drifted skyward. A ghostly jetliner passed overhead, laying a contrail of ice. The radio chirped with static, and Kennesaw turned the volume down.
“I can’t tell if they turned up this way,” Bear remarked.
“What if it’s them?” Kennesaw asked.
“Listen…” The sheriff rolled his window up to quiet the gushing on his side, then leaned towards Kennesaw’s window.
“I heard something,” the deputy said.
“Shhh,” Bear ordered. An engine growled faintly from down below. “It’s them. They’re coming this way.”
“What should we do?”
“Get us turned around. Drop me off at the trail. Then you just keep going on towards Gunnison. Bring help as soon as you can.”
“They won’t follow me, Boss,” Kennesaw warned him. “Not when they see the tracks going up to the cabin. You won’t make it before they overtake you.”
“Just drive!” shouted Ellison.
The vehicles were approaching, fast. Kennesaw started the engine. There was no place to turn where they were so he backed up blindly. The headlights of the Tahoes appeared, dashing between the trees on the road below, and casting long, sweeping shadows ahead of them. As they reached a wide spot in the road, Kennesaw tried to execute a 180 degree turn, but the tires slipped in the ruts. Their engines roaring, the DEA trucks climbed through the mud below the cruiser, closing in rapidly. Kennesaw backed up to get a better bite on the road. The glow of headlights swept the treetops overhead as the cruiser’s wheels spun and whirred on the slush and mud. The treads grabbed hold, and the vehicle righted itself and propelled forward. They took off back towards the cabin.
“They’ll see my brake lights,” Kennesaw said.
“No brakes,” Bear replied. “Go! Just get me close!”
The road switched back as it climbed. The cruiser’s engine wailed, and the tires spun as they lost traction on the icy patches. The sound of the Tahoes grew steadily louder. The agents were closing in fast. As Bear looked back, flashing red, white, and blue lights appeared in the darkness behind them.
“They saw us!” Kennesaw shouted.
“Just keep driving. Go faster!” Grabbing his radio, the sheriff hurriedly relayed their location to the CCSD, requesting backup as well. As the cruiser heaved and fishtailed through the mud, Bear unmounted his M&P rifle and reached into the back for the ammo vest. It held six thirty-round magazines of 5.56. Finally, they reached the goat trail that led to the cabin.
“Let me out here!” the sheriff shouted as he pulled the door handle, but discovered that it had been locked.
Ignoring the sheriff’s command, Kennesaw turned onto the trail. “Just let me get you a little closer, Boss,” he muttered.
They swerved and yawed and spun up the narrow, rutted road, following their own tracks in the snow by the starlight.
“This is good enough. Stop here,” Bear ordered. “Stop!”
Kennesaw stopped and unlocked the passenger door. The sheriff opened it and stepped out, stealing a quick glance at the approaching lights.
“Get going,” he said. “Get to Gunnison.”
“Let me stay, Boss,” Kennesaw protested. “Let me see this thing through with you. You need help.”
“The only way you can help is to get Stern’s files out,” Bear said as he grabbed the rifle and turned towards the cabin. “I can hold them off for a while. Get going! Now!”
Kennesaw hesitated, then turned the cruiser around and started back down the trail, driving even more frantically. He had to beat the agents to the turn before they could cut off his escape. Their flashers illuminated the trees. The deputy floored the accelerator, swerving as rocks rattled up into the wheel wells. The cruiser banged into a tree trunk, and the impact tore his rear bumper loose. Branches scraped and screeched along the side panels. Kennesaw worked the steering wheel wildly as he bounced around in the cab. Lights filled up the trees ahead. He turned on his headlamps and flashers, racing to the clearing just before the turn, but he was too late. Acevedo’s men had beaten him to the junction, and they were rolling up the trail towards him. There was nothing left to do but try and stifle their advance as best as he could. It would at least buy the sheriff some additional time. He pulled the wheel sharply left and the cruiser yawed wildly, sliding to a perpendicular stop and blocking the road. Kennesaw slammed it into park and shut off the engine with the agents nearly upon him.
Blazing spotlights blinded the deputy as he sat in the cab. He removed the keys from the ignition and raised his hands, then slowly opened the door and got out. Keeping his truck between himself and two of the SUVs, Kennesaw stepped behind the front fender and hood. The agents turned their spotlights on him. Kennesaw squinted in the blinding, searing light, as he waited for them to make the first move. He listened. Their engines churned, and steam floated up through the beams of their lights. He raised his hands. A door opened, and a silhouette emerged, aiming a handgun directly at him.
“I haven’t drawn my weapon!” Kennesaw shouted. His dash cam was uselessly aimed into the woods, but it was still recording sound. “You can see my hands! I am not resisting!”
The engines idled. The steam billowed. The flashers flashed, illuminating the trees in all directions. The door of the other Tahoe opened, and two more armed agents appeared.
“This is all being recorded!” continued the deputy. “My radio’s on as well. CCSD is listening in. They can hear everything.”
“DEA!” shouted the first agent as he approached the cruiser, pointing to his badge with one hand while holding his sidearm with the other. “Move the car out of the road!”
“I can’t do that!” Kennesaw shouted back.
“This is your last warning!” the man retorted. “Move the vehicle now! You are directly interfering with our operation. If you refuse to cooperate, you will face arrest for obstruction of justice!”
The deputy grinned. “Do your worst.”
The other two agents moved forward into the spotlight beams, their guns drawn. But before they could reach him, Kennesaw turned and hurled his keys into the trees. One agent ran to retrieve them, while the other circled around behind Kennesaw, pulled his hands down, pressed him over the hood, and cuffed him.