Meet wildlife biologist and writer Summer "Sam" Westin, whose dream of saving the cougars is complicated when a boy vanishes from a campground in Utah...
A child has gone missing, and Sam Westin knows it's her fault. She nudged the boy down a dark path toward a man she presumed was his father. Now there's a media campaign targeting the cougars she helped rehabilitate and release a year ago, blaming them for the boy's disappearance. It's only when FBI Agent Chase Perez joins the case that human suspects are considered.
Clues lead Sam and Chase to the high country, where they comb the rocky canyons for evidence of the boy and for the one man who may be a vital witness. But as hours pass, and the media frenzy escalates, Sam fears they won't uncover the truth in time to save both the boy and the big cats...
It was almost time.
This was the man’s favorite hour. Dark enough that shadows obscured details, light enough that the campers had not yet gathered all their possessions. Food and utensils and toys and clothes and children were scattered everywhere. People were so careless. He wrapped his arms around his knees and drew himself into a tight ball. In a few moments, the sun would be completely obscured by the western escarpment. Down here in the valley, there was no gentle dimming into peaceful dusk. Instead, a wave of darkness slithered across the canyon, changing light to dark as if someone had closed a door. Campers would crowd into tight knots around their campfires or withdraw into their tents and RVs, fleeing the night as if it were dangerous. Then he’d be free to do what he’d come here for.
He perched in a U-shaped seat formed by two cottonwoods that had grown together. Nobody would notice him under the overhang of golden-leaved branches. Not here in the shadow of the cliffs. He listened to the noise from the campers in the valley, all too audible over the gurgle of the river.
Even from this distance he could hear the drone of RV generators, the crackle of campfires, and even the occasional blare of a television or radio. To his right, he recognized the crunch of gravel as a car pulled into a parking lot. Behind and to his distant left, footsteps rasped rhythmically in the dirt as a jogger slowly approached on the road shoulder. Just across the road, on the signboard at the campground pay station, a warning poster about cougars flapped with each gust of the rising breeze.
At the first campsite beyond the pay station, a small boy, little older than a baby, crawled across an expanse of wind-smoothed rock, his lips pursed as he pushed a toy truck along the miniature sandstone hills and troughs.
Exhaling softly, the man splayed his fingers across his thighs. Under the baseball cap, the toddler’s hair was the color of the buttercups that bloomed after the spring rains. He knew that kind of little-boy hair; he knew how silky it would feel under his fingertips. The memory made his throat constrict.
A few yards beyond the boy, the child’s dark-haired mother tinkered with a sputtering camp stove. From the thick woods encircling the campsite came the rustle of downed leaves, the firecracker pops of dry twigs shattering underfoot.
The rustling concluded with a sharp crack followed by a dull thump, as if a heavy object had fallen to the ground. A flock of crows rocketed up from a ponderosa’s twisted branches, cawing their displeasure at being displaced from their nightly roost. The boy stood up and watched the dark cloud of birds pass overhead toward the river.
His mother took a few steps in the direction the noise had come from. She faced the trees, peering into the growing darkness. “Fred? You sound like a moose out there. That is you, isn’t it, Fred?”
The blond boy, one hand outstretched as if to catch the last straggling crows flapping over his head, toddled through the grass toward the road and the river beyond. As the boy came closer, his head tilted skyward, and the sight of that rapt little face under the bill of the cap made the man’s heart race. He loved that expression, that mixture of wonder and curiosity that small children reserved for other creatures. But small children should never be left to wander alone. Terrible things could happen to little boys.
The boy’s mother left the woods and returned to the picnic table, turning toward the rock ledge where the boy had been playing.
“Zack, it’s getting too dark to play on the rock now.” Her voice rose. “Zack?”
“Where are the cougars?” Sam Westin held her cell phone to her ear as she lifted one foot to a picnic bench and stretched her cramped leg muscles.
“Hello to you, too, Sam,” Ranger Kent Bergstrom chided her. “Weren’t you supposed to be here yesterday?”
“Don’t remind me,” she said. “Did you know there’s a bullet hole in the signboard at Goodman Trailhead? A heart shot to the cougar.” She lifted her chin to gaze again at the startling beam of sunlight skewering the plywood and Plexiglas. It pissed her off just to look at it.
“Yeah, they nailed that one two days ago. Let’s go grab a beer; I’ll fill you in.”
A frosty mug of anything sounded like heaven right now. Sam squelched a moan of self-pity. “I wish. But SWF is only funding me for four days to do this story, and as you’ve so tactfully noted, I’m running late. Can you give me a hint where I might find Leto and the cubs?”
“Check Sunset Canyon. I found prints around the river, not more than fifty yards from where you are, just this morning. They were big prints; I’m pretty sure it was Apollo. I followed them up the creek. He was headed for Sunset.”
“Is our favorite camp unoccupied?” She referred to a secret box canyon she and Kent had discovered while conducting a wildlife survey two years ago.
“Far as I know. You’re going up there now?”
“Yep.” She couldn’t wait to get into the backcountry.
“It’s five forty. The sun’s setting.”
“Really?” she responded sarcastically. In the time she’d stood there, the sun had sunk halfway behind the escarpment, casting a third of the valley into darkness. In another fifteen minutes, the shadow would cover the parking lot and the skewer of sunlight would disappear from the signboard.
“I just meant that you’d better get a move on.”
“I’ll jog all the way.” While it was still daylight on the plateau above, she had nearly six and a half miles to hike up a steep trail through a sandstone canyon that would already be in purple shadows.
She pressed the End button, then punched in a Seattle number. As she listened to the repeated rings at the other end, she pulled a digital camera from her backpack with her free hand.
In the campground across the road, she heard the faint shouts of a woman. “Zack! Come here right now! Right now! I mean it!”
Probably one of those dog owners who constantly threatened their pets but never bothered to train them. While the woman continued to call out and the phone repeated its high-pitched rings in her ear, Sam snapped a one-handed photo of the light passing through the vandalized board, then stuck the camera into a pocket of her hiking vest.
“Save the Wilderness Fund,” a breathless voice finally responded over the airwaves. “Lauren Stark.”
“It’s Sam. I’m in Utah. I just reached the park.”
“Hey, I’m sorry, I can’t help it if this yahoo plowed into my Civic in Idaho. It took forever to get the fender pulled out, and the trunk—” Sam made a chopping motion in the air. “Never mind. You’re right, I’m late and we don’t have time to discuss why. Are we ready to go?” She paced back to the picnic table and checked the zippers on her backpack.
“The new page is up with the usual information about the fund and your first article of backstory on the cougars. But—oh God—we’re running so late, I’m hyperventilating just thinking about it. Adam wants something impressive to show on the news, something you know, like wowee—”
Adam? How had Adam Steele gotten into the mix? Sam had a sudden sick feeling that she’d landed this job only because of some backroom negotiation by the television reporter. A puff of breeze sent golden leaves spiraling down around her. She turned her head to study the shadow creeping across the canyon floor. “Lauren, I promised you a new article today, and I will deliver. I’m going to look for the cats right now. I’ll send you something by nine o’clock your time.”
“We’ll be here. And don’t forget the chat session tomorrow night.”
Sam groaned and pulled a leaf from her hair. “Didn’t I have two days in the backcountry before that?”
“That was before you showed up a day late. We’ve been posting an ad for the chat session for five days; we can’t change the schedule now.”
“Of course you can’t.” She’d have to hike back down tomorrow for a dependable electrical connection. Maybe this combo of wilderness and Internet was not going to be so great, after all. She was already exhausted and she hadn’t even started this job.
“Tomorrow, eight P.M. Utah time,” Lauren reminded her.
“I’ll be there.” Snapping the phone shut, she stashed it inside another vest pocket, trying to ignore the enticing aroma of grilling hamburgers from the nearby campground. Crackers and cheese would have to suffice for dinner tonight. After hefting the backpack upright on the picnic table, she balanced it with one hand and turned to push her arm through the shoulder strap.
Her hip bumped against a warm body. A small figure stumbled away and banged into the signboard with an audible crack. Sam gasped and let go of the pack, which fell back onto the picnic table with a dust-raising thump. A toddler blinked at her, his blue eyes huge under the bill of a red baseball cap. His lips trembled as he raised a plump hand to his forehead, dislodging the cap. It tumbled to the ground at his feet.
“I’m sorry, honey.” She knelt next to him, patted the shoulder of his Pooh Bear sweatshirt. “You scared me.”
The urchin jammed his thumb into his mouth and regarded her silently from above a small fist. He couldn’t be more than three years old.
“Are you okay? Did you hit your head?”
At the reminder, his blue eyes filled with tears.
“You won’t cry, will you?” she murmured hopefully, plucking a pine needle from his honey blond bangs. “Where’s your mommy?”
The child jerked the thumb out of his mouth, whirled around and slapped a chubby hand against the Plexiglas-covered notice. “Kitty!” he chortled.
“Big kitty,” Sam agreed. “That’s a picture of a cougar.”
He poked a stubby finger toward the bullet hole above his head. “Hoe.”
“Hole,” she couldn’t help correcting. “Bullet hole. Bad hole. There shouldn’t be a hole in the cougar.” She sounded like a dolt. Jeez, she didn’t have time for idiotic conversations with toddlers. She should be a half mile up the trail to Sunset Canyon by now. Where were the boy’s parents? She quickly surveyed the parking lot. Only a ground squirrel scampered through the dusty gravel between the vehicles.
The child turned toward Sam and softly patted her left breast where her T-shirt bore the emblem of a mountain lion on a rock. “Cougie!”
She captured the tiny fingers, slippery with saliva. “That’s another cougar,” she told him. “And it’s also sexual harassment, as you’ll find out in a few years.”
Gently, she brushed back his fine hair, so soft she could barely feel it against her weather-roughened fingertips. A crisscrossing of scratches marred the toddler’s pink cheeks, probably from the blackberry vines bordering the parking lot. She found no lump on his scalp, so he couldn’t have hit the board very hard. Recovering his baseball cap from the ground, she slapped off the dust and tugged it back onto the boy’s head. The parking area was now completely in shadow. She was running out of time.
The woman still shouted from the campground. Her cries now sounded more distant. “Zachary! Where are you, Zack? Zacharryyy!”
The child ducked his head under the arch of a blackberry bramble and peered down a narrow trail that forked left to the river, right to the road. “Mommy?”
So Zack was not a recalcitrant dog, after all. No wonder the woman sounded so insistent.
“You came down that path, didn’t you, Zack?” Sam stood up, moved back to the table, and pulled her pack upright. The boy followed her.
She thrust her arms beneath the backpack’s straps and hefted it onto her shoulders. “Go back to Mommy now.”
“Zachary! Come here right this instant!” The shouts were faint now.
Sam cupped her hands and shouted toward the campground. “He’s over here.” Could the woman hear her over the rustle of leaves in the breeze and the babble of the river?
“Mommy mad.” The boy’s whisper was barely audible.
Sam patted his small shoulder. “She’s just worried. She’ll be so happy to see you, Zack.”
He pulled a circle of black plastic from his sweatshirt pocket and thrust it in her direction. “Twuck!”
The plastic piece was imprinted with a tiny tread pattern and had a center hole for a diminutive axle. “Looks more like a wheel,” she said, pushing it back into his hands. “I bet Mommy would help you find your truck and put this wheel back on it.”
“Zack!” A man’s tone this time, deeper and closer. It sounded like he was only a short distance through the trees, standing on the edge of the road where it overlooked the river’s bend.
The child stared uncertainly in the direction of the voice.
“Now your daddy’s calling you, too, Zack.”
The toddler thrust his thumb back into his mouth. Sam winced, remembering all the places that thumb had been in the last few minutes. She cinched the waist strap on her pack and huffed out an impatient breath. “Okay, we’ll go together. But we’ve got to make it fast.”
Taking his hand, she pushed her way through the gap in the blackberries. A thorny branch snagged the netting at the side of her vest, bringing her to an abrupt halt. She let go of the little hand to free herself, and the boy darted into the shadowy cut between the brambles.
“Wait, Zack! Take my hand!”
The toddler disappeared amid the dark foliage. After several seconds of wrestling with the thorny branches, she tore herself free. Sucking on a bleeding knuckle, she took a step down the overgrown trail, squinting into the gloom. She was anxious to be on her way while she could still see the ground under her feet.
His head and shoulders backlit by the glow from a kerosene lantern across the road, a man blocked the other end of the tree-lined path. Zack’s daddy.
“Got him?” she shouted.
The rush of the river drowned the man’s response, but he raised a hand in thanks. Sam waved back, then hurriedly retraced her steps to the trailhead lot. The hubbub of RV generators, crackling campfires, and excited squeals of children faded as she jogged over the bridge and up the rocky trail to the canyon rim above.
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