The shadows were growing long in the forest as Barrett Monroe headed back to the car. He had all the information he needed and was looking forward to a good night’s rest. It was probably a good thirty miles to a hotel. Uncle Del was waiting for a phone call but he hadn’t been able to get a signal for hours. He’d lived in northwest Arkansas for several years, but he’d never seen country as remote as the mountains in Madison County. It was like traveling back in time sixty years or more.
An ATV would have made his job less difficult, but he didn't want to attract attention. His permission to be on the land was in his pocket - a letter of consent - but he could easily run across someone who would shoot first and ask questions later. If he was going to continue this new line of work, he'd have to get used to that idea.
He’d been traveling one-lane dirt roads, winding around mountains all afternoon. In that time, he’d met few cars. As much as he enjoyed the wilderness, places like this made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. It wasn't because it was remote. He would have felt better if he had seen no indication of human presence. That hadn't been the case. The ATV tracks were well worn and they didn't branch out over the forest as they would if it were hunters looking for a good spot. They all ended up in one place - a hidden spot. It was hidden from aerial surveillance and anyone on the road but they had made no attempt to conceal the path leading there. This wasn't a place to be caught alone.
He had completed the observation. Now all he needed to do was report. So far he had not seen a person. The owner of the land was in Little Rock but it looked like someone was using his cabin. There were chickens free-ranging in the yard, but there were no vehicles. The roof was of rusted corrugated tin and there was an old leaning privy behind the house. He saw no indication of electricity. It would have to be a meager existence but it would provide shelter for someone without a home. He wasn't foolish enough to show up on their doorstep, but he'd let his boss know someone was using the cabin.
Autumn was in full swing and brilliant yellow hickory leaves contrasted with the deep red of sumac. Deep purple-blue chicory, orange-yellow brown-eyed Susan and delicate tickseed flowers all refused to submit to the chilly nights of the season. The forest was still alive and incredibly beautiful. Daytime temperatures were still comfortable, but it would be different after the sun set.
The canopy changed with the seasons, but the forest had a rhythm of its own. It didn't depend on mankind. Mankind depended on the forest - man simply hadn't accepted that yet. This was something he derived from a summer spent in a tree house he built in his eighth year, but didn't understand until he was older. In the months since the accident, he had begun to understand that he had been hiding from the troubles of that year ever since. His father had been unwilling to help him build the tree house, which had caused a rift between his parents. It seemed that they were always fighting, so he decided to build the tree house by himself using lumber from an old shed that had been torn down the year before.
The complexities of marriage were impossible for a boy that young to understand. He wasn't sure when he understood that he didn't cause the divorce, but it was years later.
He pushed the thought from his mind. He needed to stay focused. The forest could be a dangerous place. It was a living entity in which lived not only harmless animals like deer, squirrels and rabbits, but potentially dangerous animals like bear, cougar and venomous serpents. Then there was the most dangerous animal in the forest - man. Barrett always carried a weapon for protection when he was in the forest, but he’d never been an avid hunter. He understood the necessity of wildlife management, but he’d rather shoot game with a camera. He had no objection to legal hunting - or responsible logging, for that matter. It was illegal and irresponsible activity that ruined things for everyone else.
A degree in environmental science and a bachelor’s degree in forestry had propelled Barrett toward his goal of Forest Ranger. Unfortunately, a losing battle with a falling tree had smashed that dream. It had taken him six months to recover from the amputation and learn to walk using a prosthetic leg. Consequently, he was staggering around trying to find new direction in his mid twenties.
His mother had been supportive. Maybe that was because she felt guilty about not being close to him after the divorce. Now he could understand how lost she felt. Maybe fear of repeating her mistake was what made him so determined now. There was so much he was only beginning to understand.
Barrett was an only child - a source of unearned pride to his mother and a disappointment to his father. Last summer Uncle Del needed more lumberjacks and Barrett needed a summer job to pay for college books. Uncle Del ran a clean honest operation. They didn't clear cut and they replanted trees. Monroe Lumber Company wasn't a big corporation, but it managed to stay in the black year round. Uncle Del hadn’t hesitated a moment in hiring him – not then and not now.
Barrett had never been close to his father, and it wasn't likely he ever would be. Sometimes he wondered if their personalities were incompatible. He never understood the drive for personal wealth that kept his father away from his family so much of the time. John Monroe was hardly a self made man. He married money and used it to build his real estate business. He hadn't been much of a father in some ways, but he had certainly lived up to his financial responsibilities. He would have, grudgingly, paid for Barrett's college education, but Barrett was too stubborn to go that route and he refused to take money from his mother. Like with the tree house, he wanted to control destiny by doing it himself.
His father had used the accident as an example of why he should have chosen the profession of a doctor or lawyer. It was his way of saying 'I told you so.' That was the mistake people made - thinking that they could control every aspect of their life. If it hadn't been the tree, it probably would have been something else. The important thing wasn't avoiding disaster. It was how you dealt with disaster when it inevitably entered your life.
Barrett had a good education and his physical health was still improving. For that he was thankful. It could have been a lot worse. There was no point wallowing in self-pity. Uncle Del was feeling sorry enough for him. Uncle Del admitted he felt responsible for the accident, but he insisted Barrett was selected for the current job because of his education. No doubt his knowledge of trees and the wilderness in general was an asset, but Uncle Del couldn’t afford to pay someone to search the forest for specific trees on a regular basis. He didn't fully understand why Uncle Del decided to work with Logan, but he suspected the motive was probably busy work.
His current job was dangerous. No one pretended otherwise. Barrett was intrigued from the beginning. One of the appeals of being a Forest Ranger had been the opportunity to protect public land from lawbreakers. He didn’t know if he was capable of the extent of subterfuge that would be required for this job, and was frank about that concern from the beginning. Logan assured him that he need only tell people he was looking for rare trees. He would be driving a vehicle clearly marked with the lumber company name. He was only supposed to observe and report.
Logan had always wanted him as a partner. Barrett had no training as a Private Investigator, but Logan’s logic about his experience being an asset was sound. He was trustworthy and woods wise, but more importantly, his presence in this kind of country was believable. Barrett knew enough about the lumber business to convince anyone that he was actually searching for a stand of hardwood. He'd found enough quality lumber to satisfy an order. The use of Uncle Del’s company vehicle provided a convincing cover.
A man had come to Logan with his meager life savings wanting him to investigate what he believed to be the murder of his son. Logan was one of those investigators who worked with the police and this case was not an active crime file. The young man had died in an auto accident and there was nothing to indicate it was murder – nothing except a possible connection to drugs. The accident had been in a remote area of Madison County, Arkansas. It was mountainous and shrouded in heavy forest. What Logan needed was someone who had a reason to be there and knowledgeable about the forest.
Barrett reached the car and paused a moment, digging the keys from his pocket. His idle gaze was drawn to the magnetic sign on the car door. “Monroe Lumber Company, Ft Smith, Arkansas," he read in a quiet voice. At least he was official.
He climbed into the car and pulled the door shut. Pulling the pistol and holster from his shoulder, he shoved it under the driver’s seat. That wasn’t the best place for it, but in this kind of country, it felt safer. He had a permit to carry it but he had been cautioned not to trust the local law.
Starting the engine, he turned the vehicle around and headed back toward the main road. He didn’t want to get stuck on this road at night. He pressed harder on the accelerator.
He had barely gone a half mile when movement in the brush beside the road sent his foot to the brake pedal. A doe and fawn leaped from the brush into the road, directly in his path. He instinctively jerked the steering wheel to the side, slamming on the brakes. The tires were unable to get enough traction on the loose dirt and rocks and the rear end of the car slid to the left, sending the front end off the edge of the road.
Pumping the brakes did little good on the dusty road. Momentum sent the vehicle plunging down a steep embankment. Once out of control, there was little he could do but try to avoid personal injury. The car bounced over clumps of brush and rocks, careening wildly down the steep slope. A canyon yawned ahead, dark and threatening. He frantically turned the steering wheel; hoping brush would stop his descent. The car crashed through the brush and slammed into a tree. The seatbelt and air bag prevented him from going through the windshield, but his head hit the driver's side window with a solid thump. His last cognizant thought was that no one knew where he was.