Stretched out on a lounge chair by the pool, garbed in a jersey, jeans, socks and sneakers against the slightly chill breeze off the Pacific, Mark scowled unhappily as he struggled to understand and remember the myriad details in the weighty tome that dealt with tort law… or, the way he thought about it, ‘every last friggin’ detail about how Americans have the right to sue other Americans over just about anything, no matter how ridiculous it is.’
Grimacing, he looked out over the undulating ocean to the endless blue horizon and wondered, not for the first time, if he was only kidding himself. Not that he was stupid; he knew he wasn’t. But he wasn’t any genius, either. And he liked to work with his hands or on puzzles, liked to put pieces together in patterns that made sense, not play word games to win some litigious squabble that all too often seemed to him to be about greed or lack of personal responsibility—and frankly, that just felt like a colossal waste of time and energy for everyone concerned.
Sighing, he again tried to focus on the tiny print and wrap his head around the details of yet another case in a book that had to weigh at least ten pounds. What he found truly incredible wasn’t even that people could come to care about all this precedent or whatever, but that anyone could actually remember it all.
Hardcase remembered it all.
Hardcase had a mind like a steel trap.
And Hardcase wouldn’t be too impressed if he didn’t get a grip on this stuff and soon.
The words blurred as, biting his lip, Mark thought again about how much he owed the Judge, and how he’d never be able to even begin to pay everything back—and not just money, either. For all his prickly nature and his reluctance to give compliments, Milt had seen something in him, something worth investing in, that Mark himself hadn’t felt, hadn’t believed in. But because Milt believed in him, trusted him, he’d come to believe and trust in himself—had even come to think that he could, maybe, make Hardcastle proud of him. When he was honest with himself, he had to admit that being a lawyer wasn’t exactly his big dream. He’d first begun this long, expensive and very difficult road of work and study that led toward the bar as a kind of payback, a thank you, a proof of sorts that Milt had been right to believe in him. And now … well, now about all he felt he was doing was costing Milt one heck of a lot of money, without a whole hell of a lot to show for it.
Was he wasting his time and the Judge’s investment?
The drone of the lawnmower over on the back forty, pushed by the guy from the lawn service, and the clean scent of newly cut grass captured his attention. The nearby snick of shears wielded by another of the guys from the service told Mark that the extensive rose garden just past the garage was being pruned and tidied up for winter. Smiling bemusedly, he couldn’t quite convince himself that he actually missed doing the menial and endless chores around the estate, but life had been a whole lot simpler then. With a sigh, he once again applied his attention to the heavy book but his efforts at memorization were soon interrupted by the sound of familiar voices.
“I’m telling you, Frank, it’s the best thing I could do!” Hardcastle insisted as he shouldered through the door from the kitchen, a cup of coffee in one hand and a ham and Swiss sandwich in the other. “An’ think how much I’ll save the city.” He grinned like a cherub at his friend. “Imagine: a weekend camping in Yosemite!” Opening his arms in an expansive gesture, his expression joyously focused on the sublime, he went on, “Ah, the clear, clean air with a snap of fall; the beautiful colors against the stark cliffs—heaven! And best of all, nobody would think of looking for me there.”
Frank looked less than convinced as he held his sandwich-laden hand up to nudge the door closed with his elbow and then took a sip from the coffee cup in his other hand. The two men moved across the patio and settled at the table. “You’d be safer in a safe house,” Frank insisted in a weary tone that suggested the debate had been going on for some time. “That’s why they’re called safe houses.”
Mark quirked a brow and leaned around the edge of his chair to give his two friends a narrow-eyed look. “And just why would it be necessary for the Judge to be in a safe house this weekend? Hmmm?”
Startled, Milt Hardcastle adopted an expression of exaggerated innocence. “Oh, there you are,” he said. “I thought you were at school today. You know, studying in the library.”
“Uh huh,” Mark grunted as he stood and walked along the side of the pool to join them. He carefully set the heavy textbook on the table as he sat down. “Don’t change the subject. What’s going on?” he demanded, looking from Milt to Frank and back again. “C’mon. Spill it.”
Hardcastle heaved a chagrined sigh and, sticking his tongue in his cheek, nodded grudgingly. “Okay, well, we weren’t going to bother you with this; you got enough on your plate right now.” Gesturing at the textbook, he went on, “Torts are probably the hardest part of law school ‘cause they’re mostly about memorization, pure an’ simple.”
Mark made a ‘gimme’ gesture with his fingers, signalling him to get on with it.
Frank stopped chewing and swallowed. “Delarico’s trial is coming up next week, and he’s been bragging that the case will be thrown out.”
“Armande Delarico? The big-time cocaine runner with ties to the Columbian mob? The one who swore he’d kill Milt before he’d go to prison? The one who has never made it to trial in the past thirty years because all the prosecution’s witnesses are either murdered or disappear—which only means we haven’t found their bodies yet. That Delarico?” Mark countered, his voice rising in agitation. “And you weren’t going to tell me?” he roared at Hardcastle. “Why? When did I stop being a part of things around here?”
“Now, now, don’t take it like that,” Milt soothed, waving his hands in a calming gesture though his expression was more sheepish than placating. “Everything’s fine. Nothin’ to worry about. I just need to keep a low profile until the trial next week. No reason to distract you from your studies.”
“Oh, give me a break,” Mark snapped, throwing himself back against the chair and crossing his arms. “There’s all kinds of reasons to worry, and you know it.” He couldn’t remember when he’d last been so furious with the Judge and he had to work hard to contain his anger. Damn this whole law school shit—it just got in the way. There was no way Hardcastle should have kept this from him. Except to maybe protect his ‘investment’. Nausea roiled and Mark curled his lip in disgust even as he clamped his jaw tight against bursting out with more anger that would only put the Judge’s back up. If that happened, Hardcase would cut him out of the action out of pure stubborn cussedness.
“Mark’s right,” Frank asserted, blithely ignoring Hardcastle’s scowl and Mark’s steaming fury. “An’ not just about the danger to you. Think about it. If Delarico or his friends come looking for you and they find Mark, well….”
Mark blinked and shuddered, not having considered the possible ramifications from his own point of view, but he jumped on the chance to underscore his point. “You see! This is why you should keep me informed about what’s going on around here!”
“Humph,” Milt grunted, his brow furrowing in thought. Grudgingly, he nodded. “Okay, yeah, you might be right,” he muttered with a glare at Frank, but then he grinned. “No problem. McCormick can come with me.” Turning to Mark, he added, “You can even bring your books and study up there. So you won’t be wasting your time.”
“Wasting my time?” Mark echoed in disbelief, and rolled his eyes; as if his classes meant a damn if the Judge was in danger. “What? Your answer is that we both head out of Dodge? You want to drag me off on another trip to the great outdoors? As if that’s the way to be safe? The last several trips to the high country haven’t worked out so good or don’t you remember?” Mark objected. “A safe house sounds pretty darned good to me. You know, warm, dry, comfortable and SAFE! And I could study!” he added with feigned enthusiasm as he hefted the tome and then thought better of trying to wave the damned thing; it would probably dislocate his shoulder.
“I can take care of myself; I don’t need a babysitter an’ I’m sure not going to waste my tax dollars on paying cops to stand sentry over me!” Milt retorted, his own voice rising in frustrated anger.
“So, what are you saying? I’m the babysitter now? I thought I was your friend!” Mark challenged. “But you’re right,” he went on, dripping sarcasm. “I’m not much use against either bears or bullets.”
“Bah, you’re not my babysitter or my bodyguard an’, besides, you’re exaggerating,” Hardcastle drawled, waving him off. “Yosemite is a beautiful national park. What could happen to us there? An’ it’s the last place Delarico would ever think of looking for us, so that makes it perfect.” He clapped his hands and jumped to his feet, evidently done with the discussion, the decision made. “Let’s get crackin’! We need to be on the road in an hour if we’re gonna get our camp set up before dark. An’ bring that book—I can quiz you on the facts.” With a wicked grin that sent chills up Mark’s spine, Milt started back toward the house.
Mark shook his head and thought a locomotive would be easier to stop than Hardcastle when he was on a roll. But heading to the mountains was just plain stubborn when it made a whole lot more sense to stay in town and be protected like any sensible star witness for the prosecution. And he wished Hardcase hadn’t ignored his comment about being friends. They were, weren’t they? They had been, back before Mark became beholden to the Judge for paying his university costs. But now the whole situation had changed and Mark wasn’t sure what he was to Hardcastle. He just didn’t feel like he was pulling his weight anymore.
However, both of them knowing when they were beaten, Mark and Frank gave each other one last long-suffering look before climbing to their feet to follow him.
“Okay, well, fine,” Frank grumbled with a disconsolate shrug. “I’ll hold the fort and send the park rangers after you if anything happens that you need to know about.”
“Good, you do that—but don’t tell anyone where we are unless you have to,” Milt agreed as he paused to wave Frank ahead of him, back into the house. “But, hey, why don’t you come up an’ join us for the weekend? We could meet you in the village for lunch tomorrow at the Lodge.”
Frank brightened. “You know, that’s a good idea. I could keep an eye on you and get in a little fishing at the same time.”
Grinning, Milt pulled open the back door. “Now you’re cookin’. C’mon, McCormick,” he called over his shoulder as he turned to enter the house behind Frank, “get a move on! Daylight’s a’wasting!”
Mark hesitated but, with a resigned grimace, he picked up the heavy textbook to take with him on the unexpected camping expedition. If worst came to worst, they could always use the pages to light a fire and it could make a great club—hell, he could just read it out loud to any possible bad guys, whether survivalists or corrupt local law enforcers, and bore them to death. Still, however much he feigned reluctant acquiescence, he couldn’t stop the slow grin that lit his face as he loped to the gatehouse to pack. He would never admit it to Hardcastle, but he’d missed the action and going on a field trip trumped studying boring stuff any day.
Not even the horrible thought of Milt quizzing him and finding out just how much he didn’t know could diminish his anticipated pleasure at the thought of the weekend ahead.
They had no sooner vacated the patio when the laborer from the rose garden ambled past the pool and stopped by the table. Young but strongly built, he was unshaven, had long blond hair tied back with a leather thong, and various blue and red tattoos decorated his left arm. After a quick look around to ensure he was alone, he dropped to one knee and reached under the table to extract an electronic bug. Straightening, he slipped it into the shirt pocket of his pale blue uniform and, with a smug expression, he sauntered toward one of the company vans. Moments later, he was driving up the winding laneway and onto Pacific Coast Highway, heading toward the city.
* * * * *
The drive over the hills and up the long, fertile inland valley was quiet as Mark tried to study, but his worry about Hardcastle and the state of their friendship got in the way. Instead of memorizing boring details, he found himself staring at the same page long enough that Milt began casting worried glances his way. Finally, after more than an hour, Milt asked, “You okay, kid?”
What could he say? That ‘no, he wasn’t okay’ because he was afraid he was wasting the Judge’s money? That he was too stupid or dense or whatever for the facts to penetrate? That he found the subject bored him to tears? Or that he was worried that being beholden for the tuition and other school expenses, like the outrageous cost of books, had torn the fragile fabric of their friendship, maybe beyond repair?
No, he couldn’t say any of that or, if he could, he didn’t know how. So, instead, he sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Just got a bit of a headache,” he lied with a sigh.
“Probably from trying to read all that tiny print in a moving vehicle,” Hardcastle replied, sounding genuinely concerned but then, with a sly twinkle, he added, “Or maybe you need glasses.”
“I don’t need glasses!” Mark protested.
“Well, you’re not getting any younger an’ eventually we all need reading glasses,” Milt countered, his tone placating, but a grin twitched at the corner of his mouth.
“I am not old,” Mark retorted with a huff, but he, too, fought a grin as he slammed the book closed, crossed his arms, and turned his face away to stare out the side window. Even so slight an exchange was fun, like old times. But for the life of him, he couldn’t think of any way to make it last. The sad truth of the matter was that he was getting older and he still didn’t have much of anything to show for all the years he’d spent taking up space on earth.
“Then what’s wrong?” Milt demanded when the silence lengthened, no longer joking. “You were staring at the same page for over an hour.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Mark replied, his tone low, with no energy. He shrugged, discouraged but unable to bring himself to admit the truth. “Maybe it’s what you said. Just too hard to read in the truck.” He didn’t see the worry cloud Milt’s eyes or the dejected twist of his lips as he sorrowfully shook his head.
Mark wasn’t the only one who didn’t know how to bridge the chasm growing between them.
* * * * *
The sun was sinking below the high ridge of stone to the west when they parked in front of the small General Store on the main drag of the village of Mariposa, one of the gateway towns on the Highway 41 approach to the national park. Splitting up to cover different aisles, they quickly grabbed more than sufficient supplies for the weekend camping trip in the mountains: steaks and the trimmings, hotdogs, hamburger meat and buns, eggs, bacon, bread, sandwich meats, cheese slices, tomatoes, apples, bananas, peanut butter, bottled water, coffee, soft drinks, ice, beer, cans of chili, soup and crackers. Other non-perishable necessities were always packed with the tent: cooking equipment, fishing gear, and sleeping bags, all ready for whenever the Judge decided it was time to go play in the great outdoors.
Mark was dawdling over the display of maps and guidebooks by the dusty, fly-specked front windows while Hardcastle paid for and helped bag the supplies. Between coughs that sounded like he was bringing up his lungs, the old codger behind the counter rambled on about the weather—which was predicted to go sour.
“Figures,” Mark groused and was glad that they kept tarps and rainproof ponchos with their camping gear. He grabbed a couple of park maps and a book that detailed the back country and the camping sites even though he knew they wouldn’t need them. He couldn’t help himself; ever since their flight three hundred miles up from nowhere, he’d had a nervous habit of buying maps that would always let him know where he was in relation to the nearest version of civilization. Turning to the counter, he winced when the grizzled geezer coughed right in Hardcastle’s face.
Great. Sounded like it was going to rain all weekend and now Hardcase would probably come down with the local version of the flu. Mark shook his head and held his breath as he stood as far away as possible from the hacking bundle of germs and tossed enough bills onto the counter to cover the cost of the maps and guide book. He grabbed a few of the grocery bags, and left without worrying about the change with the thin hope that he might avoid catching whatever was evidently going around. Once outside, he took a deep breath of cool, pine-scented mountain air before putting the bags in the back and climbing into the truck.
“You’re gonna get pneumonia, you know,” he said as he riffled through the guidebook.
“What’re you talkin’ about?” Milt grumbled while he cranked on the engine and pulled out onto the highway that ran through the center of town.
“Old Yosemite Sam in there—sounded like he was carryin’ the plague and couldn’t wait to hand it off to you,” Mark replied with a jerk of his thumb over his shoulder.
“The plague?” Milt snapped and shook his head. “You’re delusional, you know that?”
“Says right here,” Mark retorted, waving the book. “Rodents, you know, mice, carry pneumonic plague.”
Hardcase gave a disdainful sniff and rolled his eyes, but refrained from making any further comment. Mark gave him a smug smile but then, at the anxious thought that he could be right about Hardcastle catching something from the old guy, he frowned with foreboding.
However, he recovered quickly when he read the park rules. With an evil grin, he reported, “There’s no fishing allowed in Yosemite—it’s a national park and all species are protected.”
“I knew that,” Milt replied scathingly.
“Yeah, sure you did. That’s why you didn’t tell Frank he wouldn’t be able to fish when he gets here tomorrow.”
When Hardcastle just shrugged and looked away, Mark knew he’d caught his friend out on a legal technicality and his grin grew insufferably wide.
* * * * *
Fifteen minutes later, they were talking to the ranger at the park gate, paying their fees and getting detailed—and very confusing—verbal directions to a site at a campground that went by the name of Porcupine Creek. From the directions, it sounded like it was on the far side of the park, way up in the hills. Mark hastily scribbled the name of the campground onto the flyleaf of his torts textbook and frowned at the thought of sharp porcupine quills littering the ground, lying in wait to stab the unwary tourist. If they had trouble finding the place, he could always consult one of the maps he’d just bought. Glancing at the shadows lengthening across the roadway, he figured any hope they had of finding the campsite before dark was toast. So far, the weekend was shaping up to be one of their typical disasters.
As they pulled away, the ‘ranger’ smirked and turned from the window. The man who had so recently been grooming plants in the rose garden looked down at the body of the real park ranger sprawled in the corner behind him in the little gatehouse. He punched a number into the telephone, listened to the distant ringing and, when it was answered, said, “They’re on their way to the site we agreed on … yeah, it’s remote, just like you wanted. The talent from San Francisco headed up there an hour ago…. Uh huh, he said he’d destroy all the phones in the target area to ensure there was no way they could call for help. Won’t be any other campers nearby to interfere.”
He listened another moment, nodded wordlessly and hung up the phone. After wiping down every surface, he donned a pair of driving gloves, then plucked a set of keys from the peg by the backdoor and closed up the gatehouse. Sliding into the ranger’s cruiser, he headed out the gate toward town where he’d ditch the official National Park Service vehicle and transfer back to his own wheels for his return trip to Los Angeles.
* * * * *
The two-lane paved road curved through the valley. Above them Bridal Veil Falls tumbled down one steep escarpment and across from it the looming mass of El Capitan skimmed the gathering bank of clouds. Though it was late in the year, the traffic through Yosemite Village was still stop and go. The last of the day’s light was waning fast as they turned onto the long, winding tree-shrouded road toward Porcupine Creek. Mark opened one of the maps and peered at it in the deepening dusk to try to get his bearings. Frowning, he noticed that several roads were marked as closed from November through May and he could clearly see that the campground they’d been directed to was on one of those roads. Oh, well, the park was busy, probably packed to overflowing. Besides, it was only the beginning of November so the roads were probably still open—he determinedly didn’t think about the old geezer’s dire forecast of a stormy weekend.
Full darkness fell while the road climbed up and around steep curves, one tight switchback after another, frequently branching so that Mark had to rifle in the glove box for a flashlight and squint at his new map to guide them. There was absolutely no light because the moon and stars were blocked by the cloud bank that had thickened and dropped low over the valley in what seemed like only a few minutes. The pavement turned to gravel, and side roads branched off at every other bend; once there were three choices all disappearing into the great black gloom that surrounded them. His heart sank when they arrived at the Yosemite Creek campground and he realized they must’ve taken a wrong branch somewhere farther back.
“We’re gonna have to turn around,” he told Hardcastle, expecting more than the weary and impatient sigh that greeted his admission of having led them astray.
“Yeah, well, we’re not going any farther tonight. I’ve had enough of those hairpin curves for one day,” Milt growled. His scowl lightened as he peered out at the empty campsites they were passing. “At least we have plenty of choice for the night. Not exactly crowded up here. Must be getting ready to close for the winter.” He saw a sign for a public phone on the wall of a self-registration shack next to the public washrooms, and stopped. “McCormick, go call the Park Rangers and let ‘em know we’re a little off the track but we’re okay and we’ll get to our assigned space in the morning.”
Mark nodded and hopped out of the GMC, but when he got to the phone box, he could see the line connecting the handset to the phone box was cleanly severed. Shivering in the chill night air, muttering about destructive creeps who destroyed public property, he turned back to the truck. As he climbed back inside, he explained the problem. Milt’s mouth twisted unhappily but generally he seemed philosophical about it all, or maybe he was just too used to miscreants or too tired to care. A little further along, Milt pulled in at a site numbered ‘22’ and parked close to the picnic table made of weathered wood planks. Not far away on the edge of the campsite, a creek burbled and chuckled as the clear mountain water rushed over stones toward a waterfall high above the village.
Milt left the headlights on to illuminate the area while they set up camp. After he climbed out of the truck, determined to be cheerful, Mark grinned and rubbed his hands together. “Hey, now, it doesn’t get better than this, huh? A creek to fish in practically on our doorstep and nobody around for miles to bother us!”
“No fishin’ in the park, remember?” Milt chided him as he pulled up the collar of his jacket. But, looking around, he nodded, a speculative expression growing on his face as he rubbed his arms for warmth. “Might not be a bad idea to just stay here. If we’re not where we’re supposed to be, nobody is ever going to find us.”
Mark’s brows climbed high but he refrained from pointing out that nobody was supposed to know where they were in the first place. He was more concerned that if they did run into any kind of trouble, they were miles from where they were supposed to be in a campground that looked like it was closed for the winter. The wind was picking up, thrashing through the tops of the trees surrounding them, a storm was brewing, they hadn’t even unpacked the tent yet, and it was freakin’ freezing! Casting a worried glance at the ebony sky, he wondered what the odds were of it snowing during the night. Wrapping himself in silence as he went around to the back of the GMC and began unloading their gear, he told himself that as bad as it was, it was still better than ploughing through that textbook on torts.
Milt joined him and in just slightly more than two shakes of a lamb’s tail, they had the tent up on the other side of the picnic table, under the branches of the stand of oak and sycamore trees that provided privacy between campsites. Soon after that, the air mattresses were filled and the sleeping bags unrolled. Milt set up the camp stove next to the site’s picnic table and soon had coffee brewing and steaks frying in a pan with onions and mushrooms. Mindful of the bears that he’d heard haunted the park, Mark ensured the rest of their food remained secured in the back of the SUV and then he went to check out the facilities next to the dead phone. Clean, basic and cold, but at least out of the wind and rain—for which, he suspected, he’d be very grateful before the weekend was over.
By the time he got back, the steaks were ready. He sliced a couple tomatoes while Milt dished up, and they huddled around the picnic table, swiftly slicing and chewing. Neither of them complained about the worsening cold or the freshening wind, but they made short work of dinner and the cleanup. Milt turned off the headlights and locked up the truck while Mark moved their cooler, with their water, juice, some perishable foods and the first aid kit, into the tent. Fully clothed, they climbed into their sleeping bags and manfully tried to ignore the tendency of their teeth to chatter.
Mark held a flashlight under his chin and tried to sound scary as he asked if Milt had any favorite ghost stories to tell.
Milt snorted, then growled, “Go to sleep, McCormick.”
“But it’s probably not even eight o’clock,” Mark whined playfully. “I’m not tired yet. Maybe we could play some cards?” he added hopefully.
Hardcastle barked a laugh and twisted around in his sleeping bag. “You’re gonna keep me up all night if I don’t tell you a bedtime story, aren’t ya?” he complained, but he was clearly fighting a full-blown grin.
Mark grinned back and cast him a hopeful look. “C’mon,” he encouraged. “Just one.”
“Hrrumph,” Milt grumbled. “Well, maybe I can think of one. Turn out that damned light and be quiet and listen.”
Mark snapped off the flashlight and stared into the utter darkness. “Is it a scary story?” he asked, feigning fear.
“I said be quiet,” Milt chastened him. Then, with a long-suffering sigh, he began, “It’s a story, scary or not, an’ it’s a true story, too, that my father told me on my first fishing trip. We were up in the hills, by the river, ‘bout ten miles from town. He told me that back in the days of the first settlers the Indians put a curse on the man who traded with them for their furs ‘cause they figured out he wasn’t bein’ fair. So, they cursed his houses—one with fire, one with death and one with crazy women.”
“How many houses did this guy have?” Mark asked.
“Well, I guess he had three,” Milt sniped, “’cause that’s how many were cursed. Are you listenin’ or not, huh?”
“Sorry, sorry. I’m listening.”
“Okay, then. Well, as the years went on, the houses all changed hands several times, sometimes being boarding houses or nursing homes or private residences. The first house, though, changed hands the most ‘cause little fires were always starting in it, which scared off the inhabitants. And in one house, the women were all, well, let’s just say they weren’t exactly right in their heads.” Mark snorted. “And in the last house, people died in strange ways, like one time, the old woman was found in bed, dead for no apparent reason, and her husband seemed to be missing, but they found him dead up in the attic. Only he would’ve needed a ladder to get up there but there was no ladder in the house.”
There was a long silence that was broken only by the keening of the wind and the straining canvas of their tent walls. “Is that it?” Mark finally asked.
“Whaddya mean, ‘is that it?’ Wasn’t it scary enough?”
“Well..,” Mark temporized. “I was thinking about something more in keeping with being in a deserted campground in the middle of a stormy night.”
“You’d rather hear about bears stuffin’ themselves before they settle down to hibernate, so they raid camps and when they can’t get at the food, they make do with the campers? You were hoping for a story like that, maybe?” Milt taunted.
Grimacing, Mark shook his head. “No,” he protested weakly. “A simple ghost story would do.” He waited but Milt seemed to be fresh out of stories. “Do you really think the bears might eat us?” he asked.
“Go to sleep, McCormick,” Milt directed in his best no-nonsense voice.
Mark thought maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea. Maybe things would look better in the morning.
If a bear didn’t get them during the night.
* * * * *
Mark jerked awake at the explosive sound and then sighed. “I knew it,” he said to himself, too low for Hardcastle to hear. Forget about Smokey and his buddies; Hardcase with a cold was grouchier than ten bears and a polecat all rolled into one.
He was just settled again when a sharp crack of thunder directly overhead jolted him back into tense wakefulness. Lightning flickered, visible through the canvas of the tent, a brief burst of illumination followed by another crack and then a long, low rumble that went on and on. The wind picked up and was howling furiously through the trees, sending branches thrashing and cracking around and above them. The walls of their tent were straining against the relentless and seemingly endless gale force gusts. Gritting his teeth, frowning ferociously, Mark wondered how much the canvas, or even the pegs, could take before the entire structure either collapsed or blew away.
Then the rain came, slashing hard against the top and west side of the tent, a rapid timpani counterpoint to the deeper growls of thunder and the mad shrieking of the wind.
Snuggling down into his sleeping bag, hoping that the tent wouldn’t spring any leaks, Mark told himself the storm would blow off by morning. Otherwise, this whole weekend was going to end up a bust—which would pretty much be par for the course when it came to them having any fun on a camping trip. Determinedly closing his eyes, he cast up a quick prayer that they’d still be alive at dawn and then tried to relax enough to sleep. But the banshee howl of the wind sounded like a thousand lost souls. Branches cracked, like cannon shots, and some nearby thuds were heavy enough to make the earth tremble, as if whole trees were being torn from the earth and then slammed down upon it. Shivering, he gritted his teeth against the urge to share his fears with Hardcastle. Doing his best to hide how terrified he was, Mark thought a safe house would have been, well, a whole lot safer.
Not to mention quieter.
As if the uproar caused by nature wasn’t enough, behind him, Hardcastle started a deep, harsh and hacking cough.
“You okay?” Mark asked, grateful to have a good reason to break his self-imposed silence, even knowing what a stupid question it was before the words had scarcely left his lips. Anyone coughing their lungs up like that most definitely could not be ‘okay’.
“Just a little cold,” Milt snuffled, then loudly cleared his throat. “’m fine. Go back t’ sleep.”
“Are you kidding? Sounds like a typhoon out there!” Mark whispered plaintively, and wondered why he was trying to be quiet. Who was he going to bother if he shouted? But a snore surprised him; somehow, despite the turbulent weather, Milt seemed to have dropped back into a sound sleep. Bemused, Mark rolled his eyes and stared out at the darkness that surrounded him, feeling blind and helpless and wishing he couldn’t hear a rising roar, a sound he couldn’t place but was sure did not bode well. Part rumble, part rush, like a massive displacement of air, it grew louder and louder.
“What is that?” he wondered aloud, not really expecting an answer but hoping Hardcastle would wake up and pull some explanation out of his hat that would make sense and not be too frightening.
Milt coughed and sniffed, grumbled at being awakened and then said hoarsely, “Huh, what?”
“That gurgling roar. What is it?” Mark asked, wishing he didn’t sound quite so much like a scared kid.
“Water. The creek. Flash flood, maybe,” Milt muttered and Mark could hear him turning over on his side, apparently unperturbed by the possible danger.
“Flood!” Mark cried in dismay, lurching up onto his elbow. “Are we going to get washed away? Shouldn’t we be doing something? Like maybe get in the truck and get out of here?”
“Too late,” Milt rasped, sounding hazy. Not quite there. “Roads’ll be washed out by now.”
Despite being unable to see Hardcastle or anything else in the complete darkness, Mark gaped in his direction for a few speechless seconds. How could the Judge be so unconcerned about the danger they could be in? He snapped his mouth closed and forced himself to think past his fear, to make some sense of everything that was going on around him. Finally, he grasped the one thing he might be able to do something about. “You’re sick,” he said, and began extricating himself from his sleeping bag, shivering in the chill.
“Yep, ‘fraid so,” Milt agreed so readily that it was alarming—the Lone Ranger never admitted to being sick or injured. The rasp of his voice was so low Mark could barely hear him under the howl of the storm.
Fumbling around, Mark found the cooler they’d hauled inside the tent, from which he drew two bottles of water. On his knees, trying not to fall over Hardcastle, he said, “Here’s some water. You need to keep from getting dehydrated. You remember where we put the first aid kit? Some Tylenol or aspirin might help.”
“Ah, geez, McCormick,” Milt whined, ineffectually waving his hand to drive Mark away. “Would ya just leave me alone. A little sleep an’ I’ll be just fine.”
But he didn’t sound fine and when his waving hand connected with Mark’s face, Mark jerked back but not before he felt the heat radiating from Hardcastle. “You’re burning up,” Mark told him, ignoring the instruction to back off. Instead, he rummaged to find the flashlight. When he turned it on, Hardcastle winced and groaned with discomfort. His face was flushed and his gaze didn’t seem to connect.
“You’re bein’ an idiot,” Milt groused, squinting and shading his eyes against the light, as if it hurt.
“You’re sick,” Mark countered, looking up from the first aid kit he’d located near the cooler and back over his shoulder. “You’re running a high fever, sneezing and coughing. Could just be a cold, but I don’t like the fever. And I don’t think you’re completely with it, if you know what I mean.”
Frowning with concern, another bottle of water in one hand and two caplets in the other, Mark crawled back over his bag to peer down at Hardcastle, who was beyond disgruntled by the attention and was still holding up a hand to block the light from his eyes. Setting the bottle aside, Mark reached down to touch his forehead and Milt irritably pushed his hand away.
“Must’ve caught it from that old guy at the store outside the park,” Mark stated in an ‘I told you so’ tone. Chewing his lip, he wondered what he could or should do while stuck in a raging storm in the middle of nowhere. God, he hated camping trips. The only good news this time was that it was only the weather that was trying to kill them.
Or at least, if the bad guys were looking for them, nobody would know they’d come to Yosemite.
Unless they’d been followed.
Mark shook his head to shake the unsettling idea out of his mind. That line of speculation was too depressing and scary to think about. Wind thumped the wall of the tent so fiercely that Mark jumped and looked at the rippling canvas ceiling and walls, worry about the violence of the storm written on his face. “If you listen, you can kinda hear water flooding nearby. Maybe we should get out of here. Head back to town.”
“I told ya, the roads’re probably already washed out,” Milt grumbled as he popped the pills into his mouth and then rolled on his elbow to take a swig of water with his other hand.
“Maybe,” Mark temporized. “But with the truck we should still be able to get through.”
Lightning flashed, illuminating the tent for a flickering heartbeat, and thunder crashed so close the deafening crack was a physical blow to their eardrums. Then there was more cracking and snapping that seemed to go on and on, and Mark belatedly realized with no little terror that it wasn’t just thunder. The banshee wind wailed. A smashing of branches, then a long groan of dying wood was swiftly followed by a metallic shriek and godawful bang. Mark ducked instinctively, covering Hardcastle with his own body as part of the roof of the tent and one wall suddenly sagged under the weight of whatever had been hit and fallen over them.
“Oh, man, this can’t be good,” Mark gusted, low, scarcely daring to breathe as he cautiously lifted his head and looked around, surprised to see the tent was still secure, if considerably less spacious.
“A tree branch, probably,” Milt observed, his calm tone a bit strained. “We’re okay for now. We’ll get out in the morning.”
“If we can,” Mark muttered, easing away from Hardcastle and twisting around to crawl to the zipped-up entry.
“Ah, for Pete’s sake, would you relax?” Milton griped with weary irritability, his voice thick and hoarse. “From the sound of it, the limb or the whole tree likely hit the table and the truck and we’re probably perfectly safe. Probably safer in here than out there in the wind and rain.” He coughed again and seemed to have trouble catching his breath. “Best thing to do … is to get some sleep. Morning’s time enough … to see … what kind’ve damage was done … out there.”
Mark rolled his eyes and continued toward the far end of the tent. He yanked down the zipper and a gust of icy air danced inside. He played the beam of the flashlight into the darkness beyond and saw a tangle of branches and leaves fluttering in the wind. Shuddering with cold, he quickly re-zipped the opening and plopped down on his butt. With a heavy sigh, too overwhelmed to still be terrified, he raked his hands through his hair and looked at Hardcastle. “I hope we brought the axe, ‘cause we’re gonna need it to get out of here in the morning.” A bemused grin at the absurdity of their situation twitched at the corners of his mouth. “On the upside, we won’t have to look for wood for the firepit.”
Hardcastle snorted and then sneezed. “See, I told ya, there’s nothin’ you can do tonight. Now will ya just go to sleep?”
Mark hesitated in mingled fear and frustration, but there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of choice. He crawled to his sleeping bag, awkwardly slithered back into it and huddled against the cold. But he was far too tense to even consider trying to sleep. Staring into the darkness, he listened with a sense of dread and helplessness as Milt’s breathing grew increasingly congested.
Mark freely—even proudly—admitted he was the product of the city and, at the best of times he wasn’t a big fan of the great outdoors. Oh, a day or two fishing with Hardcase was fun, more for the playful competition between them and the chance to tease Milt, or just to spend some fun time with him, building memories to store against the future when Milt wouldn’t … Mark’s mind stalled on the thought, unwilling to contemplate a future without Hardcase. Determinedly, he focused back on their situation. Camping, hiking, fishing were all fine, sort of, but this, this was a whole other thing altogether—a thing he simply summed up as ‘a disaster’.
Helpless to do anything but listen and wonder what all the foreign and frightening sounds might mean, he tracked the storm as it continued to rage through the night. The wind was still howling, but sounded a bit removed, as if the bulk of the tree wedged over and around them was protecting them from the worst of the blast. Still, he could hear the thrashing branches and he wondered if the tree might slide or roll and crush them before morning. And what about the flash flood? Were they far enough away from the creek to be safe? And how the heck were they supposed to get out from under the tree? It sounded like the tree had hit and maybe crushed the GMC, so how were they supposed to get out of there? Nobody knew they where they were and Hardcase was sick, maybe really sick.
Mark wasn’t a coward, but he was way out of his depth and he knew it; everything felt out of control and scarily dangerous. Heaving a sigh, struggling not to give way to hysteria or panic, he began to wonder if maybe studying torts beside the pool wasn’t so bad after all. He told himself to be glad that at least nobody was hunting them and hoping to kill them and he tried hard to be grateful for such not-so-small mercies.
“Settle down, McCormick,” Milt muttered. “Nobody’s gonna die tonight.”
Mark swallowed his retort and, instead, wondered how Hardcastle always seemed to know what he was thinking.
“It’s gonna be okay, kiddo. Go t’sleep.”
”Yeah, right.” But, despite his certainty he’d not sleep a wink, somewhere between midnight and dawn, sleep ambushed him and dragged him down into restless dreams.