RS Perry Off The Edge first pages Jim Johnson Novels
Published in 2012 ©Penelope Publishing all rights reserved.
Off The Edge
Fall 1999 Horseshoe Basin
The sun had just crossed behind Rock Mountain moving day toward twilight. Craig always had a good feeling as dusk settled into night.
His thoughts drifted to Loretta and how he missed her in the eve- nings. They had been married almost thirty years and he felt he loved her more as each year passed. They did almost everything together but the one thing she refused to do with him was go into the mountains. There were advantages, though. He had become best friends with Sam Blanchard, better known as ‘Whitie’ to his friends, and he had tried to become friends, or at least friendly, with the wranglers they were camped with. But in reality they were a hard bunch and not really his type.
It was getting cold. Horseshoe Basin was over six thousand feet and the temperature was dropping as fast as the September sun.
‘The coffee is good,’ said Craig to Whitie as he moved toward the fire. Whitie tossed a dead lodgepole pine branch onto the fire and the dry needles sparked and crackled as they lifted toward the darkening sky.
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‘Gonna be lots of frost tonight, maybe freeze the lake,’ said Whitie. Craig listened as he looked at Louden Lake. It couldn’t really be called a lake, more of a large pond. There were no fish but it was a favored campground for the horse packers.
He and Whitie had decided to tag along with Budd Moster and three of his horse packers just before Labor Day weekend. They were spending their last night doing some drinking in Horseshoe Basin before heading back to the trailhead and home in the morning. One of the wranglers, Ben, was just a kid and a family friend of Craig’s. He was working for Budd this fall. The kid didn’t have much of a home life and Moster used him because he worked cheap. They had spent the last few days fixing up a permanent camp fifteen miles west, beside Tungsten Lake, and packing in supplies for next week’s high hunt. Budd and the two older cowboys weren’t a bad bunch really. A little crude sometimes: they thought they were God’s gift to the wilderness. They did a little too much shooting and drinking for his taste, but he loved the life. It might have been a hundred years ago when the real- life cowboys and miners were here looking for gold and mining Tungsten.
Whitie interrupted his thoughts as he asked Craig, ‘What did you make of that weird bunch? Were they environmentalists?’
Budd bellowed, ‘Dunno, but if that pretty lady wants to check my lodgepole she’s welcome to try her hand.’
Sixteen-year-old Ben, who was trying really hard to be a cowboy and who had talked to the strange group they had encountered earlier on the trail, chimed in, ‘They were sort of weird, there was something funny about them. When I asked that man about the late arnicas, he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.’
Budd guffawed. ‘What the hell is a late arneeca…huh?’
‘I learned a lot of proper names for the flowers when I worked with Heather last summer,’ Ben replied defensively.
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Pete, one of the wranglers, spit out some chew and said, ‘Is that the no-good llama lady?’
Ben felt a little sheepish. He liked Heather and he liked plants but was afraid to say anything. But he had worked for Heather for two summers and thought the world of her so he bucked up and started to reply, just a little wary of Pete. He had heard he was mean, especially when he was drinking.
Pete spat again and said incomprehensibly, ‘The only thing I hate worse than those llamas is a bog.’
Craig looked at young Ben and raised his eyebrows wondering what that could possibly mean just as a chill breeze blew through the camp. One of the horses grazing near Rock Mountain made a whinny.
‘Those tree-hugger enviro-crazies was nothen but a bunch of furreners, weirdies they were,’ said Pete in a slurred voice.
Tree huggers, environmentalists, animal lovers, and llamas were anathema to the cowboys but a foreigner was about as low as one could get. Pete hated anybody that didn’t ride a horse, punch cows, or cut trees. Though he could barely read, he spent hours going over the monthly newsletter put out by the ‘Wise Users.’ They were a local group that believed that the trees, animals, and grazing should be ‘used,’ otherwise they were just going to go to waste.
‘Maybe we should sneak over to their camp and put a scare into them furreners, probably nothing but fruiticakes anyways.’
Although Craig loved being here in the mountains, he didn’t actually think much of Pete and his type. He had retired from Boeing, in Seattle, a few years back and was maybe a little more sensible about the environment. Besides, he worked with Heather often at Wolf Canyon Ranch. She had a Ph.D. in botany and he liked her. She was known as the llama lady since she packed llamas in the wilderness.
She kept her llamas at the ranch in Twisp where he and his neighbor Duane had worked off and on for over fifteen years. Neither of
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them really needed to work, but they enjoyed the extra money and the no-pressure atmosphere. The ranch was owned by their boss and now friend, Jim Johnson. At times, they had all spent months working together as Jim had built his ranch from scratch. Now he was hardly ever there. They knew he worked for the government but didn’t know much about what he did.
Jim was a good guy, could hold up his end working better than anyone and he was not only smart but also educated and, in his own way, had considerably helped both Craig and Duane to think of the environment and nature in new and different ways. Now Craig felt he really appreciated the beauty of the plants from working with Heather and the wonder of how the mountains had formed from being with Jim: he had told them about the last glaciations and how mountains changed over time. Jim had an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in geology and microbi- ology from the University of Washington. He did his best to make the explanations simple but often the more Craig and Duane thought they understood, the more complicated it seemed to become. They were finding out that understanding and knowledge were less black and white than they used to think. Learning things about the mountains and history made them proud but they also found out from Jim just how geologically complicated their area was. The mountains in the northwest were a conglomeration of twisted metamorphic rocks, sedimentary areas full of fossils and volcanic granites. Huge chunks of land and rock moved from southern seas millions of years ago and were now ‘glued’ to the west side of the North American Plate.
North of their small town and ranches loomed an immense wild area, the Pasayten, that stretched along the Canadian wilderness. There was no legal way to enter from or exit into Canada, which further restricted people from coming to their corner of the world. Horseshoe Basin was on the far eastern side of the vast tract of uninhabited land that stretched through North Cascade National Park in the west
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continuing to Mount Baker and more wilderness. It was one of the largest wilderness areas in North America and also one of the least visited, as many people in the United States thought far northwest Washington to be almost as far away as Alaska. And there were so many other national parks, and state and national forests throughout the Northwest that even the fit, sophisticated urbanites from the west side had hundreds of acres per hiker and many of those acres were closer to home than the Pasayten. Few needed or wanted to travel that distance for camping and hiking, especially to the far eastern part. The locals liked it that way. The wranglers hated even the smallest number of big city ‘coasties’ intruding into their domain.
Budd grumbled that it was a little strange that the tree huggers were here this time of year. It could snow anytime and the hikers usually avoided this part of the wilderness. They did not see eye to eye with the cowboys and hunters during the early fall high hunt. There would never be any love lost between the horse-riding, animal-shooting cowboys and the more thoughtful nature lovers.
A few more drinks and the cowboys started getting worked up about their chosen topic of conversation. ‘Somethin’s damn funny, boys. Maybe cuz they’s furreners they don’t know no better,’ slurred Budd.
The echo of a horse whinny joined the sounds of the wind. ‘What the hell are those horses sounding so jumpy about?’ he added.
‘Maybe they’s a cougar. Do you wants me to take a look?’ answered Pete as he drooled out more brown tobacco juice. It was the last time he would ever dribble or spit on the fragile meadow.
A bullet tore through his neck and blood erupted from the back of his head. He never felt a thing. The other cowboy wrangler fell almost at the same time, hit by three bullets. The first entered his right side, then a second hit his chest, and the last his left shoulder. He fell clutching himself and lay moaning on the ground.
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Budd yelled, ‘What the hell?’ just as a bullet shattered his left knee. He collapsed and felt he had never known such pain.
Craig had just bent over to pick up a chunk of wood and was spared as two bullets ripped into the ponderosa pine behind him. Bark flew from the tree striking Whitie in the face. Craig hit the ground fast next to Whitie and shimmied behind the tree.
‘Get over here, Whitie,’ Craig yelled as he reached for his buddy. Whitie heard his friend and felt his touch as Craig tried to pull him behind the tree. But he was too late; more bullets cut into Whitie and he slumped silently to the forest floor.
Craig cried, ‘Whitie!’ as his friend became still. Craig didn’t know what was happening but he knew he had to get away from here. He jumped to his feet and ran toward the lake. He heard more shooting. Just little plunk noises but those little plunks had killed his friend. Bullets hit the tree behind him and he was spared again as he sprinted into the darkness.
Earlier, Farasie had sat listening to the Americans. He had crept in from the west, just as the sun was setting. He thought it would be worthwhile to observe these authentic cowboys. And he hadn’t liked the way that the kid had looked at him while they were talking about the local flora.
He had spent a great deal of time learning about the area’s natural history so that he could spin a convincing story. He must have said something wrong. Stupid kid, how did he know anything about flowers anyway? Maybe he had been careless. At any rate he had to decide what, if anything, should be done. As he listened it became apparent that they were suspicious. He couldn’t allow that. Nalaba Sharib was working his way to the lake while Najma was about thirty feet to his left. If he moved toward the camp, he knew they would move with him.
The scenery was inspiring; the basin vast. It was just dumb luck that they had bumped into anyone. To the west were the high peaks of
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the North Cascades. He had memorized most of their names. Behind him was Rock Mountain. Facing him was Horseshoe Mountain. Neither was topped with the sharp craggy peaks of the highest mountains. Just hills really, easy to approach from one side but usually with steep talus slopes or rock cliffs on the other. Toward Najma were two of the more substantial mountains. He gazed up the gently sloping sides to the saddle near the top, still visible in the fading twilight. The gentle rise always seemed incongruous to him, as the north side, the other side of the saddle, was a sheer cliff face. As he looked back into the lower blackness lit only by the orange flaming fire, he made up his mind. He rose carefully and looked at his Micro Uzi with its specially fitted oversized silencer. They all carried the same machine pistols, none of which could be traced. It felt compact and cold in his hands.
He moved in slowly. Move and stop, move two more paces and stop. His eyes never left the cowboys, who softly glowed in the campfire. Behind him he heard a horse whinny. Although he could not see her in the darkness under the trees, he knew that Najma was keeping pace with him. She was a professional. Her only fault was that she seemed to enjoy killing too much. He knew that his decision would be making her happy. It was making him less than happy as he had expected to cross this wild area undetected. It wasn’t as if he cared about killing and he knew that some of his team had been blunted by seeing so much death and dying. But he suspected that some of them enjoyed killing for its own sake and Najma killed slowly when she could. He needed their ruthlessness but he understood that he had to keep in mind their limitations.
He was close now to the edge of the firelight. One of the American hicks in his western garb threw a piece of wood on the fire, increasing the firelight. Farasie stood dead still. He watched in amazement as one of the cowboys drooled brown juice from his mouth and then spat. The American rednecks were disgusting. He decided to kill the oversized
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chewer first. He depressed the trigger. The rat-a-tat-tat of the nine- millimeter bullets gave him a small surge of adrenaline. If it was possible to love a gun, he loved this one. The big ugly guy fell. He fired to his right next and then swept to the left, hitting another in the chest. Najma was not as close as he was when she began to fire methodically. He saw the older cowboy behind the white-haired man fall, but he was sure he had not killed him. His attention was diverted back to the cowboy who was moaning and twitching in the dirt. As he moved over to him, he quickly shot him in the head. He turned to his right and saw one of the hicks holding his face. He had a shock of white hair sticking up above his hands. The one behind the tree squirmed and was tugging at the white-haired man, trying to pull him behind the tree with him. Farasie’s first burst had apparently completely missed him. Farasie pulled the trigger again and two red spots appeared in the front of the old man’s head. The tree was spattered with blood and shards of bone as a small clump of white hair drifted to the ground in the firelight.
Farasie quickly moved left and swore as the cowboy behind the tree ran off into the darkness. He fired a short burst but only hit trees. He looked to his left and could see Najma’s leer as she looked at the old cowboy on the ground holding his knee. She shot him in the stomach and watched him look at the spot where the bullet entered.
‘God!’ Budd exclaimed.
‘Soon enough for you, old man,’ she said, as she took her time and fired a double burst into his head.
Farasie signaled her to move left after the running man. She could see that he was heading up a small rise north of the camp. The Sheik, her nickname for Nalaba Sharib, was already moving toward the man. They would have him cornered in no time.
Where in the hell is the last man? thought Farasie, as he instantly realized it was the kid who was missing. He scanned the area. Farasie had assumed the kid was in the shadows but still in the camp.
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However, young Ben was not in the camp at all, but had left to take a leak. He was standing next to a large pine as steam arose from the cool, moss-covered ground. There was a small trickle from a stream nearby as it emerged from a rock-spring and then meandered slowly through the meadow toward the floor of the basin. This was probably what saved him; the water noise had obscured his sounds. Just as he finished and was about to pull his zipper, a shadow moved off to his right. He froze as a cold chill ran down his spine. What was wrong with him anyway? The night was nothing to be afraid of. It was probably just Craig or one of the others taking a leak, too. But something about the shadow, something sinister, kept him from moving.
He stared into the blackness. The shadow was a man but moved like an animal. It stopped every few steps and stood stock-still. Something was wrong and he wanted to run, but he felt frozen to the ground and stayed perfectly still. Maybe it was one of the environmentalists goofing around and just sneaking up on their camp. If that was the case, he would scare the hell out of the creep.
Ben started to feel better. Yes, that must be it. This might even be fun. The shadow moved slowly between Ben and the camp. Ben could hardly contain his excitement now. He decided he would move a little toward Rock Mountain and then come in behind the man. He moved slowly, just as Craig had trained him on their hunting trips. Pete was a blowhard but he was big and it made Ben less afraid knowing he was here. Together they would scare the guy so bad that he would never play games with them again. That would teach him to sneak up and spy on his camp. He moved cautiously a few more feet. The man was now clearly silhouetted by the fire and a chill ran through Ben.
It looked like the guy was holding some sort of gun. It appeared short but had a bulbous barrel. He didn’t know what to do. But a second later the man made the decision for him.
He heard muted staccato gunfire. As he watched in horror, Craig
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fell to the ground. Whitie was half-propped against a big old tree and knocked his hat off as he grabbed his face. Pete was a big mound lying silently on the ground. Another figure moved over to Budd and said something indistinct as Ben heard a shot and then two more. Jesus, what was happening?
Whitie was yowling and slowly moving his legs in the dirt. The half-moan crying sound that Whitie made was the scariest thing Ben had ever heard. Even though he had just peed, a small wet spot appeared in his crotch as he realized they were all going to die.
He moved incautiously toward the large blocks of rocks at the base of the mountain. Ben knew he should be quiet, but he was trembling and just too scared. He frantically started to run, stumbling over a fallen tree. One of the sharp stubs painfully punctured his shin. He was panting and couldn’t catch his breath as he got up and ran for his life.
By the time Farasie started wondering how he had been so careless, Ben was almost two hundred feet away and running like a deer along the south base of Rock Mountain. He was now too far to be heard unless he made a loud noise.
Craig felt like he too was sprinting as fast as a deer. In reality, his sixty-two-year-old legs were not up to the challenge of running very fast or far. He was sure that the guy was not following him. He angled left from the shimmering, starlit lake. There was a little knoll where he had sat many times enjoying the view of Louden Lake and Arnold Mountain. As soon as he started up the little mound, his legs felt like rubber. He stumbled to the ground by a gnarly, lodgepole pine. He was gasping for breath. The adrenaline was wearing off and tears welled as he thought of Whitie and Ben.
What was happening anyway? Loretta had been right not to come with him. If only he could be with her now. Somehow, the woods and mountains that he loved had betrayed him. They were no longer a safe haven. They had become cruel and foreboding, leaving him a small,
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insignificant, scared, and helpless man. He felt a little comfort sitting by the old tree. Some strength returned to his legs and his mind told him he had to get farther away.
A cold shiver passed through his body. Sweat from fear and the cold rested on his forehead and trickled down inside his shirt. He knew he must move. He wouldn’t stop until he was out of the basin. He was heading home to Loretta, to their special dinner tomorrow night, home to his other friends. It was time to leave. He slowly pulled himself to his feet, overcoming a nearly paralyzing fear.
Najma moved toward him like a cat stalking its prey. She had seen the older cowboy running for the lake. He looked as though he would run right into The Sheik. But at the last minute he disappeared in the black smoke of night. Craig had miraculously turned left up the knoll just before it would have been too late.
She stopped to listen, breathing soundlessly. The man had stopped. She thought she heard someone breathing hard, mixed with the breeze through the trees. She looked toward the lake and could see the dusky giant image of The Sheik against the lake’s soft, shimmering surface. If she circled to her left, the quarry would be between them. Her lips gave a little twist up and a small shiver of anticipation ran through her body. She moved silently toward the knoll. She placed each foot carefully, avoiding twigs and pinecones. The shadow of The Sheik was moving, too.
As Craig pushed himself up, he was comforted by the old tree and unaware of being stalked. He got himself moving again. He would go home and hold Loretta and never let her go. Then he froze as he saw a very large man just below the knoll. He was moving in his direction. Craig took two steps back and ran right into the arms of a cold, smiling Najma. He was startled beyond belief at the sight of a woman. In the dim moonlight, his first thought was that maybe he was being rescued. The smiling woman brought a momentary sense of relief. However,
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something seemed not right; while her lips smiled, there was only a metallic reflection in her cold eyes. Craig had always liked women. He felt comfortable with them. It was inconceivable to him that a pretty lady would be his demise.
She held a stubby, big-barreled gun in her left hand. There was a muted glint of moonlight on steel. Craig realized his mistake as the ice- cold blade penetrated his side. He not only felt helpless, he felt betrayed: by women and mountains and everything that he had ever loved. There wasn’t much pain as he slid to his knees, as much from exhaustion as anything, and then lay slowly back on the bed of frosty needles. Najma looked down at the fallen man. He was nothing, hardly worth her attention. A weak man with no future. The Sheik walked up.
‘Finish him, we need to get going.’
‘You get going, I’ll be right behind you.’
The Sheik shrugged and moved back toward the camp.
Najma continued to observe the man. He was looking back at her
while holding his side. At least he wasn’t making any noise. If he had, she would have had to finish him quickly. This way she could play with him for a short while before watching his eyes go dull in the moonlight. She unzipped her jacket seductively revealing a tight black, low-cut shirt that matched her coal-black eyes and contrasting caramel skin. She straddled the man as her ample cleavage gleamed in the brightening moonlight. She touched his mouth with her finger as his bewildered eyes looked back at her. Marveling at her beauty as she seductively turned her head, Craig saw a red-raised birthmark behind her left ear shaped like a small hand. She’s been branded, August 1999, Rwanda-Congo border
Dark, low clouds pushed across the sky. The green expanse of jungle rolled over small mountains and hills to their west while short tea plants clung to jungle-free hills to their east. Jim and Brush lounged against a wall on the porch of an old wooden shack, comfortable under the shelter of the corrugated metal roof. Heavy raindrops hit the metal, slowly at first but quickly turning to a deluge.
‘A guy couldn’t ask for more comfort,’ said Brush.
‘Always feels like that, doesn’t it?’ said Jim. ‘Like the old cliché about not being able to appreciate the warmth of a fire until you come in from the cold.’
‘You mean like when we were freezing our asses off on the Kamchatka Peninsula and we found that nice cozy cave? I’d rather be here,’ said Brush. ‘Not too warm and not too cold and just right, sitting here without anyone shooting at us. Life is good.’
In fact, the old wooden stoop where they sat contentedly was a luxury hotel compared to the jungle where they had spent the previous sixteen days. The rain pounded on the roof and covered the soil with rushing torrents of water. As quickly as it had started, the sky cleared, and the rain stopped. Pink bands hung just above the horizon while remnant mists swirled across the green hills.
‘These bumpy hills make me want to get back to the world and Debbie. She’s one hunk of a cowgirl,’ said Brush with a look of anticipation.
‘She is that,’ acknowledged Jim.
‘Partner, I‘ve never said anything and you know I like Heather, but it’s never really made sense to me. She’s an opposite of us. She’s sweet, very bright, steady, loyal and ..err… well innocent, with no experience in our world. Don’t you get bored with that sometimes? I mean I like a gusty busty woman that’s had some trouble in her life,
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maybe a little less than perfect and more than a little crazy.’
‘Just why I love her, Brush. I want to go home, be with her, and feel innocent. It’s her wholesomeness that makes me cherish her. I admire it. Maybe it doesn’t make sense but she’s good for me. I know she lives in a sheltered world and I want to keep it that way. She lives the life she wants and wants nothing more. You and I lead a different life but when I’m with her she and I are the same. The way I used to think the world was. I’m happy to be two different people. She’s warm and trusting because she’s never encountered the kind of world we deal with and I never want her contaminated by it. I never want to
let go of what we have.’
‘Yeah, OK but guess I want a woman that understands the world
can be a hard place so she’ll understand me. Makes me feel simpatico with her.’
They sat quiet looking out at the rain and the steaming vegetation.
‘Sort of reminds me of Nam,’ said Brush. ‘Wet, green jungle, the mists like smoke, and waiting for Will’s dustoff.’
At that moment, they heard the slow thumping of a Huey moving up the valley and knew that General Will Crystal would extract them just as he had as a young captain in Vietnam. The general had commandeered a UN helicopter and was just as anxious to hear the details of their mission as he was to see his two friends.
The trio were anything but what you might expect. The general, a hard-core combat soldier and pilot but with a medical degree; Jim, originally a drafted soldier, now a Ph.D. in microbiology; and Brush, a laid-back Canadian whose all-consuming passion for women left little time for academic pursuits.
They boarded the chopper and put on light green headsets.
‘Heard you two caused a bit of a turmoil, but nothing unusual in that,’ said the general.
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‘Nothing really special, just a few local jungle rats with guns trying to cause some pain for villagers who didn’t seem to have any guns,’ said Brush.
‘Like Men with Guns, that movie about Central America,’ said Jim. ‘Remember when the villagers were asked why they didn’t do anything about being terrorized by the military, they just said, “because they have guns.” The villagers understood the simplicity of power. Guns are the same on every continent, they represent power.’
‘Still the really bad guys weren’t the hired mercenaries but Exeter Drugs,’ said the general. ‘Suspect the Brits will be putting the company executives in a little pain for experimenting on the villagers.’
‘Was a tad nasty of them, infecting all those people,’ replied Brush.
‘Guess what I want to know is how so many of the mercenaries died from the virus?’ asked General Crystal. He asked it with his eyebrows locked down tight but neither Jim nor Brush could see his face.
Brush said, ‘Well seems that we…er, the village head honcho sort of got the word around that the bad guys were going to get the same virus as the villagers unless they inoculated themselves with the vaccine.’
‘Well, that makes sense, considering,’ said the general.
‘Yeah, but it seems that somehow the labels got switched on the boxes containing the virus and the treatment,’ said Brush, smiling but looking a little sheepish.
‘You telling me that you did that, Brush, switched the vaccine for the virus?’ said Will Crystal.
‘I didn’t say that, General. I really don’t know a thing about vaccines and viruses,’ responded Brush. ‘But at the time we were sort of outgunned and needed help however we could get it. I think the chief had a good idea. Besides, in hindsight it sort of seems fair after what they did to the villagers.’
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Jim was not contributing to the conversation. His mind was back in Nam thinking about the past. As the helicopter moved toward the city, those dark thoughts were replaced by ones of Heather. They might have just saved hundreds of villagers from a terrible death, but he never felt like a mission was over until he got back to her. He sometimes felt selfish doing what he wanted, knowing she would be devastated if something happened to him. She never pressured him, she just simply asked him to return to her.
He settled back comfortably in the helicopter as it flew over the tea plantations and the jungle of Rwanda, back to the UN base.
The sun lit up Jim’s daydreams as a bright shaft penetrated the Seneca’s rear window. It was one of those sparkling, clear days, treasured by pilots and common after a frontal change. He was glad not to miss the awe-inspiring sight of the North Cascade Mountains in the topaz light. On these clear days, Mount Rainier stood majestically to the south. It was just before six in the evening as the twin-engine plane banked left and started its direct course to the Winthrop airport. As the plane climbed on a heading of zero six zero, Mount Baker shone brilliantly to the north. Beyond Mount Baker and the northernmost Cascades, the mountains that towered north of Vancouver were just visible on the horizon. The snowcapped peaks started to push aside thoughts of the assignment that he and Brush had just finished and allowed the more pleasant thoughts of their much- needed vacation to take over.
Jim was an expert pilot but he preferred the solitude of sitting alone in the back while Brush and Bret bantered and flew the small Piper.
They were returning to Jim’s home in the north central mountains of Washington State, between the small ranching towns of Twisp and Winthrop. Since the population was small, not many people outside of Seattle even knew they existed. This peacefulness suited him and he was looking forward to the quiet and some rest. Brush, on the other
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hand, never craved this kind of stand-down nourishment, his energy level never seemed to wane. Even at forty-four years old the somewhat stocky Canadian was always available for a party. He loved women and they loved him back so he had never wanted or needed to settle down.
In some ways, Jim felt the same. His crazy lifestyle still made him happy. He took his occupation as assistant head of the State Depart- ment’s Biological Warfare Section seriously. He still lived for his work, which allowed him to help people that no one else seemed able to.
Suddenly the dark memory that haunted him flashed into his mind and he was unable to extinguish it. Uncontrolled, his thoughts carried him back twenty-five years to the Cambodia-Vietnam border. The ever-repeating images of two trusting little girls and their mother engulfed his mind. He had promised them they would be safe with him and instead he had gotten them killed. He shook his head to clear the thoughts.
Sometimes the memory was just too intense to shake loose; this time he pulled away from it. He often involuntarily relived that time a quarter century earlier in a small village just over the Cambodian border. The children had been fascinated by him and Brush, and two girls in particular had become their favorites.
They had come from nowhere, regular NVA, North Vietnamese Army soldiers. Jim and Brush had called immediately for an emergency evacuation. As was standard operating procedure, the army would not respond over the border but Captain Will Crystal would not even consider abandoning a soldier just because he was on the wrong side of a political border. He had been in the air immediately, headed as fast as he could to their location.
Jim was certain that the villagers who had befriended them would all be slaughtered and the women and children raped. Through their
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interpreter, he had told the two girls and their mother to stay close to him and he would get them to a better place, a safe place. He didn’t know what he was going to do with them later, it didn’t matter. Only the now mattered. Jim could see the fear in their eyes but it turned to trust and hope. They made their way out just as the chopper approached their red signal smoke, but black-clothed NVA soldiers came at them from all sides. Jim was shot in the leg. The mother, her two daughters, and the interpreter ran in fear. He watched helplessly as, screaming, they were chewed-up in a deadly AK-47 crossfire. The rescue chopper’s door gunner saved Jim and Brush but it was too late for the family. The family that had believed Jim would take them to a better life. Their hopeful, helpless faces were incised on his brain.
The memory and his failure became even worse when they re- turned with reinforcements a few days later and found that the villagers had not been harmed by the North Vietnamese soldiers. Jim’s mistake became magnified a hundred times in his memory. He had barely survived that day and would not have if the stocky Canadian had not picked him up like a sack of grain and thrown him into the chopper.
The black memory of his wrong decision, a fatal decision, never left him. Sometimes their faces appeared in his dreams and sometimes they were vivid faces of trust and other times only a hazy thought that churned just under his conscious thoughts. Then came the image of their innocent bodies, bloody and lifeless.
Brush knew that Jim had risked his life countless times since then—just as he had only a few days ago—trying to make right the error he had made so long ago. Maybe they had just helped save Rwandan refugees from an ugly experiment but it was never quite enough to put right that first mistake.
As the dark memory faded to the edge of consciousness, Jim forced his thoughts to shift to the present. A moment later, a glimmer of contentment passed over his face and he could not prevent a small…
RS Perry Off The Edge first pages Jim Johnson Novels
Published in 2012 ©Penelope Publishing all rights reserved.