Our impromptu tracking party includes two state troopers and three Clallam County deputies. With Jason, Nate, Jimmy, and me, that makes nine bodies in all—eleven if you count the dogs.
"What do you think, Steps?" Jason asks, turning from the cabin. "Is he inside?"
"The trail leads in that direction," I confirm. "We're going to have to check it out, either way." I glance back at the faces clustered in a half circle behind me. "Anyone want to hike seven or eight miles back to civilization and fetch a tactical robot?"
The words bring weary smiles and a couple chuckles. "Guess we'll have to do it the hard way, then," I say, and turn to Jimmy. "Why don't you and I take a nice wide stroll around the cabin?"
"Only way to be sure. If we find any tracks leading away from the cabin, we'll know he's still on the move. And if not..."
"Yeah," Jimmy says. "'If' not, then we have a whole new problem on our hands." He glances at the cabin and then at the darkening sky. "Namely, how to get him out of an old, rotting cabin without collapsing it on top of him or setting it on fire with a flashbang."
I pat him on the shoulder. "You'll figure it out."
Our circuitous reconnaissance takes us in a counterclock-wise direction around the shack, our movements hidden by trees, distance, and understory vegetation. We start in a northerly direction, moving by steps, careful not to create any more noise than necessary. In a wide-arching sweep, we soon find ourselves heading to the northwest, then westerly, and so on, until we're 180 degrees from where we started and two hundred feet west of the cabin.
Jimmy and I now have a clear view of the front door—or, rather, we can see the gaping black hole in the empty place where a door once stood, eons ago. I can barely see Jason and the others hunkered down in the trees on the east side of the cabin. Most are just shadows upon shadows.
"Front door is missing," Jimmy whispers into the mic attached to his portable radio. "No movement. We're going to sit here a moment and see what happens."
We don't have to wait long.
A massive gust, perhaps sixty or seventy miles an hour, viciously bends the treetops and creates what in eons past might have been mistaken for a dragon's roar. Twigs and branches snap and crack and tumble to the forest floor, stirring up their own cacophony.
This draws out our suspect.
Curiosity is a powerful thing, especially in the face of nature. I see him first, a dark shape stepping out from the left side of the doorway, brushing his pants off as if he'd been sitting. He walks with a heavy limp.
"There he is!" Jimmy hisses as the figure steps fully into the frame of the door and pokes his head out, looking skyward.
Perhaps it's the trees he fears?
This, after all, is the witching weather of widow-makers, massive tree limbs sheared off in such weather and sent hurtling to the ground to smash anyone and anything foolish enough to get in their way. They can send you from this life to the next in an instant. Such a limb falling from such a height would crush the old cabin as surely as a boot on an eggshell.
As the trees continue to sway to this new, more violent song, the occasional smaller branch does indeed break off, tumbling to the forest floor with mixed results: some are muted by the storm, while other, larger specimens give an audible accounting of their arrival.
"We have confirmation," Jimmy whispers into his mic. "He's in the doorway."
In that instant, the figure looks our way.
A chill runs down my spine and I remain perfectly still, afraid even to breathe. There's little chance he can see us, but perhaps he heard something, or imagined he heard something.
He stares for a long time, his face a mask of shadow. At last he retreats back into the cabin, disappearing to the left, returning to whatever old chair or spot on the floor that he came from.
Jimmy and I exhale in unison.
Getting my attention, he taps the bud in his ear, and in a breathy, barely audible voice says, "They're putting together a plan. They want us to stay put and keep eyes-on."
That's fine by me. We've got the perfect location to watch the coming takedown, a spot with little chance of stray rounds spinning our way. The wind can't reach us, and though we're lying on the ground I haven't felt this warm in hours.
It's almost pleasant, and a sense of peace begins to settle over me.
That's when Jimmy's phone rings.