Ben drove the rest of the way through the dark landscape all the way back to the cabin with Andy asleep on his shoulder. But the rest and relaxation they hoped to get was not to be.
If they had not been half-asleep they might have noticed the shiny black car following behind. And now there was someone waiting in the shadows!
Fina came through the screen of the porch, running at full speed. The group heard a yell as they got out of the truck and branches splitting apart and then a wild blood-curdling scream from the rocks on the other side of the creek.
Whoever was running stopped cold with a terrified shriek and began to splash back across the stream slipping on the smooth stones trying desperately to retreat from something worse than Fina's glistening canines - something much bigger!
"Call it off me!" a deep voice in the dark demanded. "Call it off!"
Fina began the classic slink of a cow dog herding wayward cattle alternating between a growl and a whimper with her stomach nearly on the ground, running in spurts and then stopping, pinning him between her teeth and whatever else was out there.
They heard a terrifying wild scream.
"Andy! The puppies! It's the lion!" Danny and Jamie ran to the porch through what was left of the screen. Only female Mountain Lions scream.
"Get the box into the cabin!" Andy yelled.
Grabbing the box of puppies sidetracked Fina's attention long enough for the intruder to run away - right toward Trevor and Jason who had slipped around to the side.
But Fina wasn't finished with him either!
"Ow! Ow! Call her off!" Fina was not biting him. She herded him into the Wild Current patch and as he tried to move too quickly through the prickly branches he was ripping his clothes and shredding any bare skin.
Ben grabbed him as he came out of the thicket and had him by the arms just as Jason tackled his legs when another wild scream came from the boulders and everyone lost their grip on the slender but aggressive man.
Andy ran inside for the flashlight. Events were moving too fast. They had purchased the batteries in Julian but had not actually put them into the flashlight and of course it went dead. As she fumbled with the new batteries Danny ran out with his camera just as Jason and Ben lost their hold on the prowler.
"I've got it on auto-shoot. Let's hope the focus is right." Jamie was running behind Danny holding the portable camera light. She had the fugitive centered in the powerful beam while Danny's camera clicked away automatically.
For an instant the prowler was running straight toward Danny and looked like he might try to get the camera away from Danny but Fina came back with a vengeance and he ran the other way. Fina trailed him at a safe distance sprinting in with bared teeth for a quick scare every now and then to keep him moving.
"He must have a vehicle over there somewhere!" Trevor shouted. "Let's try to head him off!"
They raced down the drive but somehow he made it to his car and his tires threw up a shower of gravel as he accelerated past them nearly hitting Jason who leaped aside just in time.
"Wow! Andy, I'm not sure my Mom is going to think this is safe," Jamie said laughing after they were all collapsed inside a few minutes later. They all laughed with her but it was nervous laughter.
"Andy, phone the sheriff would you," Lotta panted from the couch. "Looks like I'm going to have to hit the gym more often to keep up with you guys."
"Then we better call Gramma and let her know that we're staying here tonight. He may come back later." Trevor suggested drinking the lemonade that Danny was passing out.
"We better all stay here, Andy," Ben said. "Trevor is right. That guy was vicious!"
"And strong!" Trevor said rubbing a sore arm.
"The lion never actually got close to him. I think she stayed way over there on the other side of the stream." Andy said from the kitchen as she waited on hold for the sheriffs dispatcher to take the call.
"All it took was that mind chilling scream to convince him not to go in her direction," Trevor said.
"Yeah, and what a scream! I'll never forget it." Jamie said.
"Let's see if you got any good shots, Danny," Jason said. "That camera light came in handy."
Sheriff Bill Lopez and Deputy Russell Tong arrived soon after.
"Well, Lotta and Andy, what have you got yourself into this time?" Russell wanted to know and it was beginning to sound like a recording. There is very little crime out here in the backcountry. When anything at all happens it is sort of a novelty and since this was their second time out to the cabin this year they took the opportunity to kid them about it.
"Sounds like a rough character. I'm surprised that you could hang on to him at all." Russell exclaimed. He was a big man himself but known as a quiet mediator - a police officer who never took the gun out of his holster.
They related their story as Deputy Tong called in to set up a roadblock.
"With all the side roads out here it will be pretty amazing if we happen to catch him that way." The Sharif explained as he hunched his large frame into a kitchen chair and sipped the lemonade that Jamie offered. "Which way did he turn from here?"
"Left. It looked like he was heading down the mountain." Andy said.
"Email the best photos to me, Danny." Russell was new out here but had a good way with people already. "Those photos could be very important if we get lucky and catch him"
"If that guy followed us here then he had to have followed us to Gramma's place!" Trevor jumped up suddenly concerned.
"Can we get a lift back there with you Sheriff?" Jason wanted know. "I think they might be in danger. We better stay there tonight instead."
"Sure we'll give you a ride," Sheriff Lopez replied getting up. You have a point so we better head over there right away."
"If everything goes ok we'll come back and get you guys in the morning, Danny," Trevor added. "We can wait to get the water trough. Gramma has a bucket we can use for goat water for now."
Fina was the only one not shaking for awhile after all the excitement. She had bedded down with the puppies right away. In fact, she almost looked like it had actually been fun chasing that guy. Her face markings kind of look like of a happy little grin sometimes.
After the Sheriff left Andy went out on the porch to look at the damage to the screen. "We definitely will have to get someone out tomorrow to fix it as Fina is never happy cooped up inside the cabin."
Everyone began making motions of getting ready for bed but they all lay awake for a long time.
There was something prowling outside. A tawny large animal was stopping occasionally to sniff the Wild current branches. The thorns would never penetrate that thick fur. Those thorns definitely held bits of fresh blood and skin. The tired people inside would not have any more problems with the other intruder tonight. If Fina had not already scared him off, that exquisite lioness was on the prowl.
There was a low almost silent sniff and the sleek cat disappeared into the deep shadows of the night forest.
The next day they got a call from Bernice who had another exciting event to report. Everyone listened to the speakerphone.
"Just before the police car drove up to my place..." She related the story.
"I'm going out to feed the goats, Sharon," Bernice announced. "There are clean towels in the linen closet down the hall. Don't take too long in the shower. The solar water heater is very efficient but doesn't produce enough for half hour luxury showers."
"All I want is a quick rinse and bed. All this excitement has worn me out," Sharon responded.
The goats set up a racket as Bernice walked through the darkness toward the shed where they were spending the night. She stopped off at the hay bales to get a couple of flakes and as she bent over she heard a noise that should not have been there - the sound of an engine idling! She straightened up.
"Who's there?" Bernice began to be frightened and picked up the pitchfork. She came around the side of the hay pile face to face with an angry stranger.
"Where is Maria?" He asked rudely. "She has to come with me now."
"And who are you?" Bernice demanded pointing the pitchfork at him menacingly.
"Just tell her to come outside and no one else will get hurt," he spat.
"You have to get by me first and that is not going to happen." Bernice was feeling too tired to put up with this guy for long.
At that point, the Sheriff's car pulled into the drive. As Bernice looked away for a moment the man knocked the pitchfork out of her hands and pinned her arm behind her back as she regained her balance. "Don't make a noise!" He hissed.
Bernice remained silent, held rigid in his grasp, as Jason, Trevor and the Sheriff walked unseen to the front door. As they entered Maria greeted them and explained in halting English that Bernice was out feeding the goats. Jason turned around and jogged out toward the shed.
Bernice suddenly tromped on her captor's sandaled foot in her big steel toed farm boots. As he let out a muffled howl Jason picked up a bucket as he rounded the corner and hit the crook over the head with it. Freed in the commotion Bernice yelled at the top of her lungs and grabbed the pitchfork again pinning the prowler to the ground as Jason squirmed out of the way.
"Wow, Gram, you certainly live in the fast lane but aren't you suppose to use that thing for hay?" Jason laughed. "Six people, a snarling dog, and a mountain lion at Andy's place couldn't stop this guy. All we really needed then was you and your pitchfork!"
"Looks like you managed to scratch him up a bit or did he arrive here looking this bad?" Deputy Tong asked as he showed up with his flashlight illuminating a very angry Bernice poking the tines further into the chest of a reluctant captive to keep him from moving around.
"Stay right there, you, if you don't think I mean business just move a little to give me a reason to poke harder."
"Bernice, thanks for doing our job for us but try not to hurt him - too much - ok?" Sheriff Lopez was chuckling.
"If you're going to let this type run around the countryside beating up old ladies I guess we'll all have to take the law into our own hands," Bernice kidded him back.
Maria looked surprised as she came out to see what was happening. The captive just turned away as the Sheriff got him up and read him his rights. After a quick frisk Deputy Tong handcuffed him and put him into the patrol car.
"Do you know this guy?" The deputy asked Maria.
"No, but I recognize him as someone who works with Juan. I think Juan called him Louis" She explained the story in short form to Deputy Tong and the sheriff with Bernice interpreting when Maria couldn't find the right English words.
"What's going on?" Sharon came out looking like she had just stepped out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her head.
"You missed all the fun, Sharon!" Bernice shot back. "This idiot was going to abduct Maria!"
"What was that going to do for him?" Sharon wanted to know.
"It is because I have lock box!" Maria had been standing quietly on the side.
Bernice told the story: "Maria took it from the house when she went out to stay in the shack. That might have been what those men were arguing about when Andy and everyone stayed behind to look around. Maybe at first he thought one of the partners took it. She put it in her bag before she went to the shack behind her house.
"Wait, I'll get it for you." Maria disappeared into the house for a moment and returned with a small locked moneybox.
"Here. I don't know what is in it. It seems to be full but it isn't very heavy." Maria handed it to Sheriff Lopez as Bernice translated.
"You want to tell me what's in this, Pal?" No answer. "How about the key? Did he have any keys on him, Russell?" The Sheriff asked.
"Nothing in his pockets. I'll check the car." A few seconds later Russell returned with a large bunch of keys.
"Here's one that looks like it might do the trick." Deputy Tong inserted the key and it turned easily. "Yes! Just look at all those hundred dollar bills!"
"Wow! I didn't know parrots were so expensive." Trevor exclaimed.
"They aren't cheap but this guy and his buddies are running a big time smuggling ring. Who knows what they smuggled out on the other runs." Sheriff Lopez replied. "Looks like they haven't found a place to launder the money yet. I wouldn't be surprised if this guy was trying to run out on his buddies."
"Well, Bernice, you can thank those grandsons of yours for getting us here so fast. It was their idea that this guy followed them from your place over to Lotta's cabin," Sheriff Lopez informed her when they were ready to leave.
Bernice beamed at Jason and Trevor, "What happened over at the cabin? I thought you guys were going on home tonight?"
"Can we tell you over sandwiches?" Jason pleaded.
"Yeah, we've had a couple workouts tonight and deserve food," Trevor added pointing to his mouth with a desperate look.
"We'll see you all tomorrow," Sheriff Lopez said. "Let me know if anything else happens.
"So, you see, we had our own bit of excitement, too," Bernice said on the phone after she finished telling the story the next morning.
A short while after their phone call with Bernice, Danny came in from the room that is used as an office at the cabin.
"I just called my friend Jin Wang. His computer is having virus issues so we have a technology deficit," Danny informed them as they sat eating pancakes with fresh strawberries.
"I have my laptop here at the cabin but the Internet connection is seriously slow and just cuts out sometimes." Andy said.
"There must be someone with a computer we could use," Danny suggested.
"Say, Tony's friend Kenny, supposedly has a great tech set up because he works at home," Andy said. "I'll bet he has fast web access, too."
"Do you think he might help us?" Danny asked.
"He sounds like a nice guy. Let's call Tony and find out. I think it's time to talk to Julie, too. We need to let her know that her mom is safe."
"Now that she really is!' Jamie said and they all laughed.
Kenny answered on the sixth ring.
"Welcome to the Zoo. Can I help you?" Kenny sounded irritated.
"This is Andy. My Aunt Carlotta is Tony's friend."
"Oh, yeah. You are the ones who are trying to fill my house with people."
"Sorry, if it's too much trouble you can have Julie stay at our cabin."
"No, I didn't mean to sound negative. She is very nice and we really don't mind having her around. I'm just stuck on some computer code that is giving me headaches so I'm taking it out on you. What can I do for you?" Kenny sounded like a good match for Tony – very friendly.
"Danny took the phone and explained the situation to him. "So, we need a computer to find these web sites faster since the connection here is sooo bad."
"Hey, why don't you guys come on over. I have several computers networked. Everyone could have their own. Maybe I could help you and your friend Jin. It would be a relief to do something else for awhile. Maybe you will have a solution to my coding problem."
"We're going to fix up some corrals this morning but afterwards we could drive into town," Danny suggested after asking his aunt.
"Great, I'll tell Tony when she gets back from the store that you all will be here for dinner." Ken told Andy after she was back on the phone.
"Just what you need, more people." Andy laughed.
"Yeah, well, I'm from a big family so it doesn't feel like home unless there are at least a dozen people wondering in and out in confusion."
"Ok. We'll try to get there about five and not be too confusing."
Ben called in to get the day off so he could drive Andy, Danny and Jamie over to Bernice's place to work on the pens. Lotta said she would puppy-sit. She also called to have the local handyman come over to fix the screen.
Fina was sticking close to the puppies but she came out to eat. Before she had been napping a lot while the puppies ate but after last night she was much more wakeful. She seemed to keep a close eye on the boulders across the stream. The puppies were getting round and fluffy on her milk.
"How am I ever going to part with you cuties!" Andy said watching the squirming, fussing mass of fur balls for a minute before she left with Ben.
They got the pens built at Bernice's by noon and then drove back to the cabin before making the long drive into town to use Ken's computers. Trevor and Jason decided to come along as well in the farm truck.
"We're going to make another attempt to go home for those troughs later, since we dented the bucket last night," Jason said grinning .
"Say, we better pick Jin up on the way. He will never forgive me if we don't bring him with us now that he knows the story." Danny said.
They were going to need his expertise, too, if they were going to be able to find Jorgé in time.
The same morning two men stood talking in the shade of a huge oak tree somewhere near Portrero. They had carefully chosen this site so that they could not be observed from the few cars passing on the empty highway.
"Idiot! I even loaned him my car to follow them. He was not suppose to try to take her only find her. When I get my hands on him . . . Look at this red junker I have to drive now!" The first man motioned toward a bright red older model Ford.
"Forget it! It doesn't matter. After this next shipment goes through you can buy any new car you want. That we even know about Louis being arrested is only because that klutz Jamison wants a cut. He definitely has to go when we make the last delivery." They both seemed to agree on that. "That old lady, Maria, is too scared to tell anyone about the cash.
"Listen, Larry, we have to move the shipment now. Did you put the message up on the site?"
"You listen, Juan, it would've been easier if you hadn't messed up getting my computer. They cleared out of there fast. You must have scared them good! I know where Lynn is, though. We'll get the computer after we get the lock box."
"Ok. Lets hope those jerks don't try to cheat us. My contact in Brawley said they had packed up and moved out of the apartment."
Larry said, "And, we need to dump the kid when we make the last delivery, you know."
Juan became quiet and started to walk to his car.
"Listen!" Larry grabbed Juan by the shoulder.
"Ow! Let go of my shoulder! Your wife and her house cats have to go, too!" Juan felt his scratched shoulder carefully to see if it had begun to bleed again. "That cat was a pest!" Larry laughed cruelly at him.
"Well, that kid can identify us! You get him taped up and ready to roll with the shipment!"
"I know. I know!" Juan responded. "But, I don't have to like it. His grandmother, Maria, took me in when I was a kid." They got into their cars and drove off.
©Copyright - Ann Wellhouse 2015