Just as surely as it would snow this winter, Tom Jenkins would be trouble. Most of her guests from big cities were trouble, but usually they had the decency to actually arrive before they sent her business into chaos. Tom Jenkins hadn’t even made it to Medicine Creek Camps, and already he was causing her fits.
The man was lost.
Emma was sorely tempted to leave him that way.
But here she was, walking down yet another one of the tote roads that spiderwebbed through her neck of the woods, trying to remember why she loved this business so much. Emma sighed, resigned to the fact that she would smile nicely when she found Tom Jenkins, tell him it was her fault he was lost, and get him tucked into his cabin.
When she rounded a curve in the logging road, though, she stopped in disbelief. Four men, supposedly her friends, were beating up her missing guest.
The brawl had been mighty, if the torn clothes and bloody faces and churned gravel were any indication. It must have been raging quite a while, too, from the looks of the hard-breathing men. But with the odds so uneven, the outcome was inevitable. Her lost guest was now being held between two burly loggers while another tried to pound him senseless.
Only the man was not Tom Jenkins. Emma immediately realized that hiding behind all that blood, beard, and a mask of pain was the one man on earth she had sworn to kill should she ever get the chance.
He shouldn’t be here, in her woods, turning this beautiful October afternoon into yet another black day of her life. Even the sun had suddenly gone behind a cloud, sending a chill down her spine that had nothing to do with the temperature.
He was sixteen years older than the last time she’d seen him, but she would have recognized him in the middle of a blinding blizzard. He’d grown taller and his shoulders had widened, but it was him. And even held captive by two burly loggers, the man of her nightmares looked more dangerous than a cornered wolf.
Benjamin Sinclair was back.
Another blow landed on his defenseless torso, and Emma winced at his grunt of pain.
Damn. She should be cheering, not saving his rotten hide.
Emma shouldered her shotgun, clicked off the safety, and pulled the trigger.
The echoing boom and avalanche of pelting birdshot got everyone’s attention. Three men dropped to the ground, letting their victim fall to his knees. The man with the punishing fists spun around, his eyes wide with horror. Emma saw the moment he recognized her, because his face darkened and his shock turned to a ferocious scowl.
“Dammit, Emma. What in hell are you shooting at us for!”
“I’m postponing your war a bit, Durham.”
Durham Bragg spit on the ground in front of Benjamin Sinclair, who was dazedly staring at her, his own look of horror barely masked by his bloodied features. His other three attackers were strewn around him like fallen bowling pins, widened eyes peeking out from under their arms covering their heads. Emma looked back at Durham and waited with the patience of a hunter.
Her old friend snarled a curse she hadn’t heard since her father had died. “Dammit, Emma Jean! If you want to stay neutral, then stay the hell out of this! We’re having a little talk with this tree hugger before we send him back to his buddies.” Durham turned back to his victim.
Emma jacked a new shell into the chamber and raised the barrel of her shotgun again as the three other men started to rise. They immediately dropped back down.
“He’s not an environmentalist, Durham. He’s one of my guests. He’s signed up for two weeks of partridge hunting.”
Durham spun back to face her. “Emma! Look at him—his clothes all but shout tree hugger. And I swear I’ve seen his face before, probably on some damn Greenpeace poster.” Durham pointed at the man weaving on his knees. “For chrissakes, the guy could be a model for the L.L.Bean catalog!”
“His name is Tom Jenkins,” Emma said. “Stanley Bates dropped him off at the painted rock and gave him directions to Medicine Creek Camps.”
Durham shot a hesitant look at his kneeling victim. “Bates couldn’t give directions to a goddamn homing pigeon,” he said with a frustrated growl. He rubbed his forehead and let out a sigh. “Dammit. I know this guy from someplace.” He gave Emma a speculative look. “He could be registered as your guest and still be a tree hugger. Hunting partridge could be a cover.”
“Environmental soldiers don’t get lost in the woods.”
“Dammit, Emma Jean. Your daddy wouldn’t be pointing no shotgun at me.”
“Damn yourself,” Emma countered. “You beat up one of my guests. Go home, and leave this man alone in the coming weeks. I won’t have my sports harassed.”
Benjamin Sinclair, the lowlife snake, finally stirred. Emma ignored him until Durham grudgingly nodded agreement. Then she looked at the other three men, who were once more making their way to their feet, brushing the dirt from themselves as they glared at her.
She moved the barrel of her shotgun in their direction. “I’ll have your agreement also, gentlemen.”
They looked at her shotgun, at Durham, and then back at her. Finally, they nodded. Emma clicked on the safety, lowered her gun barrel, and looked at Benjamin Sinclair.
His right eye was swollen shut, his left one barely visible. His lip was split and blood was trailing down into the dark tangle of his beard. And now he was trying to stand while cradling his ribs. Durham finally helped him up with all the empathy of a hungry bear grabbing its dinner. Benjamin Sinclair groaned in agony and then glared at Durham with his one open eye.
“Happy hunting, sport,” Durham muttered, slapping his victim on the shoulder, sending him forward several faltering steps. Durham motioned to his buddies and started up the tote road. When he got beside Emma, he stopped.
“You just be careful, missy. That man don’t hit like any sport I’ve ever met,” he growled, rubbing his own swollen jaw.
Emma widened her eyes in feigned surprise. “You mean he actually tried to defend himself?”
Durham ignored that. “Emma Jean Sands, you know better than to go around pointing that gun at people, much less shooting the damn thing.”
“And you know violence won’t stop this war. Remember last time? People got killed.”
All signs of anger left Durham’s face. His eyes turned pained as he reached out one large hand and set it gently on her shoulder. “I remember, kiddo.” He turned and looked back at Benjamin Sinclair. “You could be right about this one. He does look more lost than threatening, now doesn’t he?” he added with a satisfied smile.
Durham and his band of bullies walked to his battered pickup without looking back. The truck started with a violent rev of the engine and its tires spun on the gravel, filling the air with a cloud of dust and debris.
Emma eyed their victim. Durham couldn’t be more wrong. No matter how beaten and battered he was, Benjamin Sinclair was the greatest threat alive.
She finally gathered her courage and slowly walked up to him. “You are Tom Jenkins, I hope.”
The lying snake looked her right in the eye and nodded.
“Well, Mr. Jenkins, Medicine Creek Camps is about six miles back.”
“Is there a reason you weren’t at the airfield this morning to pick me up?” he asked in an obviously pained growl, glaring at her from his one open eye.
“I was thirty miles north of town this morning, rescuing two lost canoeists who are staying at my camps.”
“And when you found them, were they also being beat up?”
“No, they were only half-drowned. I found them on a small island at the north end of Medicine Lake, huddled together to keep warm after they’d capsized their canoe.” Emma gave him a tight smile. “But then, they weren’t dressed like a sporting catalog model.”
Judging by his intensified glare, he didn’t care for that observation. Time to get Benjamin Sinclair patched up and away from Medicine Gore—and Michael—as fast as the next truck out of town could take him. Emma tucked her shotgun under her arm and stepped closer. “You need a doctor. Come on, Mr. Jenkins. My truck is up the road.”
“Go get it.”
His words were still more growled than spoken, and Emma instantly felt contrite. Benjamin Sinclair—or Tom Jenkins until she was ready to call him a liar to his face—was in immense pain. “It’s not far, Mr. Jenkins. And I don’t think I should leave you alone.”
Even slumped in pain, he was a good half foot taller than her. She didn’t want to get within ten feet of the man. Wounded animals were dangerous, and right now Benjamin Sinclair looked like he ate kittens for breakfast.
Emma picked up his backpack and fancy gun case, wrinkling her nose at the metallic smell of blood mixed with dirt. The sun was shining again and the birds were back to singing, but the temperature had permanently dropped in her heart.
Michael’s father was here.
“How far’s the truck?”
“It’s a good mile, at least,” she told him, hefting his pack onto her shoulder. “I’m sorry, but there will be more loggers driving these roads home from work. I think we should stick together.”
He reached for his gun case and grasped it like a cane. “Friendly town you’ve got here. Lead on, Miss … ?”
The man was obviously going to play out his charade. But he was badly beaten, he didn’t realize she knew who he was, and she had one very powerful trump card. All she had to do was tell someone in town who her guest was, and every living, breathing person would descend on him like a nuclear bomb.
Benjamin Sinclair hadn’t left any friends behind when he’d stolen out of town sixteen years ago—only a pregnant young girl, a town full of vigilantes, and a dead man.
Emma gave him a deceptively friendly smile. “I’m Emma Sands from Medicine Creek Camps. Um … welcome to Maine, Mr. Jenkins.”
Benjamin Sinclair started up the tote road, but he didn’t make it ten steps before his legs buckled and he fell to one knee.
Dammit. She would have to physically help him to the truck.
She expected him to feel like the snake he was; cold and slimy and disgusting. But what Emma felt as she set her shoulder under his was solid male muscle. The electric spark that shot through her nearly made her jump back.
Apparently he felt it, too. He shot upright and stiffened and glared at her again. Emma felt like a deer trapped in the light of molten gray eyes the exact same color of Michael’s.
Did he remember her?
Of course he did. The man wouldn’t have booked a stay at Medicine Creek if he didn’t know where his son was living.
The idealistic young man she remembered from sixteen years ago had been dangerously intelligent, if somewhat misguided. He’d been bold and handsome and charismatic, and Emma, only fourteen at the time, had idolized him. Her older sister had naively jumped into his bed, and Michael was the result of that recklessness. And now, after all these years, the boy was going to meet the man who had abandoned him and his mother without a backward glance.
“Are you planted here, Miss Sands, or are you waiting for me to bleed to death to save yourself the trouble of a lawsuit?”
Emma grabbed the back of his belt and started off down the dirt road. “It’s not my fault you were beaten up, Mr. Jenkins. My liability doesn’t start until you actually check in.” She snorted. “When out-of-staters wander these woods dressed like tree huggers, they have no one to blame but themselves for being mistaken for trouble.”
Emma watched him frown down at his clothes before looking back up the tote road they were hobbling along. His arm around her tightened and she shifted his pack on her shoulder, making him loosen his grip.
“They beat me up because they didn’t like my clothes?”
“There’s tension in these parts right now. Environmentalists, mostly out-of-staters, are trying to get clear-cutting banned in our forests. Everyone’s worried about losing their jobs as well as their way of life.”
Good Lord. She was explaining this to the biggest tree hugger of them all! Last time he’d come here, Benjamin Sinclair had had the backing of the Sierra Club to fight damming the river for hydropower. He’d been quiet in his crusade, but nonetheless effective. The nearly finished dam hadn’t been rebuilt after it had been blown up—along with her father.
“Damn. They let the air out of my tires.”
Ben looked up to see a dusty red pickup with roof racks, a canoe on top, and four flat tires. Hell. Now he remembered why he hated this town. “Nice friends you’ve got,” he muttered through gritted teeth.
The woman beside him sighed. “Payback for spraying them with birdshot.”
His obviously reluctant rescuer opened the passenger door, and Ben eased into the seat with a groan. It was a relief to be sitting, and an even greater relief to be free of the disturbing touch of Emma Sands. He watched in silence as she tossed his pack and shotgun case in the truck bed, walked around to open the driver’s door, and carefully placed her shotgun on the rack behind his head. Then she started rummaging around under the seat.
Soda cans and empty chip bags came out, followed by candy wrappers and a flashlight, then a pair of gloves, a dirty towel, empty shotgun casings, live shotgun shells, binoculars, and a first-aid kit. Ignoring the kit, she made a sound of relief when she pulled out an unopened bottle of whiskey. She tossed it to him and grabbed up the towel. Then, without saying a word, she slammed the door shut and started walking down the road.
She was definitely pissed about something. Ben hoped it was the fact that her tires were flat, and not that she knew who he was. He watched her stop at a nearby bog and dip the scruffy rag into it.
A feather could have knocked him over when Durham had called her Emma. The Emma Sands he remembered had been a quiet, shy little waif who liked to spend more time in the forest than around people.
This woman—this gun-toting, fire-breathing virago—
was a far cry from the young girl he remembered. But what unbalanced Ben the most was his reaction to her. When she had tucked herself under his shoulder, he had felt a jolt of electricity that had nearly knocked him over.
Emma Sands had grown up real nice, and had done well for herself. According to the investigators, she’d never married, and had been single-handedly raising Michael ever since Kelly had run off with a man ten years ago.
Ben knew Emma was a bush pilot, a licensed Maine Guide, and the owner of Medicine Creek Camps. He also knew Michael’s name was on the deed with hers, and that their guiding and camping business was very successful. Emma clearly believed in investing in good equipment; the Cessna Stationair she owned wasn’t cheap, the truck he was sitting in was this year’s model, and the camps themselves sat on a thousand acres of prime woodland.
Only the investigators hadn’t told Ben exactly where Medicine Creek Camps was located. They’d also neglected to include a photo of Emma, or mention that her legs came up to her armpits, that her blond hair formed a braid as thick as his wrist, and her tanned, flawless complexion framed startling green eyes.
Had she written him the letter?
And if she had, why now?
Ben didn’t think she recognized him. He’d filled out, grown hard, and his beard should help insure that no one in town would recognize him.
Ben watched her rise from the stream, expecting he would soon be getting his face washed like a four-year-old. But she just stood there, staring out over the water and then looking up at the sky. Finally she turned.
And damn if she didn’t look even madder than before.
Ben watched her walk back to the truck, her mind obviously wrestling with some decision. She hesitated at the driver’s door, looking back at the bog as she absently wrung the life out of the towel she was holding.
She seemed to suddenly come to a decision.
Whatever it was, Ben could see she was not pleased with what she had decided, just determined. She slid into the seat beside him and picked up the mike of the two-way radio bolted beneath the dash.
“Come on, Mikey. Talk to me,” she said into the mike. “I need a ride home.”
“Where’s your truck?” soon came a male voice over the radio. “Did you total this one, too, Nemmy?”
Mikey? Could that deep masculine voice be Michael’s?
Ben nearly stopped breathing.
“No. I’ve got four flat tires and my portable compressor is in the shed. Come get Mr. Jenkins and me. We’re over by Smokey Bog.”
“Holy cow! The sport made it that far? Walking?”
“It seems so, Mikey. Just come get us, will you? Mr. Jenkins needs to see a doctor.” She kept the mike depressed as she hesitated, shooting Ben a dark look. “You’re going to have to fly over, so we can leave for the hospital directly from here.”
“He’s hurt that bad?”
She continued to look at Ben, her eyes a dark, disturbed jade that made him think of glacial ice. “Bad enough, but he’ll live. You can land on the bog.”
“No way, bossy lady. Crazy Larry is home, and if he sees me flying he’ll call the FAA again. And I can’t land on that bog. It’s too small.”
Ben stiffened. She was asking the boy to do something dangerous?
“Michael, you can land here with your eyes closed. Just put Alice in the driver’s seat. Larry won’t know it’s not me.”
“Can’t I drive over and get you, then you can fly Mr. Jenkins to Millinocket?”
Emma reached out and pressed the wet rag to Ben’s forehead as she shook her head. “No. Just get in the damn plane and get over here.”
“If I see the water rudders down as you approach, I’m gonna make you wax every inch of that plane tomorrow.”
“Aw, Nem. I only forgot them once.”
“And it cost you a month’s wages, if I remember correctly. Now get going before our sport passes out and we have to carry him to the plane.”
“Roger, bossy lady. I’m climbing in now.”
Emma Sands hung the mike on its cradle and leaned back with a frustrated sigh. “It won’t be long now, Mr. Jenkins. Michael will come get us, and then we’ll get you to a doctor.” She looked over and saw the bottle of whiskey, the cover still on, in his lap. “That whiskey will do you good, Mr. Jenkins.”
“My hands won’t work. I can’t open it.”
She reached out and twisted off the cap. He tried to take a drink, but he couldn’t even grasp the bottle. Hell, yes, he’d defended himself. And he had the swollen knuckles to prove it.
“You’re going to have to get some new clothes, if you still plan to hunt these roads,” she said as he stared down at his useless hands.
Ben snapped his gaze up at the amusement in her voice, but he only had time to open his mouth before she held the bottle to his lips. The potent whiskey burned his bleeding mouth, and ran all the way down his throat to pool like liquid heat in his stomach. Damn, it felt good. And she was a generous savior, despite her crude care. She patiently let him have his fill, until he leaned his head against the headrest and closed his eyes. Lord, he could feel the whiskey already spreading to every aching muscle in his body. He’d been so sore and numb he hadn’t realized how cold he was.
Ben cracked his eyes enough to see the sun was setting behind the nearest mountain, casting long shadows over the forest, making the bog an unreadable tangle of still water, stumps, and ripples.
His son was going to land here? In a floatplane?
Ben stiffened at the sudden roar of a plane buzzing overhead. Dammit. He’d crawl to the hospital before he’d put Michael in danger. He was just about to tell Emma that when he heard the radio crackle again.
“Help me, Nem.”
“Figure it out yourself, Mikey.”
Ben made a grab for the mike to tell the boy to abort the landing and go home, but Emma pulled it out of his reach and glared at him. “He can do this,” she snapped. “Michael’s a better bush pilot than anyone around here. The bog’s big enough and he’s talented enough to land here in his sleep.”
“If he gets hurt, Miss Sands, I’m going to use that radio cord to strangle you.”
She stared at him for a good long minute, and then she suddenly gave him a strange smile. “You have my permission to try.”
“Guide him in.”
“Guide me in, Nem,” Michael echoed over the radio.
“If you want to solo on your sixteenth birthday, you better know how, Mikey. I won’t be on the radio then.”
Ben heard an exasperated sigh come over the speaker. “I’ve been flying solo for two years.”
“And I’ve only had to replace the pontoons once,” she shot back. “Don’t make it twice. Watch the rocks.”
She tossed the mike on the dash and got out, and Ben realized that every muscle in her body was primed for action. Her shoulders were squared and her eyes were trained like lasers on the fast-descending plane, which appeared to be brushing the treetops. Her hands were balled into fists and her feet were planted, and she looked like she intended to guide her nephew down by force of will alone.
So the tough-talking lady was worried, was she?
Ben was going to kill her before this was over.
He could see two heads through the windshield of the plane, but Alice was either a very brave or a very dumb passenger. Michael was doing the flying, and he seemed to be doing it very well. He had throttled back but he was still coming in fast, looking like a hawk diving for prey. He wasn’t hesitating or asking for help now, by God. And his water rudders were up.
Michael Sands set the Stationair down on Smokey Bog softly enough to make an eagle weep. Ben brushed the blood trailing down his cheek, only to find his shaking hand came away more wet than red.
Damn, he was proud of the boy. Michael was doing a job most men couldn’t, and he was doing it magnificently. Emma might be justified in her boast, if this was an example of the boy’s maturity and self-confidence.
Ignoring his protesting body, Ben climbed out of the truck and shuffled toward the bog, determined to be standing eye level and proud when he finally met his son for the first time.
© 2010 Janet Chapman