Savage Cargo by Willard White by Willard White - Read Online

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Savage Cargo - Willard White

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started."

CHAPTER 1

Ten years later:

The terrain was perfect for an ambush. The woods on the higher ground to the right would hide a battalion, it was the obvious choice. I knew it was going to happen. I had been here before.

Close it up driver! I barked from the back seat. He had allowed too large of a gap to develop behind the Hummer in front of us. This was no way to run a convoy. We were the last Hummer in the line and if we lagged behind the zealots would separate us and kill us.

Close up, dammit!

The driver, a nineteen year old kid from Toledo named Josh, evidently didn't hear me. His helmet was sitting down on his shoulders. His foot had slipped off the gas pedal and the Hummer was drifting to a stop. He was dead. Sergeant Kesselman was slumped in the shotgun seat. He also was dead. The road ahead erupted in a slow motion mushroom of fire and dirt. Buck was barking. It was happening again and there was nothing I could do about it.

I woke up to the sounds of a barking dog. I stretched and looked at the clock on the refrigerator. Few dog owners would want to hug their dog for barking at 2AM, but I could have hugged Buck at that moment. Waking up was much better than continuing that dream. I pulled on my jeans and stuck my feet into my boots. After all it was my job to investigate the cause of the uproar. I was paid an extra two hundred dollars a month to help keep an eye on the compound. At least I wouldn't have far to go, it sounded like Buck was right outside and he was pretty excited.

My .45 automatic was in the inner pocket of my backpack which was always on the floor beside my couch. I considered pulling it out, then decided I wouldn't be needing it. Without thinking about it, I lifted my yellow John Deere ball cap off the shifter knob and planted it on my head. About thirty seconds had transpired since I sat up. I left the lights off and levered the door of my school-bus camper open. The three-quarter moon illuminated Buck ten feet in front me, whining.

A large dead tabby cat was lying on the snow between us. I expelled my breath and turned on the camper's outer light. The cat had died hard. He was covered with blood, his right front leg was severed at the first joint and most of his right ear was gone. Buck had blood dripping from his mouth. He yipped and looked up at me expectantly, as if I was going to give him a dog-biscuit for this.

Did you do this Buck? What's the big idea?

Buck ducked his head.

Only cats bring their prey home, Buck. You are obviously not a cat.

Buck panted and sat down. He was one hundred pounds of an impressive mix of malamute and wolf. He had some surprising behaviors but this was something new.

You must be getting too much to eat, Buck. If you were a real wolf you would eat this thing and let me sleep.

Buck's tail wagged and he crawled forward a foot. His right ear wasn't standing up quite right; the blood dripping from his jowl was his own.

I don't get it, Buck. Why would you get into a fight with a cat if you're not even hungry?

The cat twitched its tail. I stood and watched while the cat raised his head to assess his surroundings. Buck was just as fascinated as I. While we looked on, the cat attempted to get to his feet and couldn't make it. He lay on his side watching Buck as if he knew how this was going to turn out. This was the part where the victor eats the loser.

Buck had no interest in getting any closer to the cat.

This isn't working, Buck. I'm going to cut your rations in half so I can get some sleep.

Buck nodded his head and crawled forward six more inches.

The cat was at least two and a half feet long from whiskers to tail, but he was surprisingly light. I carried him into my camper by the scruff of his neck and deposited him on my oldest towel in front of my tiny fireplace. I put some more wood chips in the fire. He seemed to be conscious of what was happening to him but only mildly interested. He stared at me without blinking as I examined him. His injuries consisted of a raggedly terminated foreleg, some broken ribs, a missing ear and multiple puncture wounds. He was also starving. The humane thing to do would be to wring his neck immediately and throw him outside for Buck to dispose of.

There was no way I was going to share my cereal bowl with this guy. I took a large screwdriver outside and popped a vintage hub cap off my bus to serve as a food dish.

Several times in the night I heard him lapping the milk.

I opened my eyes and stretched. My left hand collided with the window. I moved my hands up over my head and they banged into the cabinets above the couch where I lay. I groaned and pivoted my feet over the side. It was still dark out but it was time to get up. I reached under the couch and retrieved a midget piece of hardwood, stuffed it into the tiny fire-place and turned on the muffin fan.

The cat was staring at me with a particularly hateful look, as if I was responsible for his plight. His hub cap was empty.

Well good morning to you, grumpy, I don't like you much either.

It occurred to me that the milk represented a significant change in his diet. I decided to let him out before I had to clean up after him. When I opened the door, he went down the steps like a streak of lightning, well, a streak of lightning with a bandage on his right front leg instead of a foot.

By the time I was out of the shower, my home-made heater had warmed the camper. Automatically I opened the cupboard to look for a box of cereal. Then I remembered with a small surge of anticipation, I was going down the hill for breakfast. I was fascinated by a waitress at the restaurant named Jennifer, at least that's what her name tag said. Sometimes, when I had a moment to myself, I fantasized about Jennifer. We would live on my investments and my military retirement and spend our entire days together with our two perfect fantasy children.

There had been a time when I enjoyed fixing my coffee and my breakfast in the camper up on the mountainside. I liked the silence, the cold clear air and the long range views of the San Joaquin valley. A normal, social man would tire of the solitude up here. I suspect that I am neither normal nor social, I enjoyed these moments on my own very much. Until I discovered Jennifer in the Yesterday Cafe.

When the sun rose enough so that we could see to operate, the hustle and bustle would begin. I would have to interact intensively with others for twelve hours or so each day, that is enough. I snapped my coat closed and stepped out of my camper down onto the ground. It was 05:30 and still dark, but I could see the rotor blades of my helicopter silhouetted against the sky. Well, the helicopter wasn't mine, I just flew it five or six hours a day. The outline of the machine was a little fuzzy with the two inches of snow we had accumulated.

Sam would still be asleep in the bunkhouse trailer across the way. His light wasn't on yet, no surprise there. I stretched out my arms, took a breath of cold air and listened. In addition to my flying duties, I had elected to camp out here and be the night watchman for a little extra cash. It was easy enough. Mostly I just let Buck watch out for everything. Buck is my not so secret weapon. He's a large and intimidating dog and I do my best to keep his good nature a secret. Much better that thieves and pranksters trust their instincts and stay away from a hundred pound animal who has fangs an inch long.

The sky had cleared and the temperature was in the mid-twenties. I decided that the snow would be dry and wouldn't stick to the rotor blades so we wouldn't have to de-ice them before we went to work. For reassurance I smacked the snow on the fender of my bus a glancing blow with my hand and the snow flew into the air, clearing the surface completely. Good!

It's about five miles down the mountain to the town of Henderson, California. Five miles of good road would normally take about five minutes to traverse. This particular road had once been a logging road. Erosion has turned it into a suspension bending obstacle course which takes fifteen minutes to navigate in the dark. I brought up an Allman Brothers CD, turned up the volume and headed out the gate. I arrived on schedule at six AM, opening time for the Yesterday Cafe.

There were plenty of parking spaces available in front of the Cafe at this time in the morning. I parked my short-wheel-base school bus directly in front of the entrance and let it stick out into the street. I would have my choice of tables too. I felt a surge of sheepishness. Here I was, a grown man, getting out of bed an hour early and driving down the hill to spend seven bucks on breakfast just to catch a few smiles from an attractive waitress who sees me as just an empty coffee cup. Harry, you're an idiot!

Henderson may be a typical small mountain town. A mountain town that got smaller when the highway planners bypassed it by a few miles. Predictably, gas stations, restaurants and hotels sprang up around the intersection where Henderson's main street, which is also California 14, intersects the main highway. The latest blow to downtown Henderson was Walmart's decision to put up their store out by the interchange, which caused many of the buildings downtown to be left vacant and crumbling, except for a couple of antique stores, a bank and the Yesterday Cafe.

I personally didn't witness these goings on. I've only been around here four months or so. Over the winter we moved our base camp some twenty miles north to Henderson in order to be closer to more harvestable timber. Thanks to my logging helicopter we could mine the forest for suitable trees without having to make roads with all the associated environmental damage.

The lights came on in the restaurant. A back-lighted Jennifer unlocked the door and turned the CLOSED sign around. I got out of the bus and slammed the door. She heard the noise and peered out the window at me for a second before she recognized me and raised her hand. I climbed the two steps to the sidewalk with some excitement. She had no idea how attractive she was to me. She was fortyish and slightly overweight, well, she wasn't cover-girl skinny anyway. At six feet, she was as tall as I am. Her shoulders were broad for a woman but that was fine too.

I picked up the morning newspaper from the sidewalk.

The door swung open easily, too easily. I glanced up at the damper and saw that the three wood screws that attached it to the door frame had pulled out. Twenty minutes, a shot of epoxy, and three larger wood screws would fix it. I had a brief fantasy of doing that little job, followed by Jen's profuse gratitude.

Good morning Harry! she said. It's always good to see you first thing.

Hello, Jen.

I knew I should be saying more than just 'hello'. I should be doing something with this opportunity, something to promote myself in her eyes. I mentally kicked myself and headed for my usual table by the window.

Here you go. Jen laid a cup of black coffee on the table in front of me. Her brown hair was unstylishly long, I suppose, at shoulder length, but it suited me just fine. What are you having this morning?

I'll just sit here a while and bask in your smile. That's what I wanted to say, what I said was: Pancakes and bacon, same as yesterday.

You got it, she said. Morning Beth! she called to another waitress who had appeared and was wiping down the counter. I watched her hips swing her dress as she walked my ticket back to the order window.

More customers came in then. Some of them I suspect were truck drivers who drove in from Hi-way 108 for their breakfast, but most of them were locals who came in for the same reason I came down the mountain. In fifteen minutes the place was full. Nearly every table was taken, mostly by men. The two waitresses circulated with their coffee pots, taking orders and dispensing coffee and charm.

When my order came up on the window it sat there for a minute or so, then a teen aged boy appeared from the kitchen. He lifted the plate, looked directly at me and smiled. When he smiled I realized he was Jen's son. His nose was a little thinner and longer, his jaw line was a little sharper, but he was so obviously related to Jen that I was surprised I hadn't noticed earlier.

Here you are, sir.

It looks like you're having a busy morning.

Yeah, Jose will come in at eight and I can escape to school.

School will be out in a couple of months, what will you do then?

He smiled again. I'm a senior. I guess, if I can't get into San Jose State, I'll join the army.

Talk to me before you join. I spent 20 years in the army, I could probably help you out.

Yeah? I've got to go now, but I'd like that.

With that he turned and strode back into the kitchen. I located Jen across the room in front of the coffee maker. She'd been watching us.

I see you've met Trent, she said later as she refilled my cup.

Is that his name? He seems a nice boy.

Her smile didn't waver. Nice? Nice doesn't begin to describe him. But thanks for saying so.

I shrugged. I never seemed to be able to say the right thing.

Do you know those four men in the back booth? she continued.

I looked past her at the two swarthy men facing me. Of the two facing away from me, I could see only the backs of their heads.

Should I know them?

They seem to be watching you and talking about you.

I shrugged and changed the subject: I won't be coming in for breakfast for a while. I doubted if she cared.

Why? She appeared to be genuinely disappointed.

The sun is coming up earlier now. I have to go to work at dawn.

So come and have dinner with us.

I managed a smile and shook my head. I work later too.

We're open for lunch on Sundays. Bring your family.

I looked at her face closely. Why would she say a thing like that? Was she fishing for personal information? Did she care whether I had a family or not?

No wife, I said.

She exhaled. Well bring yourself in then. I'll be looking for you.

Jennifer moved away to greet another customer. She generally exuded an air of physical and mental sturdiness, characteristics I happen to admire. I watched the men in the back booth for a while but they avoided looking at me. Soon enough it would be time for me to go to work.

I was flattered that Jen found some time for small talk. Three more customers came in, Jen moved to greet and seat them. The newspaper was full of bad news with a liberal slant, what a surprise. I put the paper down and divided my attention between my breakfast and watching Jen move about the room with her coffee pot.

The deputy who came in the door was large boned and overweight. His brown uniform was straining at the seams and buttons. He appeared to be unhappy about something. I suppose being a deputy in Henderson, California and being on duty at six-fifteen in the morning would be enough to make a person frown. I was curious to see if he could maintain his scowl in Jen's company. I stopped chewing so I could hear what she said to him.

She greeted him and asked him how he liked his coffee. He asked her a question, but I couldn't quite make it out. Surprisingly, it was Jen who lost her smile. She looked around at me uncertainly then pointed me out to the deputy. He turned away from Jen and headed my way. He still wasn't smiling.

You the owner of the old school bus? he said.

Good morning deputy. Yes, the bus is mine.

It's illegally parked.

It is? I had driven in to the angle parking space in front of the restaurant, same as every other morning.

Yeah, it is. he said. He stood over me with his left hand on the butt of one of those plastic Glock automatics holstered on his belt. His attempt at intimidation only irritated me. I took another bite of my pancakes and tried to guess what was wrong with my parking space. He wasn't inclined to clue me in; I was going to have to ask him.

It's too long, he said. It blocks the view of the intersection. You're going to have to move it.

I had taken another bite while he was saying it, so there was a delay while I chewed, swallowed and chased it down with a sip of coffee.

You might as well sit, Deputy Barnes, I said. I could read his name tag without difficulty, it was eighteen inches from my nose. Jen can bring you a cup of coffee.

You need to move your bus.

Sure! And I will move the bus, right after I finish my breakfast. Why don't you relax, read this paper and have a cup of coffee while I polish off my hot cakes?

It sticks out into the street. It's blocking the view of the intersection. I want you to move it now!

I glanced across the room at Jen; she was standing motionless at the end of the counter, watching us. Was this guy for real? Did he really expect me to get up from my hot breakfast and move the bus? The bus had been parked in the same place ten or twelve mornings, why couldn't it sit there ten more minutes?

Isn't it typical, Deputy Barnes, for the cop to write a citation and put it under the windshield wiper of the offending vehicle? Why don't you go out there and do that and leave me to eat my hot-cakes in peace?

Move – the – bus! NOW! Deputy Barnes was breathing hard and his knuckles were white on the pistol grip. He was losing his cool. His attitude didn't match the situation. He was reacting to music I couldn't hear.

Deputy Barnes, you're beginning to make me mad. The bus has been out there a dozen mornings without causing an accident. Surely ten more minutes wouldn't make that much difference. Conversations in the cafe halted. All eyes were on us.

The deputy stepped away from me then, and I thought he agreed with me. But then he went into his stance, drew his pistol and extended it at me with both hands. I stopped chewing. This guy was seriously over-reacting. I felt a need to point that out to him, but I had stopped breathing and couldn't speak. A Glock, I remembered, has no safety, it's a double action automatic; it comes out of the holster ready to fire. I set my fork on the table and opened my hands. Across the room a coffee-pot hit the floor and exploded.

Move – the – bus!

Without thinking, I reached for my coffee cup. It was a nervous reaction to a bizarre situation, but it was the wrong thing to do as far Deputy Barnes was concerned. He took a step forward and pressed the pistol against my head in front of my ear. My hand froze with my cup half way to my face. My own breathing was the only sound I could hear in the restaurant.

It's plain to me, he said, that you need to learn some respect for authority.

I put the cup down to free up my hands. The guy was a nut job!

Step outside now, punk. I'm just the one to teach you that little lesson.

He backed away so I could get up. I stood up slowly so as not to alarm him and headed for the exit. That's when he pushed me. I felt his hand between my shoulder blades and he propelled me forwards so that I had to step quickly to keep my feet under me. He shouldn't have done that.

CHAPTER 2

The unrestrained door swung out easily and I stepped through. I had to grab the edge of the door to keep it from slamming into the brick wall of the building. Like lightning it happened.

Almost without my willing it, my hands both slammed the door against the cop's forearm. The window broke and showered him with broken glass. The edge of the door caught his wrist against the jam and the pistol discharged. I put my body weight against the door and the pistol fell to the sidewalk.

I reached through the shattered window and grabbed the front of his shirt. Buttons popped but I managed to pull his upper body through the full length window opening. His feet were caught on the lower part of the door and he toppled forward through the shattered opening.

I forced his fist up behind his back and managed to guide him so that he fell to the sidewalk on his chest and skidded up against the post that supported the stop sign. I leaped astride his buttocks and pushed his arm even higher up his back.

Please try to get up! I shouted. I really want to break your arm off and beat you with it!

The fight went out of him and I could feel his body relax. His chin had struck the sidewalk when he went down. That might have taken the resistance out of him.

The red haze was receding. I became aware that people were coming out of the restaurant. Voices could be heard. Jen's foot extended into the range of my vision and pushed the pistol away from us.

Call nine-one-one, Jen, I gasped. Somebody needs to come get this guy!

Already done. a