Paperwork complete and signals clear, Annie’s hand was reaching for the throttle when the radio chirped and Javier gestured for her to wait.
“Looks like we got a late add,” the conductor said, poking the touch screen of his onboard computer. “Just two. Couple of boxcars for us to drop at … Herbst? Is that right?”
“Herbst Junction?” Annie wrinkled her brow. “Really?”
“That’s what it says,” Javier keyed the mic and radioed the tower.
Herbst Junction was a tourist stop on the border of Many Lost Ways National Park. Backpackers took the steam train from Salvation Point there to hike into the backcountry. Crews used the short siding there as a runaround when sorting cars for the Flagstaff local, and occasionally as overflow when the Red Earth Co-op siding got crowded. But Herbst Junction was almost never listed as a destination for freight.
“Yardmaster says it’s right,” Javier reported. “Looks like … ‘mechanical equipment,’ no other description. Light loads – only five tons per car. This is weird.”
“Well,” Annie sighed. “At least they’ll be a couple thousand feet behind us.”
* * *
TJ looked over the river to the spot where his raft had disappeared into the current, then paced to the edge of the trees and stared in the direction Sarah Willoughby had fled.
He had a decision to make.
On an ordinary day, he could sit on the riverbank and within a couple of hours a raft trip would come by and pick him up. But there were no trips today, and he wasn’t sure there would be any tomorrow. He could follow the river on foot, a good 12 or 15 miles to the takeout at Herbst Junction, but the trail was iffy at best. He could turn inland to the backcountry and hope to come across the searchers.
Or he could try to follow the Senator’s daughter.
He breathed deeply for a moment, then plunged into the trees.
Tall and lean, and in reasonably good shape, he would have no trouble running down the presumably exhausted girl, if he went in the right direction. He scanned about for trails and saw at least five possibilities. Would she have gone uphill? Would she stick to the river? Would she stay in the cover of the trees?
TJ imagined a true outdoorsman would have useful insight, and he chastized himself for lacking such clarity. It was a conversation that constantly raged in the back of his mind – a small voice insisting that he belonged in a cubicle after all. He was constantly working to convince himself that he was strong enough, smart enough, clever enough to live this independent, unconventional life. Moving to the wilderness and living on the fringe wasn’t a lark. He was the real deal. He repeated it to himself over and over, but didn’t really believe it.
He wondered where Annie was, and wished she were with him. He wished he could ask her advice. She would know precisely which trail to follow. But if she had been along, he considered, they would probably be paddling home with Sarah Willoughby right now instead of wandering the woods with no way to even call for help.
He decided on the path of least resistance, not because he reasoned that she would, but to preserve his own energies. He jogged along the flattest path, which ran close to the river just inside the trees. He rounded a corner and for the second time in an hour came across Sarah, leaning against a tree.
She hadn’t seen him. She was 50 feet up the trail, tucked to the side in the shade, a bulky satellite phone to her ear. It took TJ a moment to realize it. A phone! His own cell phone was probably at the bottom of the river by now, but even if he had it he wasn’t likely to get a signal here. Hers seemed to be working.
It only took him a moment to decide – he would simply overpower her, take the phone, hold her down while he summoned help.
“Yeah, sure you will,” he told himself, doubt taking hold.
But his feet were already thundering down the trail.