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I'm not sure if I have been lost in thoughts or succeeded in dozing off, but I start paying attention again when the swaying and bumping stops and the roar of the engine dies. Outside the early dawn awaits us. A golden glow separates the serrated horizon from a cloudless sky. The sun is getting ready to scorch the world and those who dare to walk it.

Mom halts at the top of the hill. An old, sparse forest surrounds us, residing in an undulating landscape of low hills and rocky outcrops. We must have left the highway some time ago, and I didn't even notice. The gravel road in front of us twists, disappearing and reappearing behind the trees. Two trails, too small for cars, lead to the left and the right. When I look behind us there's asphalt, but it's neither straight nor smooth.

Our way forward is blocked by a barrier. The sign on the barrier tells me we're about to enter land under the management of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. I'm pretty sure Mom and I are going to ignore the 'No unauthorized access' line below it. There's enough space to drive around the barrier, and deep tracks show that's what other people have been doing.

"Hello, sleepyhead," Mom says. She's dividing her attention between a map, her phone, and a sign next to the road. The latter says, 'Victory Cabin, 2 miles'. Mom's mostly a disaster when it comes to navigating, but now and again she displays the unerring direction sense of a pigeon traveling home. Sometimes, unfortunately, it's the wrong home.

I rub my eyes, then try to work the kinks out of my back. My voice creaks. "This ain't Kansas anymore."

"No, it isn't. Never has been. Are you ready?"

I stretch and yawn. The clock glued to the dash tells me it's half-past five. A glorious early morning. "A night without sleep -" I begin.

"- is an extra day in your life," Mom finishes. "I don't care to get much closer, they might hear us."

"No guards?"

She shakes her head, frowning at her map. It's a satellite image printed on six letter-sized sheets then hastily taped together. "None that I could sense."

"Where did you get that?"

"Friends, internet, front desk. He's making good money on us, that clerk."

"You did that in ten minutes?"

"Yeah. I spend the other ten in the lobby waiting for you."

I stick out my tongue at her and she returns the favor.

"Instead of lazing about, you could have been studying the lay of the land. Here." Mom hands me a single sheet of paper. It's a smaller version of the map. "I'd say forty-five minutes, sixty tops. Make it half an hour if you hurry. There's a trail that leads all the way there."

"There being?"

"There being this." She shows me her phone. It's a hazy image of what might be a large wood-log cabin. "Bring some flares and assume everyone carrying a weapon is hostile. Try to keep someone alive, if possible this one." She flips my smaller map so the face of the stranger comes up.

"Why not?"

"He seems to be important to your friend, the man in the white suit. Did you know that people tend to become less valuable when they are dead? Anyway, rescue him if he needs rescuing, shoot him if he needs to be shot. If neither, come back. Light a green flare if I have to come and pick you up. He… might be the reason why we're here."

"Why the hurry? Why is this guy so important that we don't take the time to scout the place? What if it's a trap or has nothing to do with him? With us?"

"I don't know. It just feels like he's important. I have this sense of urgency, that we just might be too late. I'll give you an hour. If I hear nothing I'll drive to the cabin myself, either to save you or to provide a distraction. Can you do it?"

"You dragged my sorry ass all the way here, so why ask?" I give her a peck on the cheek. "I think I'll have my coffee now."

Mom throws in a sandwich and watches me gulp it down with three cups of lukewarm black goo. I need all the caffeine I can get. Once outside I put on some camo face paint and smear some of the black stuff in my hair. Mom hands me last night's baseball cap. I rub green camo over the logo on the front and decide that'll have to do.

"Be careful," Mom says. "You want your vest?"

I hesitate, then shake my head. She gives me a short hug and a kiss on the top of my head before letting me go. Just before I enter the trail I turn and ask her what she is going to do.

"Bury a landmine, listen to some music, and write a novel if you keep procrastinating. Now go!"

"Yes, mother..."

The trail is easy to follow. Now and again it approaches the gravel road, even crossing it twice. I'm not encountering any deer, landmines, or lost natives. The trek is uneventful and allows me to consider my very limited knowledge of the Native American tribes. They must have taught us at school, but I guess I've been out that day.

It's quiet. I don't run into people, and the only animal I encounter is a large, black bird that takes off when I disturb its breakfast. The half-eaten mouse-thing it leaves behind looks delicious.

I almost stumble past the ragged edge of the forest. A low bush offers just enough cover to study the cabin without being spotted myself. The cabin is a two-story building, fitted out with heavy shutters suitable for a winters' day. The windows overlooking the parking lot are all open. The faded orange curtains beyond have all been drawn closed. The size of the gravel lot in front of the cabin suggests it's set up to accommodate larger groups of visitors, but right now there are just two vehicles. One's a hulking black Silverado, the other a similarly oversized Chevrolet Suburban with tinted glass. An irregular ditch surrounds both the cabin and the parking lot.

I check my watch. It's a little after six in the morning when the man with the shotgun walks into sight. I crawl to a better spot and study him through my rifle's scope. Unibrow, grey whiskers, the hint of a mustache. He's carrying a shotgun over his shoulder, and a revolver tucked behind his belt.

The terrain between the edge of the forest and the cabin is adorned with stray patches of grass and some ailing shrubs, but most of it is bare rock. There's no easy way to approach from this side without being seen. I'm about to pull back and try from another direction when there's movement at the front door. Two men, both carrying assault rifles, drag a woman in an orange coverall with them. They lead her to the edge of the parking lot and push her to her knees before walking back to the armed guard. The three men swap cigarettes and have a rather lively discussion. The woman just sits there, looking at nothing, hands tied behind her back. I study her face. If the armed guard didn't provide a clue we're in the right place, then those familiar red eyes do.

I'm so focused on the woman that I almost miss the guard walking up to her. He draws his revolver and shoots her in the back of the head. Just like that. My heart skips a beat. Once my hands no longer shake I study the faces of the other two men. They're laughing.

Soon after the shot a lithe shape steps through the front door and yells something at them. Her face is hidden behind a simple white mask with only slits for eyes, but her slender shape, the long, wavy brown hair, and the way she moves suggest she's a woman. She and the two jailers go back in, leaving the guard outside. He busies himself pushing the dead body further into the ditch.

I fumble with my hearing protection, grabbing a spare when I drop the second plug. It doesn't take long before the next prisoner is escorted out, wearing that same kind of orange coverall. This time it's an elderly man. When he sees the dead body he falls to his knees and starts crying. His jailers just drag him along and drop him close to the ditch. The guard with the handgun makes another joke and the three men laugh again. Frell this.

I chamber a bullet.

The guard slowly lifts his gun. He aims.

So do I.

Assume all those armed are unfriendly.

Safety. Off. Finger on the trigger. Breathe in. Breathe out. Pull. The killer guard goes down before he can take care of his next victim. It's a messy headshot - still it's better than he deserves.

Re-aim. Breathe in. Out. Halt. Pull. The jailors are running. I hit the left one in his back and he tumbles forward. That's number two.

The third man zig-zags, trying to reach the cover of the cars. Just before he reaches the Suburban I send three bullets his way... and miss. Fire returns from the top floor of the cabin. Someone must have guessed my location or saw the muzzle flash. He or she is spraying. I empty the rest of the magazine into the window where I see curtains move, and the shooting stops.

I crawl back. If they have scopes and brains I make an easy target. Move it, move it, move it!

Someone near the cabin is shouting, more gunfire sounds like the fourth of July. I wonder who or what they are shooting at. I walk through shadows, follow the trail back, then turn east. I cross the gravel road and find shelter behind a rocky outcropping. I can't see the cabin from here, but I have a clear view of the road. Any moment now...

The V8 engine of the Suburban produces a mighty belt when the SUV comes into view. I unload a full clip on automatic, but the bullets just bounce off the thing. Armored, of course. This must be my lucky day. I'm still swapping for another magazine when the Silverado follows on its heels, the woman behind the wheel. Her eyes shine through the slits of her mask. They're green, green like mine. I replace the clip, then fire at the pickup as it roars by. The truck doesn't seem to be armored, but I can't have hit anything important because it picks up even more speed barreling down the road, pelting me with gravel. I take out the red flare, light it, and throw it in the middle of the road. Mom, I hope you're smart enough to hide 'cause bandits are coming your way.

I move further east, then north, circling the cabin, looking for a new spot with the sun in my back. There's no telling how many people were in that Suburban, but I have a feeling it was just the driver trying to get away. In my mind, I picture the cars' interiors and count the seats. Assume there were eight. Two left the site, two went down, leaving at least four armed opponents. Someone might be doubling back from one of the cars, someone might have sneaked out of the cabin, trying to get the jump on me. Stay pessimistic, I tell myself. There might be a whole gangsta' meet-and-greet going on, with all the guests munching on a standing buffet, waiting for the limos to take them home.

I keep moving until I find a large boulder surrounded by low bushes, the rock itself big enough to cover me even when standing upright. I'm about to peek at the cabin when I hear the sound of an explosion from the south. A plume of black smoke rises to the sky. The distraction nearly gets me killed. I'm just lucky my attacker isn't more careful. One of my opponents did sneak out of the cabin. A rock skittles, a nearby bush rustles. I drop my rifle, roll to the left and lose my cap. My opponent fires two bullets which hit the boulder, right where my head was seconds earlier. He was too hasty, and perhaps a crappy shooter, but his shots came way too close for comfort. Sometimes even hero-wannabees can get lucky.

I crawl further to the left to make sure there's a lot of stone between me and the shooter. Then I draw my handgun and look around. On this side, the cover towards the cabin is thin, at best. Continue or go back? He'll face the same conundrum as we both circle the rock. I have a fifty-fifty chance to run straight into my close opponent, and that's the moment this becomes a game of reflexes second, luck first.

But I can't stay here either. Someone with a rifle and a good eye could pick me off easily. I hunker down to listen. I can hear him move, and then he goes silent as well. Damn. I grab a handful of stones and throw them over the rock as a distraction, and immediately something hard hits me on the head. We both curse. He did the same thing, the smartass. Left or right? Think, Ellen, think.

An automatic rifle barks and a stream of bullets cuts through the bushes and hits the boulder above me. Sparks fly everywhere. Someone at the cabin must have spotted me. He's on autofire, the barrel climbing with the sparks moving upwards. I'm not going to wait for the gunner to pause and re-aim. I go left, clockwise, and take to the shadows. My opponent does the opposite, and we meet in the middle.

There's that split moment in time where we see each other and both pull the trigger.

I imagine the heat scorching my face, the muzzle flash burning my hair, the bullet missing my skull by an inch. He shouldn't miss this close, but he does and misses by a mile.

I don't.

My Five-Seven barks twice, and I step over his dead body before it touches the ground. There's no time to consider what I just did. I didn't come here to kill, but I am prepared to do so. Mom trained me well.

I move on until I've come full circle again, the boulder sitting firm between me and the cabin. My ears ring but the shooting has stopped. When I find my rifle still laying there I slide down, my back against the rock. The stone is already warm from the morning sun.

The rifle seems fine when I pick it up. I check it, then wait until I can hear other things besides my loud beating heart and the ringing in my ears. Any closer and I'd be deaf for the next two weeks, despite my earplugs. I carefully take them out and the hearing-nothing fades into hearing-something.

Another barrage hits the other side of the rock. It's cover fire for another attacker or the shooter got bored. I take my two remaining flares, light them, then throw them over the boulder. What's needed now is distance. When I estimate the yellow and green clouds to be at their thickest I take my rifle and sprint away from the boulder, keeping the rock between me and the cabin. Twenty yards. Thirty yards. Forty. Fifty…

The shooting starts again and I drop flat. I'm not in a good spot yet, so I crawl forward until an indentation in the rocky soil welcomes me. The hollow turns out to be a natural ditch, leading away from the boulder and the cabin. I hug its uneven bottom as best as I can, praying nobody will spot my sorry ass, and promise myself to go easy on chocolate chip cookies from now on.

Keep going, Ellen. Keep that ass down.

Halfway I meet a snake. The creature is just as surprised as I am, hisses and slithers away. That's a good snake. We both manage to ignore all the spiders weaving their webs in the early morning sun.

Fortunately, I don't run into any rabbits.

The further I go, the better my cover becomes. Once I feel like I've hurt myself enough I peek over the edge of the trench. I'm a good distance away from my original hiding place, and there are more bushes and bigger trees here, protecting me from watchful eyes. From my new position, I can just make out the backside of the building, the one facing north. It has a few small, window-like slits at ground floor level, but no openings higher up in its facade. A single, built-out stone chimney reaches all the way from the ground floor to the top.

As I watch, a big, black bird lands on the edge of the roof. It gives me the evil eye, then haughtily looks away. I wonder if it's the bird I met in the forest, and if it's still angry at me because I interrupted its breakfast. None of the gunshots seem to bother the creature, which is odd.

More gunfire follows. Maybe someone in the cabin thinks I'm still in my old hiding spot, or they simply hate that boulder.

The natural trench continues onward, though it gets less and less pronounced until it meets a low man-made wall. I can't fathom the purpose of this wall but it does provide additional cover, and it leads past the rear of the building, continuing into the forest on the other side.

I hide my rifle under a bush, then crawl forward and count to ten. Nothing. A little hop and I'm on the other side of the low wall. Still nothing, except for a distant hum approaching. It's an engine, a car, moving slowly. I continue crawling along the low stone wall, then take a quick look at the west side of the cabin. The building casts a long shadow with the sun still that low. In the shadow hides a lean-to running along the length of the cabin. It shelters rows of stacked, green-mossed firewood. And a door.

I sneak alongside the firewood up to the door and peek through the window. A barebones kitchen awaits me, with rusty pans hanging from pegs. The one sturdy table in the middle carries a portable gas stove and a motley collection of food products, mostly instant stuff. This gourmet restaurant lost its star a few decades ago. I reach for the doorknob when the car reaches the cabin. Gravel crunches under knobby tires before the car comes to a full stop. A door opens and closes, and I hear a familiar voice call out, "Hallo? Is daar iemand?"

With a sinking feeling I recognize the voice as Mom's.

 

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About the author

The Real Angel Jay

Bio: I write bad fiction. In poor English. In all other aspects I'm just like a normal person. Please note that I'm a not a native English speaker (so any help is welcome).

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