Bill Pieper's all-American story of a rugged widower faced with a moral dilemma when his good friend commits an unforgivable act.
It was a kitchen chair in his own house, and all Wes could do was wait for goddamn Mike to call the sheriff, like he'd promised. Eventually he would, too. In one package, the guy could be the best you'd ever meet or the biggest hardhead you'd wish you hadn't.
But, God, how Char had loved him, as if he was the son she and Wes lost years ago in that still-birth. And this kitchen was really hers. Wes had just been the helper in here, and out the big window, her bird-feeder, busy in the golden October light. She was gone fourteen months now from a sudden stroke and still owned his thoughts, night or day.
His leg spasmed again. Crap! Almost one o'clock, he'd been tied like this since nine-thirty and it hurt like hell. How long did goddamn Mike need? Wes forced his eyes back to the window, where flitting sparrows and the sun's shifting angle were his best distraction.
The entire morning had been gorgeous too, even before Mike walked up the driveway and Wes emerged from rifling the chicken coop for fresh eggs. Plumas County, around Quincy anyway, was supposedly too cold for hens, but he and Char had gotten the hang of it when they'd retired to an old farmhouse on the edge of town. Until then, their local presence had been summers at Rhino, a mining claim up the next ridge on Mineral Creek that Char had inherited soon after their marriage. The claim Mike now worked, along with an adjoining one he'd staked for himself, sometime before. They'd met him when a bear trashed Char's family cabin, and Mike, unasked, came over to help with clean-up and repairs.
"Where's that truck of yours?" Wes called, cradling the egg basket as Mike advanced.
Mike glanced over his shoulder and drew closer. "Up at the claim. Thought I'd hike to town." He wore a watch cap and sturdy boots, with a camo jacket and daypack.
"Bit of a walk," Wes said, knowing it was four miles down a rugged canyon, or double that taking La Porte Road. "How 'bout breakfast?"
Mike smiled, but looked worried. "I was hopin' ya'd ask."
The no truck aspect was unusual, but to Char and Wes, or Wes now, Mike's showing up without notice was a welcome diversion. Sometimes he'd just drop off gold for his rent on the claim, or sometimes could be talked into accepting a meal or a shower and shelter from rough weather, and other times would only have a beer and swap stories. Corny as it seemed, Wes even envied how Mike lived the male romantic dream.
He could bag a deer, catch trout and find gold when nobody else got much past go. Age-wise, he was thirty-five, well built, and carried himself in a compact, balanced way, like a boxer you'd never land a punch on. At sixteen he'd run off from Northern Michigan, ridden the rails and done things to get across the country that he always kept vague. Yet through it all, he'd acquired no visible scars, lost none of his straight, white teeth, nor any luster in the chestnut hair that Char had loved to trim. He was smart, too, and read pretty much anything Wes or Char, former community college faculty from L.A., would recommend.
Inside the two men sucked on a pot of coffee while Wes prepped one of his potato-egg-ham scrambles and dug hot sauce from the fridge. Not much talking at that point, or as they ate, which was fine. They'd long been comfortable together and, sooner or later, what needed to be said would be.
"Your cupboard well stocked?" Mike asked, eyes averted. "I might need some stuff."
Wes chuckled. "Not a problem. What goes?"
"I was gonna' tell ya'... except it's hard." Mike, fidgeting with the buttons on his flannel shirt, let out a groaning sigh. "I shot Terry Burwell last night."
"Jesus!" Wes said. "He still alive?" For eight or ten seconds, the tick of the antique clock in the hall was the loudest sound in the room.
"That's a no. Shot him in the head."
Wes's voice got quiet. "You're in big trouble, my friend."
Even so, Wes thought, half the time Burwell, with his rat-toothed overbite and junkie tattoos, might deserve it. Dirty, drunk, abusive and dishonest were the words that came to mind. Yet Mike got along with him as much as anybody and in a strange way, Burwell looked up to Mike and would follow him around.
The summer Mike first arrived downstream of Rhino, Terry hadn't been a month behind in staking his own slice of canyon bordering Mike's. Word was that the two of them knew each another from living outside Gibsonville, in Sierra County, mining and maybe involved in the meth trade. Or Terry was. Wes never got a sense of that from Mike.
Mike, meanwhile, continued to avoid Wes's eyes and stared into the china hutch. "Yeah, I'm in fuck-all for trouble," he finally said. "I need your help."
"Only help I can give is drive you to the sheriff's office," Wes answered, right in line with what he'd always taught his students in business ethics and contract law.
Mike showed a twisted smile. "Probably good advice, but I'm not takin' that route. Not for f-ing Burwell."
"Then what?" Wes said, picturing Mike's hunting rifle and his Glock .45. "Go fugitive and die in a shootout with extra blood on your hands? Use your damn brain."
"There won't be no shootout. My guns are at the claim. If they catch me, I accept it real sweet, but fugitive I can handle. That's where you come in." Mike's hand fumbled into the daypack he'd arrived with.
"Thanks, no," Wes told him. "I'm not abetting murder."
Mike thumped a fat white gym sock on the table, big brother to the one he employed as a wallet. It was tied at the ankle and Wes knew what was inside - a zip-lock bag filled with coarse pieces of gold, some in a matrix of spidery quartz, some like granular crystals and others, thin and crinkled as foil. By its heft, in fact, more gold in one place than Wes had imagined seeing outside a museum. "Shit," he said, "that's thousands a' dollars."
Mike shrugged. "Life's savings, guess you'd say. Keep what you think I owe on this season's rent and hide the rest somewhere private. I'll arrange gettin' it back on the QT if I succeed. If I don't, you're bound to know from the local paper. Then use it to hire me the best lawyer you can find."
"No. Use it now yourself and hire a lawyer."
"Like I say, Burwell ain't worth that. Not till I try somethin' else. Besides, Wes, Char would want ya' to, and you know it."
Wes blanched, didn't have an answer, and could be Mike was right. "You still haven't told me why it happened," he said, buying time to think.
"Because he's an asshole," Mike said.
"There's plenty of assholes who don't get shot."
"He was a drugged-out, lazy, claim-jumping asshole, and I got fed up. You oughta' thank me, actually, 'cause he was jumpin' Rhino worse. He'd wait till I was away, then move all his stakes upstream ten inches, bump mine the same and bump just your lower ones. Do that a few times, and his claim's a yard bigger and better, Rhino shrinks and mine stays equal. Fucker didn't think I'd notice."
"That stuff's for John Wayne. Just call in the Forest Service."
"They'd find some rule and shut my claim down too. I even warned Burwell. Said I'd fuck him up bad if he tried it again, but right at sunset, I got back and caught him boozed up and in the act. Swung his hand-sledge at me and kept coming. Now he's dead."
"Jesus!" Wes said. "Lying there for the buzzards and coyotes. No one deserves that."
"Maybe not," Mike answered. "But I rocked a tarp over him and you'll send the sheriff this afternoon."
"Great, then I'm complicit. We'll both be in jail."
"Got that figured, but it only works if you let me tie you up."
"Let you what?"
"Wes, think about it. For your own protection, that's how it has to be. I'd hate to use force. You'll never take me one-on-one, and I need your car and your phone. You'll get 'em back quick, no harm done, but like I say, has to be, and right in that chair."
Wes slowly slumped his shoulders in resignation and saw Mike pull a coiled rope out of his pack. "I'm not sure who's the biggest dumb-shit," Wes said, "you or me."
With Wes immobilized, Mike knocked over his own chair and skidded their plates and cups haphazardly across the table, putting one upside down on the floor. He wedged his gold way in under the fireplace woodpile, picked up Wes's phone and keys from the sideboard and apologized about fifteen times as he came back holding duct tape and another sock. Wes hadn't seen that coming, but to complete the illusion that he'd resisted and been subdued, the necessity was plain enough.
By now Wes's leg hurt almost how it did when he first took shrapnel, a full-on throbbing pain. Maybe if he was into meditation, like Char used to be, these last hours wouldn't seem so long. As it was, his vision narrowed to pinpoints and something like hallucinations arose, his throat dry as borax and his arms intermittently fighting against the rope.
He was back at Rhino, looking into the water but looking up from beneath it at the same time. The claim's prize was the largest, deepest pool on Mineral Creek, in summer a thrilling topaz-aquamarine from the pale granite of its basin and the blue Sierra sky. Char was still alive, too, he could hear her chattering with Mike, who often worked nearby.
Yes, there were trout, plus shallows warm enough for a mid-summer swim, and of course, gold. The unusual name came from the huge rhinoceros-shaped rock, complete with a head, protruding horn and curled-forward ears, that shouldered into the downstream end like a real rhino, forcing the outflow through narrow chutes on either side. Better yet, back when you still could, the claim had been patented, meaning that Char held full title to its water and mining rights, the land and the funky old cabin.
Thanks to that technicality, Mike had ended up with a roof over his head, which Wes and Char would share during their own visits. It also allowed Mike the freedom to dam and redirect stream flows during winter and spring, when the water was high, murky and ice-cold. Whatever the season, though, he always free-dove, wearing a weighted belt to counter the buoyancy of his wetsuit, and could hold his breath like a porpoise, levering boulders into new positions with a giant crowbar that Wes could barely lift.
The effect was to concentrate gold and gravel in the deeper pockets on Rhino for later sluicing, after transport to shore in a perforated bucket. It likewise seeded Mike's own claim downstream, and remnants possibly got all the way to where Burwell was set up. Whether this counted as legal, Wes didn't know, but with motorized dredging now banned, it was a shrewd alternative. On the newer, unpatented claims, like Mike's, you just got surface rights to mine and camp, were at the mercy of the Forest Service for an annual permit, and couldn't interfere with natural features or build a structure.
Clomp, clomp, clomp. Footsteps on the wraparound porch, and the swirling shimmer of Rhino's aquamarine water instantly swirled away. Then came a male voice. "Mr. Moller! Wes Moller! You OK?"
Wes's head snapped up, into a glare of daylight. A silhouette trod past the window and his throat made a pathetic keening, the only sound it was capable of. "Mr. Moller!" the voice called, closer and louder. "What's going on?"
Sharp knocks on the door were followed by a pause and the metallic rattle of the latch, unlocked per normal. "Comin' in. Hope ya' don't mind." More clomping and a shadowed figure entered the room. "Jesus!" it said.
Wes went limp and would've fallen absent the ropes. The shadow became a blurry, uniformed officer, gun drawn. "Anybody else around?" he asked. Wes swiveled his head no, and with that, his sight sharpened. A senior deputy, Steve Ibarra, whose family ran the local hardware. "What the hell, Wes?" he said. "Let's get you free."
In one motion, Ibarra holstered the gun, exchanging it for a knife. A sharp one that cut quickly, so Wes could soon use his right arm, then his left, then his good leg, and the other, which made him groan into the gag as he straightened it out. "Sorry," Ibarra said, "and hang on. This tape'll hurt too."
It did, tearing at Wes's cheeks and upper lip, but not like the blow-torch in his knee. He tried for thank you and nothing came out. "Easy, man," Ibarra said. Wes heard him at the sink and a glass of water was thrust into Wes's fingers. When he got some down, it tasted better than cold beer on a hot afternoon.
Ibarra waited maybe fifteen seconds. "Think you're OK?" he asked, and Wes nodded weakly, flexing his sore knee. "What happened here?" Ibarra added.
"Mike Stoltz," Wes heard himself croak. "Damn fool has my car, my phone and left me like this."
"Thought you guys were buddies."
"We are, except he shot Terry Burwell up at Mineral Creek, and is on the run."
"Shit, that's big." Ibarra had a notepad and began writing. "You think it was him who called us?"
"Said he would, once he got on his way."
"To where?" Ibarra pressed. He was actually tall, Wes now realized, but all in the legs, so his abbreviated torso made him seem stooped and shorter when his patrol car went by.
"No idea," Wes said. "But get somebody up the canyon while there's light. Could be Burwell's alive and bleeding, just below Rhino."
"I'm on it," Ibarra replied, grabbing the radio from his belt.
Two days later, Wes retrieved his Toyota Rav-4 and his phone during the same visit to the sheriff's compound that he'd scheduled for making an official statement. They grilled him hard about where Mike had gone, but he'd insisted over and over that he didn't know, which came naturally because he didn't. Wes hadn't thought to mention the food Mike took, and later, when he did remember, it didn't seem important.
They'd found the Rav-4, keys under the mat, ten miles east of town shouldered against the railroad berm at Williams Loop, and the phone, showing fresh dings on its case, tossed in the gravel along the tracks fifteen miles west near the Keddie Wye. All they'd had to do was invoke the ping feature. Mike's anonymous call to summon a deputy had been placed on it, along with two more to a cheap motel in Marysville. During the snowy months, Mike would sometimes retreat there and work in the orchards, spraying and pruning.
The loop is where trains in both directions have to slow way down because the track makes a tight circle and crosses over itself for a thousand-foot change in elevation. The wye is another pinch point, with two trestles joining at a tough angle and slow speeds required. Keddie was also where local cell service turned spotty.
It seemed a no-brainer that Mike caught a westbound freight at the loop and discarded the phone after slipping back through Quincy. The known train times even bore that out. As expected, they'd found Burwell dead, and nearby, a hand sledge and the Glock pistol, minus one round. A big manhunt cranked up, the Plumas paper covered every breathless detail, and on Sacramento TV, it was the lead story for a week. Gold, claim-jumping, murder, a train-hopping fugitive - who could resist?
Following the disruption and craziness of the whole thing, Wes was glad to get his life back, yet it didn't feel like his life. No Char, and suddenly no Mike, with the sense that his grief had been reset to day one as the weather turned dark and cold. Part of him wanted to go up to Rhino, but the fact of Burwell's murder put a pall over that too, which he worried might be permanent. Soon enough, though, the idea became moot. A heavy winter rolled in and Mineral Creek accumulated six feet of snow.
At Christmas he flew to San Diego for a visit with his notably preoccupied daughter, still in grief over the loss of her mother, but the brighter, milder days did help him revive. Months went by with no further word from or about Mike, yet Wes was sure his mail was being monitored at the post office, and he joked with Ibarra after running into him in the lobby, "Anything interesting in my box?" Wes also regained some of his footing by signing up to sub at the college, tutoring in the library's literacy program and by pursuing friendships he'd let wane after Char's death, plus a new one with a lawyer who'd just retired up there.
He didn't know if he was rooting for Mike or against him. Wes didn't buy standard religion, but he had his own list of sins and murder was right at the top. There were obviously mitigating circumstances, but Burwell's being a lowlife didn't justify Mike's dodging out. Maybe Wes should have resisted more back in October, like a real father, and gotten Mike to make the right choice. The gold, meanwhile, had migrated into the hollow of a concrete block sealed over with ready-mix and placed in Wes's garage to support yard tools.
In that mode, spring and summer came, Wes ended up with new and fairly worthwhile neighbors at Rhino, and to his relief the Terry Burwell saga faded from immediate mention and memory. But then, in early September, he got home from going downtown for groceries and his mail, and saw a thin envelope with no postmark or address on the kitchen table. Hand delivered, clearly, by someone covert, and his neck hairs prickled at the thought.
Inside, a simple paragraph in familiar handwriting: "Hope you don't mind a little travel. Please call 775-431-6258. Use a safe phone and leave a message for Cass. She'll meet you at the 76 Truck Depot in Elko, NV with further instructions. Give her a week's lead-time, but say when and on what date. I'm ready to hook up with that lost sock. Be well, my friend. Am still sorry about the rope and duct tape. Do me another favor and burn this."
Wes took the Rav-4 across northern Nevada later that month, on through Reno, Sparks, Lovelock, Winnemucca and Battle Mountain. He no longer worried about being followed and doubted his mail was monitored now either. Ibarra, in a recent conversation said that Mike's trail had gone cold in California and his case was up for referral to the FBI. It looked as if Wes would get away with his part in all this, but a sock full of gold might not buy Mike the future he expected.
As for the drive, Wes liked northern deserts - the distorted perspectives and huge distances causing every ridge and landmark to look close enough to touch, yet you never seemed to reach them. And oddly, it turned you in on yourself, made it easier to think things through. Same with the weird color palate. More shades of brown and gray than anyone knew existed - taupe, ochre, steel, umber, pewter, cocoa, tobacco, coal ash, nutmeg, pecan - an endless list, and more subtle than the paint-box pinks of the Southwest. Then the greenery, such as it was, all had a frosted look - sagebrush, mesquite, scrub juniper, Russian olive, the undersides of cottonwood leaves. Only the irrigated alfalfa was green in any normal way.
If he lived here, the drabness was bound to wear on him, but the brooding contrast with where he did live had somehow clarified his options. So he was OK with pulling into Elko and with a night at the Truck Depot motel, and glad for a new chance to help Mike, whatever form that took. Wes had set his meeting tomorrow with this go-between person, Cass, for 8:30 a.m., but how they were supposed to recognize each other had never been explained.
Truck stop breakfasts are greasy breakfasts, and Wes's didn't disappoint. Eggs over easy, sausage, hash-browns, watery coffee, the usual, but if you loaded up on ketchup it hit the spot. Head down, he ate amid a crowded, noisy, blue-collar ritual and was thinking of Mike, Rhino and all those good days when someone - she had to be Cass - slipped in across from him. "You look just like you did on my drop in Quincy," she said, smiling.
Not that he recognized her, not in the least, but right away this was a gal for Mike, the alpha female to his alpha male. Forty, Wes figured, slim and dusky blonde, no makeup or earrings, but good-looking, with a ponytail, a long-sleeve T, a fleece vest for the morning chill and plenty of attitude. "Thanks for the envelope," he said, sticking out his hand.
She shook it, more like a man than a woman. "Easy enough. Our friend told me exactly where you lived."
"Want some food?"
"Just coffee, if it deserves the name. I ate at the counter and had you under watch." She rotated her upside down mug and gestured at a waitress. "You weren't followed."
"Good," he nodded. "How much do you know?"
"Our friend's on the run. I'm not clear for what, but it's safer if he doesn't tell me. Do you have his sock?"
"Yes, and strictly for him. No intermediaries."
She laughed. "He wants to see you too, but you're more compromised that way. This was for surveillance... and to give you an out." Her coffee came and she drank a swallow.
"I'm not looking for an out." He mopped the last of his eggs with some toast.
She studied his face. "OK, it's on you, three o'clock today. Here's a map to memorize and destroy. The X is a campground. He'll hike down for a meeting. Our friend helps me oversee a rich dude's ranch using a name you've never heard of." Below the table, she passed Wes a folded piece of paper. "Open it someplace private."
Abandoning her mug, she stood. "Hope you won't mind if I excuse myself."
"Guess not," he said, and started to rise himself, but she shook her head no.
"I see why he admires you, Wes. A classy guy, just like he told me." Then she walked away in a pair of Western-cut jeans that a female trying to avoid attention shouldn't wear. But she did raise the stakes for Mike in a way Wes hadn't anticipated.
Back at his motel, which he booked for a second night, Wes studied the map, shredded it between his thumbs and sent it down the toilet. He was supposed to drive thirty miles south to a town called Lamoille and take a numbered Forest Service road into the Ruby Mountains. Ten miles out, just before the road crossed the creek he'd be following, was the campground. He hoped no one else would be using it, in case something went wrong, but first he had one of the toughest decisions of his life to make and possibly other folks to talk to here in Elko.
The Rubies, as you got closer to them, were real mountains. Several of the peaks pushed 11,000 feet his road atlas said, and from below, still featured isolated snowfields, with heavy forest cover and running streams, as if a stray chunk of the Sierras had fallen from the sky hundreds of miles east.
But the road in was good, dusty as hell, but good. On cue with his odometer, a sign pointed left to a campground, while straight ahead a wooden bridge crossed the creek. "Well," he said aloud, "here's the turnoff." The spur track was narrower and rougher, more like going up to Rhino, so he took it slow and deliberate, arriving in an open area littered with fallen needles under a high canopy of Ponderosas. Fire pits and cross-legged tables, two with SUVs parked close by, were set along the perimeter.
He drove farther in, toward tables well removed from the occupied ones. Killing the ignition, he checked his watch. The only thing at this point was to wait and scope out the neighbors. A group of hunters, he figured, likely stalking sage hens later on, but now at their campsite for an afternoon break. And to the right, a picnicking family, parents and two kids, with a tablecloth and coolers, laughing as they started to toss a Frisbee. "So far," Wes sighed, "quiet and calm." Then there was movement in the corner of his eye. A guy about Mike's size, with a full beard and wearing a trucker's cap, slid from behind a tree and sat at the table near its base, thirty yards away.
Wes got out, knee stiff from driving, and walked towards him. From ten yards, the smile was undeniably Mike's, and at ten feet, he jumped up, in cowboy boots and a jeans jacket. "Hey, old timer," Mike beamed. "Been way too long."
Like it was the most natural thing in the world, they embraced and kept holding on. "Lookin' good, Mike," Wes said, into his ear. "How the hell are ya'?" They released and backed up a step, facing each other. Mike's eyes seemed as moist as Wes's felt.
"How I am is lucky," Mike finally said. "It's come up cherries, especially havin' you here. And you've already met Cass."
"Not a woman I'd forget," Wes nodded. "I'm doing OK myself, except this damn knee. Took longer to get past losing Char with you not around, but I've made my peace now as much as I ever will."
"I hated not bein' there." Mike said, then smiled just with his lips. "You forgive me yet... about the rope?"
"Almost." Wes had a smile too.
"So what's up in Quincy and at Rhino... law-wise and everything?"
Feet supported by the bench, they sat shoulder to shoulder on the table, facing into the forest and talking. Soon, though, Mike brought up his lost sock.
"In the Rav-4," Wes said, fighting a wave of nervousness, "but that can wait till I find out how you got here. It's a long way from the Keddie Wye."
"Not too hard if you know your way around," Mike responded. "The trick was to make like I rode the rails all the way west. Dumped your car where they were sure to spot it and left your phone GPS on. Except at Keddie, I hopped down, waded the Feather and climbed straight into the back country. I'd already stashed some gear above there before I hiked to your place that morning, and I've spent years in those mountains. "Scary part," Mike went on, plainly enjoying himself, "was winter coming in."
As the story unfolded, Wes could only admire Mike's grit. Staying off of open slopes and marked roads, he'd pushed hard for nearly a week, east to the Crest Trail, then skirting along it south toward Tahoe. The last day he faced heavy snowfall, but made it to Highway 80, helped an eastbound trucker put on chains and caught a ride Reno. Till spring, he lived in homeless camps, got a fake ID and worked day-labor, mainly with Mexicans.
People told him the Rubies were the remotest livable place close by, so he'd hitched and walked along back roads, set up camp in the ravine Wes had just driven, and used Lamoille for a trading post. "Yeow," Wes said, "hard core."
"I was nervous as a cat here at first," Mike added, "but about when I started feeling safe, I met Cass. After that, done deal."
"The beard is kind of handsome," Wes joked. "Char would've had fun trimming it."
"Cass works the scissors these days. But man, Char... like the greatest mom a guy'd ever have. Kinda' made up for the one I did have." He gave Wes a one-armed hug. "But I still need my sock."
Wes stiffened and Mike's arm fell away. "We both," Wes said, drawing a deep breath, "thought of you as a son." His whole body started to shake, as did his voice. "That's... that's why your gold wasn't the only thing I brought. There's an... an... Elko County sheriff hidden in the backseat, and another vehicle at the turnoff with dogs. They don't know about the gold, but... "
Mike leapt up and moved in on Wes, glaring. "You fucker! You piece of shit! Why would you do that!"
Voice almost recovered, Wes stood now too. "Because that first day I didn't," he said, not letting himself flinch or back down, "and if... if you were my son, I should have. I didn't call you on the bullshit about Char and how bad I'd lose one-on-one. But you'd never rough me up. You know it and so do I. And what Char would always want is that I'm true to my values. Your damn best bet was to trust the system with my backing, and it still is!"
"I can't believe you'd fuck me like this!"
"I'm not. Plumas is ready to bring in the FBI, and they'd find you anywhere. The Elko cops think you called me over here to surrender."
"Like hell!" Mike said disgustedly, looking over his shoulder as though he might run. But Wes's car door bumped shut and a deputy stood motionless in the Rav-4's shadow.
"OK, Mike, hear me. If you run or resist, you don't stand a chance. Then I tell them about the gold, which they'll seize as evidence. That blows your hope of a decent lawyer, and I'll drop you faster than a hot rock. But if you just give up, they guarantee you'll go straight back to Quincy, where I hire the lawyer, where the jury will know the kind of guy Burwell was, and you can plead self-defense or voluntary manslaughter with decent odds. Or if your money runs out, mine kicks in, and I'm still behind you a hundred percent."
"Fuck! Goddamn!" Mike said, thrashing his body like he was about to hit something.
"Cass can come anytime she wants. I'll have a room for her. We can both testify as character witnesses. It's all up to you."
Mike let out a groan and sat at the table, elbows on the surface, head in his hands. From across the parking area, the kids shrieked as their Frisbee flew almost all the way to Wes. "I hope that means yes," he said quietly, resting his hand on Mike's back.
"OK, yes," Mike said, strangling the words and heaving with sob-like breaths. "But you tell her where I am. You tell her."
Wes walked to the Frisbee and threw it to the smaller of the kids, a girl, who made a nice leaping catch. "Come ahead, officer," he called, continuing toward the Rav-4. "You can let your buddies know he's ready."