Jack told Shadow to heel and headed up slope to get above the wrecked truck. He glanced over his shoulder before entering the thicker bush and saw the helicopter speeding off to the East. Putting Lou’s condition out of his mind, he concentrated on moving unseen to the truck. There was a chance one or more of the killers were in ambush nearby. He didn’t believe the chopper had set down more than a couple of hundred yards from the damaged truck. Moving quickly but quietly, he and Shadow moved through the scrub pine growth. Either a past fire or logging operation had cleared the slope of the taller pines and deciduous hardwoods. The footing was soft, making it easier to move at night without making noise. The temperature was dropping. He was dressed for the weather and had enough gear in his 40-pound pack to easily survive the cold climate for a few days.
By his dead reckoning, Jack was sure he was very near the truck. An east to west wind carried the distinct smell of gasoline. He stopped, put his hand on Shadow and crept down the slope. He saw the gravel road first and then saw the truck. Settling down with Shadow curled against him, they watched the truck. Jack expected that one person wounded or not would be left behind to slow pursuit.
After 15 minutes, he smelled tobacco smoke. Shadow looked up at him as if to say, what took you so long? Jack couldn’t believe a professional would do something as dumb as smoking in an ambush site, unless he was dying and needed the nicotine. Well, we can’t wait any longer and,leaving his rifle and pack concealed, gave Shadow the hand signal to follow.
Using the excellent cover of the pine growth, Jack and Shadow moved closer to the truck. Jack now had a clear view of the front of the Chevrolet pickup truck. Its gray color blended in with the surrounding edge of the forest. His SOCOM automatic was now in his hand. Watching the windshield from 25 feet, he saw the ember of a cigarette. Jack swung up the SOCOM, fired three times and, keeping low, charged the truck. Reaching up from his position below the door, he ripped the door open and pulled the man slumped against the door out of the truck. Turning the man face down Jack felt for his carotid pulse. Finding none, he rolled the man over. The cab interior lights came on with the opening of the door. This was no Arab. This guy looked American all the way. His wallet held only a few hundred in cash and a driver’s license that was probably false. Jack’s three shots caught him in the chest. The windshield showed a tight pattern. He had another wound in the abdomen that had to be from shots fired from the helicopter. His companions knew he would not live to talk. He might be able to slow pursuit.
Making a final check with one eye closed to preserve his night vision, Jack found a cell phone on the floor. He put it in his pocket and motioned to Shadow who followed him back to where his pack and rifle were temporarily cached. Going back to the truck, Jack opened the passenger door and motioned for Shadow to check out the scent. Shadow knew the drill. He had hours of tracking training five years ago that Jack kept current with games for finding people and objects. Shadow found a pair of black leather gloves on the floor under the passenger seat. He spent almost a minute nosing the gloves before jumping out of the cab and waiting for Jack to tell him to start tracking.
Jack pulled Shadow’s leash out of his pocket and motioned for Shadow to come over and get his leash snapped on. Jack knew Shadow wanted to run loose on the trail but tracking two snipers was different. They would see the dog as their main problem and set up for a long shot to kill the free-ranging tracking dog before his handler could get in position to cover the dog. While that wasn’t a problem at night, it would be when the sun came up. It was better anyway to work a tracker on a leash at night. Shadow would help Jack keep to the same trail as the snipers.
After the first hour they came to a small mountain stream with steep banks. After watching Shadow for a few minutes and listening to the forest sounds, Jack was sure the snipers were not close by and shielding his flashlight he examined the stream bank. Sure enough, Shadow was right on the trail. He could see the marks in the steep bank where they crossed the stream. In a few places, their boots sank into the soft mud along the stream. Water was still seeping into the boot indentations. Jack judged they were less than 30 minutes ahead. After studying and measuring the boot prints for a few more minutes, Jack rubbed the Bouvier’s head and said, “Okay, big guy, let’s go.” Shadow scrambled up the bank, tracking the snipers.
So far Jack had learned quite a bit about his prey. They must be using a light, for it was too dark to follow the narrow game trail they were using without some illumination. The trail led almost due west. One man was much heavier than the other. The lighter man with the smaller boot was leading. Using his mute flashlight sparingly, Jack had seen by the length of the strides that they were hurrying. Good, that would wear them out and, with luck, maybe a sprained ankle. They didn’t appear to be woodsmen but might have some tactical smarts. Like doubling back to check the back trail and set an ambush. They didn’t know a trained tracker dog was on their trail. Jack knew Shadow would alert him to any ambush. The snipers were moving west and downwind. Jack doubted Shadow even needed the scent from the trail. They were close and getting closer each hour.
The dead man’s cell phone that Jack found in the truck vibrated in his pocket. When the vibration stopped, he snapped his fingers, and Shadow stopped and sat down. Jack checked the phone. The screen told him he had voice mail. He tapped the voice mail icon and tapped again for the message. Putting the phone to his ear, he heard a foreign voice saying, “You have a tracker dog and an American sniper on your trail.”
Jack turned the phone off and thought, the plot is thickening fast. How could anyone know Shadow and I are following these killers? Only one way. There has to be a leak close to Frank and his organization. No wonder the Professor is so hard to pin down. I don’t want to risk using my cell to call Frank. I don’t want anyone to know just yet there is a mole lurking around. The good news is the bad guys we’re tracking didn’t get this message, so we still have the advantage. I’m sure they feel they have at least a six- or seven-hour head start on any pursuit. Wish I knew where they’re going. Their steady pace tells me they have a destination. Pulling into this park was not a random turn. The question now is, will they bed down on the trail or keep moving in the dark. Checking his own iPhone, Jack noted he had climbed 800 feet since the start of the chase. We’re still going up. The trail will probably get steeper and more dangerous to travel at night. Question, are these guys on home turf and do they know this little used trail? They must have a map.
There is a little moonlight filtering through. I can make out the trail. Okay, Shadow, let’s take a break, drink some water, eat and then pick up the pace.