Raker heard the panic in Cheryl’s voice on the phone and knew he needed to get out to the cabin as soon as he could.
Cheryl ran up to meet him as he drove into the driveway. Two county sheriff’s cruisers were also in the driveway. Art was standing just outside the front door looking back into the house.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Cheryl said as Raker stepped out of his car. “They completely wrecked our house. I can’t stand to look at it. We went into town first thing this morning and returned to find this. And Art . . . my God . . . Art’s lost it. He’s not himself. You’ll see.” The two hugged.
Nichols turned to watch both of them approach. “My safe haven!” he blurted out. “My serenity! Here. This place. My place! How the hell they’d know about it? How? It doesn’t figure.” Raker saw the panic in his friend’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Raker said. “I can’t think of what else to say. I’m so very sorry.”
“No! Goddamn it. Now. Now they can find me anywhere. They’re still out there. Hiding. Hunkered down. Little fuckers! Just waiting. Just waiting for the right moment. God, this is what I hate most about it. Not when the shooting starts, but waiting for it. Wondering where they’re going to come from. Wondering who’s going to catch one without any warning. Sneaky fucking little bastards. I hate this!”
“Art. Art,” Raker said trying to soothe his friend. “Look around, man. This is the mountain. Rebecca Ridge. Your mountain. There’s nobody here.”
“Naw! Fuck! That’s what I hate the most. Looking at something and knowing I can’t trust it. VC. VC. You never knew when one was and when one wasn’t. You never knew who you could trust. Nothing ever was as it appeared. Nothing, man. I mean nothing!”
“You want to pipe down out there!” a voice called from deep inside the house.
“Fuck you!” Art yelled back.
“OK. Cool it. We’ve got work to do. We don’t need the hassle,” the voice replied.
“They’ve been here almost two hours already,” Cheryl explained looking up at Raker.
“Yeah. There’s nobody in there and it looks like we took incoming. We came back from town and the place was all torn up!” Nichols shouted loud enough so the men inside could hear him.
“They’re processing the crime scene,” Raker tried to explain. “Do you mind if I go in?”
“No. Hell, why would I?” Nichols replied.
Raker stepped into the doorway. “Hey, fellas,” He shouted. “Sheriff Grossman sent me out here from his office. I’m retired law enforcement. Can I take a gander?”
“No disrespect, sir, but not until we finish.”
“How long will that take?” Raker took advantage of his position in the doorway to view as much as he could of the interior of the cabin. Whoever entered the premises must have been looking for something. The couch had been overturned. The drawers to Cheryl’s prize antique secretary had been pulled out and smashed on the floor.
“They hit every room,” a voice called back. “This is going to take a couple of hours at least.” Raker looked up and saw Deputy Hurdler come into the doorway to the front room. He was shaking his head. “This is vandalism, pure and simple. They left valuables in favor of just wrecking the place.”
“OK. Let us know when we can come back into the house,” Raker said and stepped back from the doorway to join Art and Cheryl. One look at Art and he knew his friend was struggling to hold out his memories of murderous combat in Viet Nam. “They’re going to be a while,” Raker said quietly.
“They can take forever for all I care,” Nichols growled. “They’ve ruined it. They found it now. It’ll never be like it was. They have the coordinates. Sighted in. They can drop a round in here any goddamn time they want, and we can’t do shit about it. We gotta move on.”
As he was talking, a Lexus SUV drove up and stopped in front of the house. The driver side door opened and Frank Schreve stepped out. Nichols looked up in alarm and ran to his Jeep, reached behind the front seat, and pulled out his Browning automatic twelve gauge shotgun.
“You get out of here you fat fuck! Nobody needs you around here.” Nichols held the gun aloft. Schreve froze one step away from his vehicle.
“I just wanted to see what I could do. I heard the sirens . . . ”
“You can get your flabby ass back in that vehicle and get the hell out of here. There’s nothing for you to do here. You’re the reason things are the way they are. We had no business out here in the first place. You hear me, asshole?”
Schreve got back into his car and rolled the window down. “You don’t understand . . .”
“I don’t need to understand. I don’t take orders from you any more, sir! I’m out! Now! You understand? Out! You understand?”
“Now see here.”
“Fuck you.” Nichols fired his shotgun into the air. Schreve jammed his SUV into gear and tore off.
“What the hell?” Deputy Hurdler yelled from the doorway. “Put the firearm away or I’ll put you under arrest.”
“You can’t arrest me, asshole. You’ve got no authority here. I’m not taking orders from anyone any more.”
“I can arrest you for assault.”
“Fuck you. I haven’t assaulted anyone.”
“I heard you threaten that guy . . . that guy in the SUV. That’s enough to haul you into the magistrate.”
Raker took advantage of the moment Nichols was distracted by the deputy to walk over to his friend and grab the shotgun. “Come on, Art. I understand. This isn’t going to help. See. See, Cheryl’s right here. See how frightened she is, Art. Cheryl wouldn’t be anywhere in combat. She’d be here. In the mountains. With you. You don’t want to do anything that’d hurt Cheryl. You know you wouldn’t.”
Nichols looked at Raker and then at Cheryl and back to Raker and a look of abject dismay overtook his features. He released the shotgun to Raker who took him by the arm. “Let’s go over to the porch and sit. What d’ya say?”
Nichols did not reply. He stared at Cheryl who took a step toward him and tried to smile through the tears toppling down her cheeks. “Oh, God,” Nichols moaned.
They sat for several minutes saying nothing to one another, Raker and Cheryl both hoping the sound of the deputies inside the house would not upset Nichols.
“This is so hard,” Nichols finally said softly. “So fucking hard to hold everything in place. And the harder a guy fights it, the worse it is. I know. I’ve run groups where guys dealt with this. It’s all about belief. I know what’s happening but that doesn’t stop it. A guy wants to believe what he sees. Wants to trust it. That’s what Nam took away from everyone. A guy can’t trust anything any more. A dead buddy’s body can be booby trapped. The kid that brought the water into camp every day for weeks, one day comes in with a bomb and three guys get blown to bits along with the kid. Everyone liked the little shit, and he blows himself up just to get a couple of our guys. Your own guys drop rounds in on you because they think you’re VC. You can’t trust anything, no matter what it looks like and that stays with you the rest of your life.
“Not being able to trust is a kind of madness. Fear is right there. Right on the edge of the minute. This was my place. This is the place I learned to take things for granted. Can’t you see?” “Yes. Yes. I think so,” Raker said.
“No, Jim. You can’t. I’ve seen guys do horrible things. I don’t condone them, but I understand it. A guy walks up to a Vietnamese farmer. The poor old fart owns only one thing in the world — his goddamn water buffalo, and the guy shoots the beast dead for no fucking reason at all. He looks at the old man and walks away. He can’t trust anything. He can’t even trust himself. He doesn’t even know himself any more. He’s not some kid from a small high school in Iowa any more. Just a fucking grunt in a jungle with no idea why he’s there or what’s going to happen next.