Matchup, p.3
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       MatchUp, p.3

           Lee Child
 

  beyond control. You shot that guy over there, and the rest of the crew headed for the hills. You were going after them when they got the sense to go to high ground and turn on you. That’s when I showed up.”

  He slowly shook his head. “That’s what this looks like to you?”

  “Yup. Or something like it.”

  “I’m FBI.”

  Pickett raised his eyebrows with doubt. “You don’t expect me to believe that.”

  He dug out his wallet badge from his jacket and showed the game warden his credentials.

  “I’m undercover.”

  “Undercover for what?” Pickett asked.

  He took a deep breath, then quickly rose up and checked the perimeter to make sure the shooters weren’t sneaking up on them. Assured they weren’t, he lowered back down and said, “I’m based in Jackson when I’m not on assignment. It’s a good place to get my bearings back and recuperate.”

  “Recuperate?”

  He didn’t address that. “A few days ago I got a call from my boss, a guy named Hamilton. Real asshole.”

  “Bureaucrat?”

  “As I said. Anyhow, he told me that four really bad actors—white supremacists who call themselves One Nation—escaped from a raid on their compound in West Virginia last month. I’ve known One Nation was on the bureau’s radar for a long time, but I wasn’t involved with the case.”

  “What’s their mission?”

  “To incite a race war by gunning down white cops in largely black neighborhoods. These rednecks knew that if that happened, the local cops would likely overreact and trouble would spread. They put their whole manifesto on the Internet like so many of these mouth breathers do, but no one really thought they’d follow through. But they did. A couple of cops got shot in South Philly. And all hell broke loose. Riots, vandalism, looting, people on both sides killed, including some grade-school kids. I’m sure you saw it on the news.”

  Pickett nodded.

  “So the bureau raided the One Nation compound outside Wheeling. They arrested a dozen guys and a couple of women, but the four men in leadership got away. No one knew where they went, or whether they’d split up or stayed together. But one of the group in custody said one of the four guys had some familiarity with Wyoming, because he’d been elk hunting out here. Specifically, Jackson Hole. So my boss asked me to poke around, without alarming the locals.”

  “And you did,” Pickett said.

  He nodded. “I needed a distraction, so I jumped all over it. It took me a few days before I found a clerk at a hardware store who told me about two guys who fit the description buying up ammo and heavy-duty hand tools. He said they had West Virginia accents and one of them had a long beard like those yokels from Duck Dynasty.”

  “Our man in the doorway,” Pickett said.

  “I started making forays into the mountains. I didn’t think I’d actually run into them. It was really more an accident than intentional. I walked into their camp this morning, before I realized who they were.”

  “That’s when you gave them your phone?”

  “It wasn’t like that,” he said, annoyed. “I told them I wanted to join up. I told them everything I thought they’d want to hear about the country going to shit and the way to finally fix it. They liked what I was saying, but they didn’t greet me with open arms. I could tell they were thinking about it, though. If nothing else, they needed help with the building before winter rolled in. These guys aren’t exactly geniuses when it comes to construction, as you can tell.”

  “Most criminals I’ve dealt with are just idiots,” Pickett said.

  “I’ve known many who were fuckin’ smart. But these guys are idiots, with a cause. And even though they were friendly at first, they started getting suspicious. To prove I wasn’t a threat, I gave them my phone when they asked for it. I wasn’t worried because I’d deleted everything on it.”

  Pickett nodded. “Go on.”

  “It all went pear shaped when a fat guy with a WHITE PRIDE sweatshirt and a skinny guy who looked like he’d just walked off the set of Deliverance decided they’d pat me down to see if I was packing. I was, of course. I started backing off, but that didn’t sit well with Duck Dynasty over there, and the next thing I knew he was locking and loading his rifle and aiming it at me. I ran for the trees as the three others went for their weapons. I was able to throw myself into the shelter of a big root-pan, when they all opened up. It sounded like D-Day.”

  “I heard it,” Pickett said.

  “Finally, when they paused to reload, I was able to take out Duck Dynasty. That caused the others to strike out on foot. I chased them for a while and then decided it made more sense to see if I could find my phone and call it in. Unfortunately, that’s when you showed up.”

  Pickett raised his hands in a what-are-you-gonna-do? gesture.

  “But now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think I have a plan to take these guys on,” Coburn said.

  “Oh, really? This should be interesting.”

  He pretended not to notice Pickett’s skeptical tone. “I keep them engaged until dusk, like I’ve been doing. That way, they’re on the defensive and they won’t have the wherewithal to overrun us. Then, you’ll replace me. I’ll give you my .45 so they’ll think I’m still the one firing.”

  “Then what?”

  “You’ll do what I’ve been doing. Playing the . . . what was it?”

  “Whac-A-Mole.”

  “Right. Popping up every fifteen to twenty minutes to take a shot at them. Keep them guessing when you’ll appear and where you’ll shoot.”

  “Meanwhile?” Pickett asked.

  “I’ll use your cover fire to run out of this building. I’ll take your shotgun and get up into the trees and outflank them. Then I’ll take them out one by one. They’ll be dead before they know what hit them.”

  Pickett seemed to remain doubtful.

  “The best thing you can do to the enemy is keep him off balance,” he said. “Given the odds, they won’t expect me to take it to them.”

  Pickett grinned. “I’ve got a buddy named Nate Romanowski. We butt heads from time to time. I think he’d approve of your plan. But I’m not sure I do.”

  “You have a better one?” Coburn asked with some heat.

  “I’m thinking.”

  “That gives me absolutely no confidence.”

  Pickett continued to ruminate. Why did it take this guy so long to form a thought? A glacier could have thawed by the time the game warden said, “So you’ve been hiking around these mountains all by yourself for weeks until you found these guys?”

  “That’s what I said.”

  “Must be running from something yourself.”

  His hackles rose. Pickett might be slow, but he sure as hell wasn’t thick. “That’s none of your goddamn business.”

  “What are you recuperating from?”

  He didn’t respond.

  “You said you were recuperating. What from?”

  “What’s that got to do with anything?”

  “Just wondering. Concussion? Chickenpox? Ingrown toenail?”

  He gnawed the inside of his cheek and finally said, “Gunshot.”

  Then he sprang to his feet and ran along the wall toward the corner of the building, his .45 at the ready. The burly white supremacist in the filthy WHITE PRIDE hoodie had just cleared the trees to the south and was working his way toward the unfinished lodge. The man carried a Ruger Mini-14 rifle with a thirty-round magazine.

  “Drop it,” Coburn shouted.

  WHITE PRIDE raised the rifle.

  He fired and hit him center mass. WHITE PRIDE flopped straight back and landed on his butt, still.

  “Two down,” he coldly said.

  He heard a bang, then something hit him with the force of a mule kick and threw him flat on his back.

  He couldn’t move his upper body.

  But his grip on his .45 never wavered.

  Pickett rushed over and dragged him along the ground
to the log wall.

  PICKETT WAS SURPRISED BY HOW heavy Coburn was. He was dead weight, but still alive. Proof of that was the litany of profanity that poured out as he propped the agent against the wall.

  “Son of a bitch, that hurts,” Coburn hissed through gritted teeth.

  “Where are you hit?”

  “Chest.”

  Not good. A high-velocity round through the chest could be fatal. He reached up and peeled back Coburn’s jacket. The bullet had struck just below the clavicle, closer to the shoulder than heart. It looked like a through shot because there was blood coming out from both sides. He’d seen the damage gunshots could do to big-game animals and had become inured to the sight of them. But when a human being was hit, that was different, even if it was a man he had no reason to like.

  “I don’t think anything vital was hit,” he said. “I’m not sure it even broke any bones.”

  “It hurts like hell.”

  “You bleeding out is a worry, though.”

  Coburn grunted.

  Joe didn’t have access to the first aid kit. That was with Rojo and his saddlebag. “I’m going to use your shirt to bind it up. Lean forward so I can get your jacket off.”

  Coburn took a deep breath and bent forward. Joe could only imagine how much it hurt to do that. He eased the arms free, pulled Coburn’s jacket over his head, then removed the bloodstained shoulder holster. Not taking the time to unbutton Coburn’s shirt, he ripped it open and the buttons popped off.

  He couldn’t help but notice the scar on Coburn’s belly. Pink, puckered, recent. “Is that where you were shot?”

  “No, I cut myself shaving.”

  At least that wonderful personality seemed unaffected. Coburn’s arms were muscled and rippling with veins. A barbed-wire tattoo banded the left biceps, while the right displayed the words HONOR &.

  The second word was missing.

  “Honor and what?” he asked, as he fashioned a sling out of Coburn’s shirt that went over the left shoulder, under the right armpit, and across the chest. He hoped it would stanch the bleeding on both the entry and exit wounds. “Honor and duty? Honor and sacrifice? Or couldn’t you make up your mind?”

  Coburn mumbled something incomprehensible.

  “Hang on,” he said, “I’m going to cinch this tight and tie it off. It’s gonna hurt.”

  Coburn gave a quick nod, the go-ahead, and Joe took that as his cue to pull the shirt as tight as he could and knot it. Coburn didn’t cry out, his jawbone locked tight.

  He checked his handiwork.

  The shirt was taut, but blood was still seeping through. Best he could hope for was that it would slow down the bleeding.

  “I don’t suppose you can raise your right arm,” he asked.

  Coburn winced as he tried, but his right hand and the .45 it held stayed in his lap.

  “Didn’t think so.”

  “I can shoot with my left.”

  Empty boast? Hard to say. But he transferred the pistol to Coburn’s left hand.

  “Just sit here. No more Whac-A-Mole for you.”

  “We need to keep an eye out.”

  “I’m not sticking my head up like you did.”

  “This completely screws up my plan.”

  “With all due respect, it was a crappy plan anyway.”

  “Still haven’t heard one from you.”

  He sat back. “Honor and what?”

  Coburn sighed.

  “Honor and why don’t you shut the hell up.”

  NOTHING HAPPENED FOR THREE HOURS.

  Coburn was getting antsy, and becoming more annoyed with Joe Pickett by the minute. The evening sun was dropping below the tops of the trees, casting deep shadows through the golden light. The smell of the cool pines seemed to intensify. The temperature had dropped ten degrees. It would be dark in two hours.

  His shoulder had gone from screaming pain to what was now a low throbbing. If he sat still, he could stand it. But when he moved, even when he took a deep breath, he had to clench his teeth to keep from moaning, groaning, or cussing a blue streak. Despite the chilly air, he was sweating. Only an act of will, and his training for covert missions, prevented him from shivering. He had no doubt he could do what he needed to do with the .45 in his left hand. Especially at close range.

  But he wasn’t sure he’d even get the chance.

  The game warden sat still.

  He worried that Pickett had fallen asleep. He stared across at the man who seemed to be looking at nothing. Face stoic. Or was it empty? He wasn’t sure which, but either way it was getting on his nerves.

  “Blink if you can hear me, Pickett.”

  “I hear you.”

  “What are you doing?”

  “Thinking.”

  “Please don’t strain yourself, but could you speed it along so I don’t bleed out?”

  “I’ve been waiting for Rojo to come back.”

  “Rojo?”

  “My steed,” Pickett said, with an embarrassed smile. “It doesn’t look like he’s coming.”

  “No, it doesn’t.”

  Pickett was quiet for a long time. Then said, “Do you hear anything?”

  He perked up, but when he tried to straighten his shoulders, pain pulsed through them.

  “No,” he said. “It’s perfectly quiet, except for a little bit of wind.”

  “Right,” Joe said. “We’ve been waiting three hours and the natural sounds haven’t come back. No birds, squirrels, anything. Meaning, those guys are still up there.”

  He was more than a little impressed that the game warden had determined that. Coburn had engaged in guerrilla warfare in Central America. When the birds quit calling and the monkeys stopped chattering, you unsheathed your machete because somebody was close.

  “It also probably means they aren’t exactly sure what they’re going to do,” Pickett said. “Otherwise we would have heard something. Low talking. A branch snapping underfoot. Something. I think they’re still up there, but confused.”

  “By what?”

  “Think about it,” Pickett said. “It was around noon when they were peppering us with gunfire and watched us take cover here. But because they’ve only seen you, they might assume I was hit and died in here. They haven’t even caught a glimpse of me. They’re pretty sure you’re hit. And since that happened we haven’t shown ourselves. For all they know there are two dead men down here.”

  He gave a curt nod of agreement.

  Pickett asked, “Have you ever hunted?”

  “You mean game?”

  “What else?”

  He turned his head aside, looked into the darkness, and said quietly, “Men.”

  “Only bad men, though.”

 
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