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Miles to go, p.14
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       Miles to Go, p.14

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  There was really no place to get off the highway, so I didn’t stop for lunch but ate an energy bar and an orange and kept walking. About 10 miles and two and a half hours later, the lake gave way to grazing land and cowinhabited meadows. A sign proclaimed the gateway to the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

  The sun was starting to set behind me when I reached the Fourth of July Pass recreation area, and I was tired and ready to find a place to camp and eat dinner. I took the off ramp, which ended in a T, unsure of which way to go. The top sign pointed right to a recreation area for motorized vehicles, located somewhere out of sight up a long steep hill. The sign below read MULLAN TREE, with an arrow pointing left to a declining asphalt road, which, on weary legs, looked infinitely more inviting. I chose left.

  I had no idea that the simple decision I had just made would affect so many lives.

  I crossed back over the interstate and climbed a slight incline up to a gravel road. A brown Forest Service sign explained that the Mullan Tree was a lodgepole pine that was carved more than 150 years ago by some of General John Mullan’s soldiers to commemorate the completion of the Mullan Military Road, the first major highway in the Pacific Northwest, which ran between Fort Benton, Montana, and Fort Walla Walla, Washington. (The Mullan name would become familiar to me, for I soon learned that Mullan had a propensity for naming everything after himself.)

  The road split again and a sign informed me that the celebrated tree was located on the left fork up the mountain. Unfortunately, the sign gave no clue as to just how far up the road the tree was. Looking up the steep grade, I decided that I hadn’t the legs, curiosity, or daylight to explore, so I took the right trail, which ended about 50 yards from the fork at a small recreational area with a large stone statue honoring General Mullan. I set to making camp.

  I walked off the gravel-dirt road, down a slope to a small, flat area with an outhouse and a couple of picnic tables. The air was cool and thick with a mossy aroma. The NO OVERNIGHT CAMPING signs posted all around didn’t worry me. I doubted anyone ever checked on this obscure little stop, and even if they did, it would be easy enough to hide my tent in the thick vegetation.

  I hiked back near the picnic tables and constructed my tent behind a grove of trees where it couldn’t be seen from the road even in broad daylight.

  I was famished. The deli rolls I bought in Coeur d’Alene were smashed to half their thickness, but they still tasted all right. I cut thick pieces of salami and pecorino, and spread the smashed bread with mayonnaise and mustard from the little condiment packets I’d picked up at one of the fast-food joints along the way. I devoured the sandwich quickly so I made myself another, which I ate with a Hershey’s almond bar.

  I had finished the second sandwich and climbed into my tent when I heard the spit of gravel from an approaching vehicle as it drove past my camp and skidded to an abrupt stop. I heard the doors open, releasing a party of voices, mostly bass in tone, with the occasional higher-pitched voice of a young woman. The vehicle’s inhabitants were laughing and talking excitedly, and I guessed it was probably a group of drunk college kids.

  The area was mostly in shadows by that time and I was invisible behind a darkened screen of forest. I was sure that I had no reason to worry, but after my mugging, I was still on edge. I reached into my pack and brought out my father’s gun. I pulled out the clip I kept in a separate part of my pack and locked it into place. Just in case.

  Then I heard the woman scream. “Just leave me alone!”

  Her scream was followed by the slamming of doors and more dull laughter.

  “Stop it!” she shouted.

  I couldn’t hear what the men were saying, but their voices were low and taunting. I checked my gun’s safety, then slid it down my waistband and crawled out of my tent. I quietly crept up the rise, peering from behind a tree to see what was happening.

  A 4-door Dodge pickup was parked near the monument, its headlamps illuminating the statue. To the rear right of the truck were four young men and an even younger woman. All the men, except for one, had surrounded her, and she was swinging at them.

  The young man who was standing apart from the others, a lanky, blond kid, seemed to be nervously advocating for the girl. The ringleader of the bunch was a muscular kid, probably in his early twenties, and built like a football lineman. In one hand he held a can of beer. He turned back and told the blond kid to “Shut the hell up.” Even in the dim light I could see the cruelty on the man’s face.

  Then the girl spit at him, and he backhanded her across her jaw, knocking her to the ground. She held her cheek and cried, “Please, stop.”

  “We gave you a ride, you’re gonna pay for it,” he said. He threw his half-full beer can at her, which splashed up on the ground in front of her.

  “I don’t owe you anything,” she said. “Just let me go.”

  He walked up to her side. “Not until you make good. Take your clothes off.”

  “No.”

  “Fine, we’ll take them off.”

  She snarled, “Are you a rapist? That’s a class-one felony.” She turned to the other guys, “Are you rapists too?”

  I was impressed by her courage. All the men seemed taken back by her reasoning except the ringleader. “Shut up! Just take ’em off.”

  “You’ll have to do it.”

  “You heard her, dudes, she asked me to.”

  He moved toward her and she, still sitting in the dirt and gravel, began to scuttle back. He ran behind her and grabbed her hair while she futilely swung at him, her blows only serving to make him angrier. He yelled out a guttural string of profanities, then grabbed her T-shirt and yanked on it, ripping it across the shoulder.

  I had seen enough. I climbed out to the edge of the gravel road and shouted, “Leave her alone.”

  Everything froze. The men were clearly surprised to discover they weren’t alone and everyone turned to me, including the girl. For a moment no one moved or said anything.

  I took a few steps closer. “Get away from her. Now.”

  The ringleader scowled at me. “This isn’t your business. Walk away, or we’ll make it your business.”

  My eyes panned across the four of them as I continued to walk forward. “I said get away from her.”

  Ringleader looked at me with a dumbfounded expression. “Are you stupid? Four of us, one of you. You’re outnumbered, loser.”

  I stopped about 20 feet from them. I grasped the handle of my gun and pulled it out. I held it up as I clicked off the safety. “I’ve got the math right. Four of you, sixteen rounds in the clip. I’ve got you four to one.”

  The gun had their full attention. I pointed the barrel at the blond kid’s stomach. “This is how it’s going down. You walk away from her right now, or I’m going to shoot the tall glass of water first, then Big Ears, Fat Boy, and I save you for last.” I squared off at the blond kid, holding both hands on the gun. “You’ve got five seconds to walk away.”

  Trembling, the kid raised his hands, even though I hadn’t told him to. “I wasn’t doing anything. Tim, get away from her. Let’s go.”

  “He’s bluffing,” Ringleader said.

  “You think I’m bluffing?” I asked. “Five months ago I got stabbed by some losers like you. That’s when I got the gun. I will definitely kill all of you and not lose a bit of sleep. Enough talking, I’m counting to five then I’m going to start firing. Ready, Slim? One …”

  The blond was shaking with fear. “We’re leaving, man. We’re going. C’mon, Tim,” he screamed. “Get away from her!”

  “… two … three.”

  Ringleader kicked at the girl, sneered, then turned. “We’re leaving,” he said to the two men next to him (who looked visibly relieved). “C’mon.”

  “I need my backpack,” the girl said.

  “Where is it?” I asked.

  “It’s in the back of the truck,” she said.

  The lanky kid reached over the side of the truck’s bed and pulled out a medium-sized backp
ack. He set it on the ground with surprising gentility. “Here you go.”

  Ringleader started around the truck, saying things beneath his breath. I pointed the gun at him. “Stop.”

  He froze.

  “If you get the idea to drive your truck at me, or her, I won’t stop shooting until you’re all dead. If you lose your mind and come back later, I’ll be waiting in the dark for you, just like we did in Desert Storm. No warning. Trust me, I’ll know. This gravel pops like firecrackers—I heard you coming before you left the off-ramp.”

  The second kid, the one I’d called “Big Ears,” spoke for the first time. “No worries, man. We’re out of here.”

  I kept the gun leveled at them as they climbed in their truck. Ringleader revved the engine a couple times, then put the truck in gear. The wheels spun out and the truck fishtailed, but they kept a good distance from me. They drove up to the fork, then, shouting out obscenities, drove off.

  When we were alone, I pushed the safety on the gun and slid it back in my waistband. I turned to the girl. “Are you okay?”

  “Yeah,” she said, climbing to her feet.

  “You were brave,” I said.

  “So were you.”

  “No, I just had a gun.” I walked toward her. “How did you end up with them?”

  “I was hitchhiking and they picked me up.”

  “Not a good idea.”

  “I didn’t know they were creeps.” She wasn’t quite as shaken as I expected her to be. “Were you really in the army?”

  “No,” I said. “Advertising.”

  She smirked. “Is that even a real gun?”

  “Yes.”

  She brushed off the back of her pants, then walked over and lifted her pack. As she neared, she looked younger to me than I had originally thought. I guessed her to be seventeen.

  “Do you have anything to eat?” she asked.

  “I can make you a sandwich. I’ve got cheese and salami.”

  “I’ll eat anything.”

  “Come with me.”

  She followed me back toward my tent.

  “What’s your name?” she asked.

  I reached into the tent and brought out my pack. “Alan. Yours?”

  She sat down at the picnic table, laying her own pack across it. “Kailamai.”

  “Kay—la—may?” I repeated, distinctly pronouncing each syllable.

  She nodded. “Yeah.”

  “Sounds Hawaiian.”

  “Samoan.”

  “You don’t look Samoan.”

  “I know.”

  I took out the bread, meat, and cheese. “The bread’s kind of smashed.”

  “I’m not fussy.”

  I pulled out my knife and cut off a slice of cheese, then salami. “Mayo?”

  She nodded. “Yes, please.”

  I cut the roll in half, then took out one of the packets of mayonnaise and spread it across the bread with the packet. I put the bread and cheese inside then handed her the sandwich.

  “Thank you,” she said. She ravenously bit into it. I wondered when she had last eaten.

  “Hungry?” I asked facetiously.

  She answered my question with another bite. Then she said with a full mouth, “I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”

  “There’s more, if you want.”

  “Thank you.” She continued to chew. After a few more bites she slowed down. “Did you really get stabbed?”

  “Three times. I was walking along the highway outside Spokane when a gang jumped me.”

  “You walk a lot?”

  “You could say that.”

  “Where are you headed?”

  “Key West.”

  “Where’s that?”

  “In Florida.”

  She looked at me as if she were trying to tell if I was joking. “You’ve got a lot of walking to do.”

  I sat down at the end of the picnic bench. “Where are you headed?”

  “Back east to live with my aunt.”

  “Where back east?”

  “Boston.”

  “That’s a long way to hitchhike.”

  She shrugged. “I don’t have a car.”

  “You could have flown. Or taken a bus.”

  “I could have if I had any money.”

  “How old are you?”

  My question seemed to trouble her. She stopped eating, then slowly looked up. “You’re not going to do anything to me, are you?”

  “Didn’t I just stop those guys from hurting you?”

  “Well, maybe you just wanted me for yourself.”

  “I’m not that kind of guy.”

  “I thought all guys were that kind of guy.”

  “Not by a long shot,” I said.

  After a moment, she said, “I’m almost eighteen.”

  “Where are your parents?”

  “My mom’s dead. I don’t know where my father is.” She said this casually as she took another bite of sandwich.

  “Sorry,” I said.

  When she finished chewing, she asked, “About what?”

  “Huh?”

  “What are you sorry about?” she asked. “That my mom’s dead or that I don’t know where my father is?”

  “Both.”

  “I don’t care about my father. I don’t even know who he is. He could be you for all I know. At least if you were older. And I’m not sorry my mother’s dead. No one is.”

  I just looked at her for a moment. “Then I’m sorry for that too.” I breathed out and I could now see my breath in the chill air. Neither of us spoke for a few minutes as she ate. “How’s your sandwich?” I asked.

  “Good, thank you.”

  “I have a Hershey’s chocolate bar if you want it.”

  “That sounds really good.”

  I retrieved the candy from my pack and brought it over to her. “Here you go. If you want to camp with me tonight, you can sleep in the tent.”

  “Thank you,” she said, taking the candy. She peeled the bar like a banana. She took a small bite, then looked up at me. “So what are you running away from?”

  “What makes you think I’m running away from something?”

  “You’re a nice guy, you talk like you’re smart, and you’re good-looking, so there’s no way you don’t have something you’re leaving, like a girlfriend and a job. So you must be running away from something.”

  I was impressed by her reasoning. “I was married.”

  “Oh,” she said, nodding as if she understood. “Bad divorce.”

  “No divorce. She died.”

  She looked genuinely upset by this. “I’m sorry. What did she die of?”

  “She was in an accident. Her horse got spooked and threw her.”

  “I’m sorry,” she said again.

  “So am I. She was everything to me. I lived for her.”

  She was silent for a moment, then said, “That must be nice though, having someone to live for.”

  “It’s nice until you lose them.” I handed her a bottle of water. She took a long draw and handed it back. “I think I’ll go to bed,” I said. “Like I said, you can sleep in the tent.”

  “Where are you going to sleep?”

  “Under the stars.”

  “It’s cold out here.”

  “I’ll be all right.”

  She looked back over at the tent. “I don’t care if we share the tent. I trust you. Besides, it will be cozy.”

  There were at least a dozen reasons not to share the tent, but the chill in the air was pretty persuasive. “All right.”

  “Do you have enough for another sandwich?”

  “Sure.”

  I made her a second sandwich, then went inside the tent, undressed, and climbed into my sleeping bag. Maybe five minutes later she said, “Knock, knock.”

  “You can come in,” I said.

  She threw her sleeping bag inside, then crawled in after it. She climbed into her bag with her clothes still on. After a minute she said, “This is kind of nice.”

>   “The tent?”

  “Yes.” More silence. “Do you mind if I pray?”

  “No.”

  “I usually pray out loud,” she said. “Do you mind?”

  “No.”

  She rolled over on her stomach and covered her face with her hands. “Dear Father in heaven, thank you for another day. Thank you for all that you’ve given me. Thank you for sending an angel my way tonight. I am grateful for Alan and his protection and the food and shelter he’s given me. Please bless him with peace and safety and all that he needs. And I pray for those who are being hurt tonight and please send angels to save them too. I pray that those guys in the truck won’t come back. In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

  We were both quiet for a moment. She rolled back over. “Do you think those guys will come back?”

  “No.”

  “I don’t know,” she said. “They were pretty crazy.”

  “I hate to think what would have happened if I hadn’t been here,” I said.

  “Same thing as usual,” she replied, and rolled away from me. “Good night.”

  It was the last thing she said before she fell asleep.

  CHAPTER

  Thirty-eight

  I wonder what McKale would say if she saw me now. Actually I know. She’d call me a “crazy old coot!” Either that or smack me.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I woke the next morning at sunrise. The inside of the tent was warm, and drops of water had condensed on the inclined vinyl ceiling. It took me a moment to remember why I wasn’t alone and who was sleeping next to me.

  Kailamai was still asleep, on her side, lightly snoring. I dressed inside my sleeping bag then climbed out of the tent.

  The morning air was chill and crisp, and the sun was just breaking through the thick canopy of forest, which was filled with the shrill single-note calls of an owl, invisible in the trees above me.

  I had not fallen right to sleep. Instead, I had thought about the last thing Kailamai had said. “Same as usual.” I wondered about her story—her father (or lack of one) and a dead mother she claimed no one cared about, including her.

  I gathered some cantaloupe-sized stones and made a fire pit, then walked around the area picking up branches until I had collected an armful. I could have used my propane stove to cook breakfast, but it was a cold morning and I wanted the warmth of the fire and thought the girl probably would as well.

 
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