Dakota put on his leathers, threw his book bag over his shoulder, and raced off to his temporary job at the sawmill. He had been riding dirt bikes since he was eight-years-old. The cold air made the ride a little uncomfortable, but he knew it would be a great ride home in the afternoon autumn warmth of the Ozarks, except he wouldn’t make it home, not today anyway.
Dak, as his friends called him, was cruising at about 70 mph on Dr. Zuk, his Suzuki DR200, when he felt the rear tire break loose. He hadn’t thought it was freezing, but he must have hit some black ice. He had no time to react before he was in a low side slide. He could hear the pavement grinding away on his leathers. Soon, he felt the pavement sanding away at his skin and burning his flesh. The pain was intense as he passed out.
The clock by the bed read 4:00 as Dak opened one eye, easing back to consciousness. “Where am I,” he wondered? There was another bed next to his. He glanced down at his arm. There was a tube coming from his forearm. He traced it with his eye to where it connected to a plastic bag hanging from a metal stand. “A hospital,” Dak realized.
Over the next couple of days, a stream of visitors came by Dak’s hospital room, including his uncle, Jim Slake, head wildlife agent for the region. “How ya doin,” Jim asked.
“Ready to get outa this bed,” Dak said. “The sooner the better. What brings you up here?”
“Well, I need a good dirt bike rider for a few days. We’ve got a gang of poachers operating up on Dave’s Road in the National Forest. We need someone to snoop around. If I send an agent up there, they’ll know we’re on to ‘em. But, if you were to ride around up there on a dirt bike, they wouldn’t pay much attention. I assume you didn’t tear your bike up with your accident.”
“Hey Uncle Jim, that sounds like something I’m cut out for. Mom says Dr. Zuk came through the wreck okay, a lot better than I did.”
“Good! Stop by my office when they let you out and we’ll go over the details.”
Dak walked into his uncle’s office. “I’m back in action and so is Dr. Zuk, So, what’s up Uncle Jim?”
“Step over to the map table,” Jim said. “This is what’s called a topographical map. See these curvy lines? They tell us the elevation of an area. The distance between each line is 20 feet. The closer the lines are together, the steeper the slope. Over here is Forest Road 1112; it’s marked FR, 1112. As you can see, this is pretty rugged terrain.”
“We know poachers are operating up there because we keep finding hides: mostly deer, but occasionally a black bear. We’re trying to reintroduce black bear into the area and we can’t afford to lose any of them”
“Well, what is it you want me to do,” Dak asked?
“If we send agents up there, the poachers will know we’re on to ‘em. But, it’s not out of the ordinary for dirt bikers to be fooling around on the Forest Service roads and trails. I want you to ride around up there for a few days and let me know what you see. Notice any people or vehicles that come into the area, look for rifle casings, foot prints, camps, deer feeders, motion detection cameras or anything else suspicious. “
”I think I can do that,“ Dak replied. “When do I start?”
“Start tomorrow, but be careful. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing, and whatever you do, stay away from the poachers if you should happen to discover who they are. Don’t try to stop them and don’t interfere with their activity. If anybody asks, you’re just a local boy out riding. Understand?”
“Gotcha,” Dak replied. “Do I get paid for this?”
“Get paid for riding my bike. Terrific!”
“Okay, here’s a topo map of the area, a GPS, and a cell phone. If you get lost or have any trouble, call.”
The next morning Dak jumped out of bed as light was dawning in the east. He took the cell phone and programmed his uncle’s number for speed dial, a precaution he thought worth taking. He slipped on a set of hunting camos and headed for the kitchen. Nobody else was up, so he got out the Sugar Pops, milk, and Toaster Strudels, his usual breakfast.
He went out to the shed where he kept Dr. Zuk. The bike came to life with a couple of kicks of the starter pedal. He eased the bike out of the shed and with a twist of the throttle, he was off to Gunner’s Pool and FR 1112.
Having grown up in Fifty Six (population appropriate for its name), Dak figured the best thing about the National Forest was its hundreds of miles of gravel roads and trails crossing many ridges and going through hollows. For a kid growing up, the Ozarks were paradise, a place to hunt squirrels, deer, turkey, or run coon dogs all night. And when he couldn’t hunt, he could dirt bike for hours at a time. He couldn’t figure out what city kids did with all their time.
The hardwood trees had begun to turn to yellows and reds and Dr. Zuk’s tires kicked up a tail of dust as he sped along at 50 mph. The gravel surface would have slowed many riders, but Dak had grown up on these roads and he knew how to handle things, except maybe ice as he had learned earlier. He slowed as he passed through
Gunner’s Pool Campground. There were more cars in the camp site than he had expected, but none that looked suspicious. Some of them had mountain bike racks on them, city people here to ride the new Sylamore Trail. Some had out of state license plates and others with fishing gear that could be seen through the windows.
Dak crossed the bridge over Sylamore Creek and headed off toward FR 1112, the semi-muffled sound of Dr. Zuk bouncing off the trees. He loved this time of year in the forest. Deer season for bow hunters was open, but it would be several weeks before muzzle loader or modern gun season would open.
As the road started down the side of the ridge, Dak headed off a side trail along the top. After a couple of hundred yards, he pulled into a small clearing and shut down his bike. It looked like a good observation post, so he found a fallen log and sat down.
It took a while for his ears to adjust to the quiet so he could really hear the sounds around him. The forest was full of life, but he knew it took time to begin to hear the rustle of a squirrel under the dry leaves, a deer moving through the brush or a gobbler and her talking. He had a good view of the hollow below and scanned it piece by piece in a left to right pattern, looking for anything that didn’t look quite right. He saw nothing and after an hour or so, rode back to the road and went on.
Dak rode the Forest Service roads a couple more hours, coming out through Barksherd Campground. He slowly cruised through the campground where he noticed a campsite that looked a bit suspicious. There were four guys sitting around a campfire. He could tell they were hunters by their camo clothing. Yet, he saw no archery equipment around the camp and he thought he saw a rifle rack in their “hoopty,” an old piece of crap, crew cab, 4 by 4. They were a rough looking lot, men in their 30’s and 40’s. Two of them wore scraggly beards and the other two had three or four day’s growth. The sticker on the tailgate bore the name of a dealer from Little Rock. Dak noted the license plate number and the tire tread pattern and rode on home.
That evening, Dak called his uncle and gave him a description of the hunters, the camp and the truck, along with the license plate number. “I’ll run a check on the license in the morning,” Jim said.
“Okay, I’ll call you sometime tomorrow.”
Dak didn’t sleep well that night. He was still hurting from the road rash he suffered in his accident. Every time he rolled over, the pain woke him, so he headed out early in the morning. Instead of going up Gunner Pool Road, he headed up Highway 14 to FR 1112 so he could ride through Barkshed Campground.
The beat up hoopty was still there, though there was no activity around the campsite. “They must all be in the tent sleeping,” Dak thought. He kept off the throttle as much as possible to keep the noise down and not wake up the campers.
As he came to the intersection of FR 1112 and 1102, Dak pulled over and shut off his bike. He walked down the road to where a jeep trail branched off. As he walked along, he came across an area of smashed down grass and brush. It was obvious something heavy had been drug along the ground. As he looked around, Dak found a deer hide tossed behind a bush. It was fresh; blood on it had not yet dried.
Looking further, Dak saw foot prints. They appeared to have been made by two sets of boots. “They must be working in teams,” Dak thought. He began to make a circle around the site, looking for more evidence, and soon he found a pile of guts where the deer had been butchered. He followed the trail of crushed grass until he came to the place where the deer had been shot.
“Where were the poachers standing,” Dak thought. He saw footprints coming east from along the ridge. He traced them back to a big tree. As he looked up, he spotted a deer stand. As he circled around the base of the tree, he found a couple of spent 12 gauge shotgun shells. “Using slugs,” he noted.
Dak sat down next to the tree, took out his cell phone and called Uncle Jim.
“Jim Slack here.”
“Yeah, Uncle Jim. I just came across a fresh deer hide and pile of guts.”
“Good, what else did you find?”
“Well, I found two sets of boot tracks, so they must be working in pairs. I followed their trail to a deer stand where I found two twelve gauge slug casings. I could still smell the gun powder.”
Good, bring them in as evidence. Do you have your digital camera?”
“Then take pictures of everything: the deer stand, the crushed grass, the foot prints, guts, and deer hide. Is there anything else?”
“Yes, when I went by Barkshed Campground, the pickup was still there, though everyone still seemed to be sleeping. Did you get a report back on the vehicle?”
“Yes, I did. It’s owned by an ex-convict out of North Little Rock. There are currently two warrants out for his arrest. Just small stuff. And, he hasn’t checked in with his parole officer for six months. These guys could be real trouble, so stay clear of them.”
“Okay. Talk to ya later.”
Dak made his pictures and headed back for his bike. When he got back to where he had left it, it was gone, and in its place were tracks from the old hoopty. “I guess I’ll have to steal it back,” Dak thought, “since I’ve still got the key.” He looked at his watch: 10 o’clock.
Dak started walking the three miles back to Barkshed. He figured forty-five minutes and he’d be there. “I’ll find a good spot where I can hide and watch their camp,” he thought, make sure they have Dr. Zuk, and wait for a chance to steal it back.”
He settled in between two trees halfway down the ridge where he had a good view of the campground. Sure enough, Dr. Zuk was in the back of the pickup and all four of the poachers were sitting around a campfire drinking coffee. The mid-day sun had warmed things up a bit. “This could be a long wait,” Dak thought. He could see the men, but couldn’t hear what they were saying.
The afternoon wore on and as the sun was drifting down in the sky, the men were still in camp. Dak decided to see if he could move in close enough to hear what they were saying. Between the late afternoon shadows and his camo clothes, Dak figured he could get close enough. He was a hundred yards away and figured he could belly crawl through the brush to a clump of bushes thirty feet from the campfire. It took him an hour to cover the distance and by then the sun had slipped behind the ridge and dark was settling into the hollow.
“You shouldn’t a took that bike,” Dak heard the older man with the bushy beard say. “When that young feller gets back to town, he’s gonna get some hep and come a lookin fer it.”
“Hell, Uncle Ned, it was too nice a bike to pass up. We can just hide it in the brush over there and take it with us when we leave.”
“That’s about all we can do fer now,” Ned replied. “Go ditch the thing over there,” he said, pointing to where Dak was hiding.
Dak started slithering away toward another bush, hoping he wouldn’t be spotted. He heard his bike hit the ground as the poachers dropped it off the back of the truck. His heart began to pound as he heard them pushing it toward the bushes that he had just been hiding behind. His nose started to itch but he dared not scratch it. The two younger hunters were stumbling about as they muscled Dr. Zuk over rocks and through the brush. Pain shot through Dak’s hand as one of them stepped on the end of his finger. He gritted his teeth to keep from screaming. He didn’t dare move a muscle, not even his hand.
“This is good enough,” he heard one of them say. They let the bike fall behind the bushes that had concealed Dak and tramped back to the campfire. Dak let out his breath and began to suck on the end of his finger. He could still hear the poachers but could no longer see them.
“It’s time for us to get goin,” he heard one of them say. “Hank and Jerry, you take the deer stand where we took that deer last night. Jeff and I are going back where we saw the bear signs yesterday. See if we can find the fat, furry, fellow sleeping. We’ll drop ya’ll by the deer stand and pick ya up about midnight.”
Dak heard the truck pull away. His legs ached as he slowly stood up and came out of hiding. He knew he should get on Dr. Zuk and ride for home, but something was pulling him toward the action. “Stay away from the poachers,” he heard Uncle Jim’s warning pass through his mind. Yet this was a chance for a little excitement, something that was missing in Fifty Six. “I’ll just sneak up on them and watch for a little bit,” he told himself. “Then I’ll head for home and tell Uncle Jim.”
With the poachers gone, Dak opened their tent for a quick look around: sleeping bags, camo clothes spread about. That was about it. He zipped the tent back up. The poachers had plenty of head start by now, so he picked up Dr. Zuk where it had been dropped. He gave it a few swift kicks on the starter pedal, but it was stubborn. “Must have flooded while laying on its side,” Dak thought. A couple more good kicks, though, and it came alive.
Dak headed off toward the deer stand, resisting the idea that he should clear out while he could. He shut his bike off about a mile from the stand and this time he hid it carefully in some brush off the road. It took about fifteen minutes for his eyes to adjust to the dark. “It’s amazing how much light there is after dark,” Dak thought as he walked along the road toward the two hunters. He left the road where he had found the deer hide that morning and snuck down the trail where he had found the deer stand.
As he approached the stand, Dak veered off into the woods on the back side. The poachers hadn’t settled in yet and he could hear them talking in the dark. “I sure hope they decide to clear out tonight,” he heard one of them say.
“Yeah, I don’t trust that punk that’s been riding around here the last couple of days. He’s up to something.”
“Do ya think he suspects something?”
“Don’t know, but you stealing his bike didn’t help. He’ll be back lookin fer it and probably have some one with him.”
“Don’t blame me, you helped load it. Anyway, ya got it hid pretty well in those bushes. Besides, I heard Ned and Jeff talking. They figure on pulling out in the morning. They say we’ve been here too long and they’re afraid someone might come looking for the bike.”
Dak slipped the cell phone out of his pocket and pressed the speed dial button for Uncle Jim.
“Jim Slake here.”
“Uncle Jim, “ Dak whispered. “If you want to catch these guys, you need to move on it now.”
'Why? Where are you?”
“I’m out where I found the hide this morning. I can hear two of the poachers…”
Someone snatched the phone from his hand
“Poachers eh! Let me turn this thing off.”
Dak turned around. Ned’s twelve gauge was pointed at his stomach.
“So you think we’re poachers,” Ned said. “And, who were you talking to; who needs to know that?”
“I was just talking to one of my friends,” Dak replied.
“One of your friends, huh. I’ll just check your call log here.”
Ned scrolled down the phone menu to the call log. “Says here you were talking to Jim Slake. Isn’t he the wildlife agent for this area? It appears we have a little snoop here, Jeff. I think you’d better tie his hands behind his back while we decide what to do with him.”
Ned hollered to Hank and Jerry on the stand: “We got a problem fellows. Get down and come over here. We need a little pow wow.”
“What’s going on,” Hank asked as he and Jerry came walking up?”
“We got a little snoop here,” Ned said. “We snuck up behind him; he was talking on his cell phone givin our whereabouts to the game warden.”
“Shine your light on the punk, “Hank said. “Let’s see what he looks like.” Jerry put his spot light on Dak’s face, blinding him for a second.
“He’s kinda young,” Jerry said. “Maybe eighteen or so. He’s dressed like a local with those camos and all. Let’s check his pockets and see what he’s got.”
“Not much in his pockets,” Jerry said. Let me see his wallet. “A couple of twenties,” he said as he slipped them in his pocket. “And, here’s his driver’s license. Says he’s eighteen and lives in Fifty Six. Guess we were right. Not much else. So, what are we gonna do with the rat?”
“How long ya been watchin us?” Ned asked Dak. “I haven’t been watching you,” Dak whispered. “I was just scouting for a good place to go coon huntin when I stumbled across your stand,” he lied.
“You’re lyin,” Ned said. “You been watchin us for several days, haven’t ya?”
“No, honest,” Dak insisted. I’m tellin the truth.”
Jeff grabbed one of Dak’s tied wrists and began to bend it toward the inside of his forearm. “You’d better tell the truth or I’ll break your damn wrist,” he said. “How’d ya get out here?”
“I walked,” Dak said, his voice quivering.
“You walked? There’s not a teenager alive today who’d walk that far.” Ned put some more pressure on Dak’s wrist. The pain shot up to his brain. “How’d ya get out here,” Jeff asked again.
“My motorcycle,” Dak screamed.
“That’s better. Where is it?”
“I ditched it in the woods about a mile from here.”
“We don’t have enough time to worry about it,” Ned said. “He was talking to Slake when I came on him. We need to clear out, but first we need to decide what to do with him.”
“Let’s tie his legs too and throw him off the steep ridge where he’ll roll down the hillside into Branscum Holler, Hank said. “By the time they find him, if they do, we’ll be long gone.”
“Good idea,” Jerry said, “only we need to gag him too.”
Dak tumbled head over heels down the steep hillside, coming to rest against a tree. He hurt all over where he had bounced against rocks and trees and it felt like his ankle might be sprained. He struggled against the ropes which had his wrists and legs bound. He managed to slip his wrists past his butt and pull his legs through so his hands were at least out in front of him. “Uncle told me not to get involved with these scum,” he thought. “I should have gotten on my bike and ridden home.”
Dak could hear a creek near by. “If I can stand up, maybe I can hop to the creek and find a sharp stone to cut my ropes,” he thought. He hopped and tumbled toward the stream, his sprain and bruises screaming with pain. The silver moon gave a nice glow to the hollow and at last, he could see the creek. As he stumbled around, he fell on a gravel bar and began to pick through the rocks for one with a sharp edge.
Dak found what he was looking for and began to saw the cords around his ankles. After a few moments of intense sawing, one cord broke lose and he unwrapped the mess, setting his ankles free. With his ankle free, he put a little weight on the sprained one and found, though it hurt, it would bear his weight.
“Now I can hike back up the ridge,” Dak thought, “and maybe I can find a big stone with a sharp edge that I can use to wear through the cords around my wrist.” As he started walking away, a stench began to assault his nose. He sniffed a couple of times. “What is that stink,” he thought. As he turned to walk away, he saw a huge shadowy hulk ambling through the brush.
His heart began to pound and he stopped in a panic. He could hear dead branches cracking and breaking and leaves being crunched. As the thing moved into the moonlight, Dak could see a big black bear 30 yards away. The bear was standing on his hind legs, sniffing the air. Slowly the bear came down on all fours and begin to walk toward Dak.
Dak doubled up in a ball, and stayed motionless. He watched as the bear came toward him: 80 feet, 70 feet, 50 feet. The bear stopped and so did Dak’s breathing. The bear raised up again and sniffed some more. Dak held his breath for what seemed like forever. He could feel his heart hammering against his chest. He could smell the bear and hear its heavy breathing. The bear gave one final sniff, came down again on all fours and sauntered off through the woods.
Dak let his breath out and stood up. He paused, listening. He could still hear the bear walking up the hollow. Feeling he had just encountered something more fearful than the poachers, Dak started up the ridge. Halfway to the top, he came to an outcropping of rock. He found a jagged edge where weather over eons had broken chunks away from the rock. He rubbed the cords around his wrists against the raw edge of the stone until he could break them loose. Now he was completely free and scrambled the rest of the way up the ridge.
His sprain slowed him down and made the walk painful, but Dak finally got to Dr. Zuk. He fumbled around, looking for the bike’s electrical fuses and pulled the one that would cut off his lights. A couple of kicks and the engine came to life. He jumped on and headed for Barkshed. He was so angry and agitated that he pushed Uncle Jim’s warning into the deep recesses of his mind, refusing to recognize them as they tried to push into his thinking.
He cruised at a slower speed to keep the engine noise down, and as he crested the hill going toward the campground, he shut the engine down and coasted. At the bottom of the hill, he got off and pushed the bike until he was within thirty yards of the campers. He parked it off the road and left the keys in it for a quick get away if necessary.
Dak was cautious as he walked through the dark to get a look at the poacher’s camp. There was a kerosene lantern in their tent and he could see the silhouettes of all four hunters packing up their stuff. There were ice chests and other camp stuff tossed in the back of the hoopty, along with equipment beside the truck waiting to be loaded. Near the truck, coals were still smoldering where the campfire had been built.
“I’ve got to stop them,” Dak thought. While scanning the stuff beside the truck, he saw a plastic container of gasoline. He got down on his belly and crawled toward the pickup until he was completely under it. He reached out, grabbed the gas container and pulled it to him. He unscrewed the cap, tipped the can over, rolled out from under the truck, and crouched behind a bush to watch.
“What was that?” he heard Ned say. He heard the tent zipper rip down, and just as Ned stepped out, the rivulet of gas hit the hot coals. A trail of flame flared from the smoldering campfire to the tipped over gas container. There was an explosion and a ball of fire lighted the night sky. Soon, campers poured out of their tents and RV’s to see what had happened. As they crowded around the burning truck, Dak slipped from his hiding place and stood to the back of the crowd. He heard someone talking to 911 as he saw a set of head lights coming toward them. A Game and Fish SUV drove up and Uncle Jim and Derek Brown, the Stone County Sheriff, got out.
Dak stepped from the crowd and walked over to Jim. “Those guys over there are the poachers,” he said, pointing toward the other side of the blazing truck. “And, one of them has my cell phone.”
With his job done, Dak walked off through the night to Dr. Zuk. He took the fuse from his pocket, put it back in its holder, turned the key, and kicked Dr. Zuk back to life. He twisted the throttle, popped the clutch and rode off into the night, front wheel high in the air as a wave to the now handcuffed hunters.