Cataloochee Man   A Novel


             
             






Chapter Eleven


          Something was wrong. The night was too still. The soldier wondered why the bulldozers were sitting in the open like ducks in a row. They were usually parked on the edge of the clearing, where they were last operated. He was told at the reconnaissance briefing that there was a night watchman, but he saw no sign of one. The office trailer was dark and he was told there would be a light on.
          The soldier’s instincts told him to abandon this mission, to remain within the forest. But a sense of duty, a penchant for taking risks, and several hearty swallows from the flask in his coat pocket, prodded him into the clearing.
          A small company, based in Newport, Tennessee, High Point Lumber Company started this logging operation only three months before. The fact that they were from another state and logging in the forests of North Carolina infuriated the soldier and made him all the more determined to strike now.
          The moon was shrouded in clouds and he could see only a silhouette of the two bulldozers, massive and cold, parked side by side. These machines were his target.
          He approached without a sound and slipped between them. When he saw how neatly they were spaced and aligned toward another cluster of machinery, he was certain of a trap. The soldier crouched low and was moving away from the bulldozers when searchlights snapped on from all directions, bathing the area in light. An amplified voice commanded him.
          “Stand where you are. You’re surrounded. Put your hands in the . . .”
          The soldier swung the AK-47 off his side and sprayed bullets in an arc above the lights. The beams jostled and lost focus, and the soldier dove for the ground. When the area was once again illuminated, only the machines were visible. Another spray of bullets caused the lights to dance and cross each other. The FBI agents had underestimated their adversary.
          “Get in there fast,” boomed the voice from a megaphone. By the time the agents reached the equipment, they heard rustling sounds, alerting them that the soldier had entered the forest.
          “Fan out and follow. Try to get lights on him. If he shoots again, return fire.”
          Agent Miles Harding put down the megaphone and smoothed thinning brown hair back over his head. He didn’t really expect someone who had just demonstrated such stunning elusiveness in a circle of would be captors to be apprehended in an open forest. The chase would at least serve to familiarize his men with the terrain and help them better understand the adversary they were up against.
          In his mid-forties, Miles was reaching the point in his career with the FBI when a field operation such as this should be delegated to a younger agent. He received the assignment with some irritation. After the first briefing, Agent Harding had concluded that the Panther Patrol was a small, rogue group, intent on discouraging logging in Pisgah National Forests. Not the sort of challenge that should command his expertise. However, in closed consultation with the FBI director, he learned that the scope of his assignment went beyond protecting the local logging companies from the Panther Patrol.
          Younger, less-experienced agents were placed under him whose only focus would be on the Panther Patrol. On paper, Agent Harding’s skills were needed to work these men through this task, training them on the job. This was true to a great extent, but the operation was also a viable reason to bring Miles into the area for his larger role. Ironically, the fact that the saboteur eluded capture this evening was a positive development for the overall assignment.
          But Miles hadn’t planned it that way. Agent Harding had every intention of bringing the Panther Patrol era to a close this evening. He had calculated correctly on every aspect of this operation except the last.
          Based on his analysis of the other companies that had been hit by the Panther Patrol, Miles chose this particular logging site to lay his trap. He also predicted that one person was carrying out these attacks. But he was wrong in assuming that this individual would be taken by surprise and offer little resistance. Instead the man was cool-headed and well-armed.
           Miles was already revising his tactics as he walked around the bulldozers. He had requested that they be placed in the center of the clearing. He was a seasoned agent and never dwelt for long on what didn’t work. Miles harbored no doubts that the saboteur would be apprehended soon. This first encounter demonstrated that it would take a little more time and be more interesting than he had predicted.

          Seventy yards into the forest, the soldier paused to listen. When he heard no dogs, he turned north and moved at a slower pace. He stopped often, listening for noise of pursuit. When he could hear only forest sounds, he knew that he had evaded his pursuers.
          The soldier turned west and soon intersected Route 284, a dirt highway that ran along the boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Pisgah National Forest. He would followed this road north toward his cabin at Waterville.
          The soldier fell into an easy walking pace and began to consider his surprise encounter at the logging operation. He stroked his beard and rethought the scene until he grinned with satisfaction at how he had eluded the ambush. He was disappointed that he couldn’t carry out his mission but not discouraged. On the contrary, the soldier was more determined then ever to see the next mission through.
          They were waiting for me. Those weren’t state cops. FBI, ATF, maybe. The game is changing. They were ready for me. I had to run. Just like Robert E. Lee said, “I must retreat so that I can fight another day.




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