The ultralight, despite Noah’s many attempts at muffling the big Rotax engine’s whine, usually announced itself a few seconds before it would rise from its furtive, belly-to-the-ground approach. It was his favorite tactic. The rock crawlers liked plateaus and ridges for thematic scenery. They thought the high ground would allow them to see him first. But he found arroyos and gullies and fins to hide in as he approached.
The yellow Drifter, his favorite, sped through a narrow canyon in the Box-Death Hollow Wilderness Area, west of Capitol Reef. Noah knew this old river channel intimately, so, despite the apparent danger of wingtips striking sedimentary walls, it seemed just another routine, quick in-and-out. He knew that on the plateau above the western wall, six powerful off-road vehicles were racing, one at a time, up a slickrock slope. Where the slope broke, cameras were set up — one to catch the undercarriage as it rose into view, huge wheels off the ground, and two on either side. The thin man’s clients favored this place. The middle camera would catch the snow-capped Henry Mountains to the east; then, suddenly, their big rock crawlers would rise up from seemingly nowhere, blotting out the Henrys. Rich men conquering nature, captured on DVD, sold well here, he thought.
But the wives, mistresses, business associates, and others who watched the videos in private screenings did not see how the rock crawlers, in their miles-long approach to this fragile place, cut across the migration corridors of elk and mule deer. The mammoth tires crushed the riparian habit of several species of reptiles and amphibians. Oil pans brushed stream bottoms, soiling the food bank of bottom-feeding fish.
Noah would only get one pass. That was his ironclad rule. Only one pass. This time would be difficult. He had four balloons, three for whichever rock crawlers hove into view. He knew the thin man’s routine here, so he’d find them clustered at the bottom of the rise, waiting their turns to roar up the slope. Easy targets, ducks in a row. The fourth balloon was for the fat man’s Jeep. He really wanted to hit that. Badly. He had bright red paint today. That’d look good on the green of the Jeep.
He reviewed his plan as he guided the Drifter up the canyon. Firewall the throttle. Pick up as much airspeed as possible. Pop up quickly above the rim, sun behind him, and dive on the crawlers, dropping the balloons. Bank right to ascend the slope and skim over the Jeep. Make the last drop. He grinned. That would put the plane right in the middle camera’s view. Ruin the shoot. Bank right again and dive back into the shelter of the narrow canyon. He’d be over them for perhaps forty seconds. He checked his ammo in a little box tethered to the floor under his legs. He was ready. He eased the throttle forward. He watched for a large sandstone boulder at the base of the western wall, his marker for popping the plane out of the canyon and over the plateau. He yanked the stick back and the Drifter rose swiftly from the canyon floor.
Four men, separated by about 20 yards each, stood just back from the edge of the canyon wall. All had assault rifles. They fired as he flew overhead. Noah could hear bullets whistling past over the roar of the engine. He glanced left at the wing. He saw sky through several little, ragged, round holes. He banked sharply away and looked for the crawlers. The thin man had fooled him; four of them sat idling on the slickrock, but each a few hundred feet from the others. Two more men with rifles fired at him. Noah pulled back on the stick and banked again, but he had lost airspeed. He had to get back to the canyon. He looked down. The four men on the rim were running for the edge of the canyon, anticipating his move. He pushed the nose of the Drifter sharply down and leveled off a few feet from the slickrock. He flew directly at the four men. They froze, then dropped to the bedrock. But one stood, aiming. That shot chipped the prop, and the imbalance left the Drifter vibrating as Noah dove it into the canyon. He leveled off and flew downstream, throttling back.
The Drifter yawed left. The wing fabric had torn, diminishing lift. He fought vibration and yaw as he made his way to Blue Spruce Creek, then south, following Forest Road 153. If he could only make it to Escalante, he thought — but twelve miles later, the rent fabric of the wing fluttered uselessly, and the Drifter had lost too much lift. He set it down while he still had control on the road near Black Hills, just north of Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. He shut down the engine and unhooked his seat belt.
Noah stepped from the plane, bent over, and vomited. He took a few uneasy steps, then fell to the ground, breathing heavily. After a few minutes, he took off his helmet, set it in the cockpit, and pushed the Drifter onto the side of the road.
He pulled out his cell phone and spoke one word to dial: “Annie.” It rang, then:
“Yes, Annie. I need help.”
“Oh, crap. What happened?”
“They knew I was coming.”
“I don’t know. But the Drifter got shot up.”
“Noah, it isn’t working. Those guys will kill you.”
“Well, they missed me. But they chipped the prop and ripped up the left wing.”
“Would you go to the hangar and get another prop and some fabric? I’ll meet you at Escalante Muni. I can fix the Drifter and fly it back.”
“Please, Annie. No buts. Not now.”
Annie did not answer. He only heard her disconnect. But he knew she’d do what he asked. Annie was, among other qualities, reliable and discreet. That’s why he’d hired her.
He knew she was right. It wasn’t working. He’d have to be more careful, or he’d have to stop.