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They made their way slowly through the underbrush, not daring to use the trail. They couldn't really see much in the early evening darkness other than the larger trees and logs. The smaller branches and brush grabbed at their clothing. It was slow going. Freedy felt his new but worn-for-too-many-days-in-a-row clothing tearing.
Sheila was more adept -- no doubt accustomed to stalking her prey, he thought. Fairly early in the going, he realized he should follow her instead of the other way around. Despite the darkness and danger, he was still aware of her proximity, her wiggling body just inches from his face.
It may have been dark, but their goal was easy to see. The lights on the heads of the attackers were zigzagging through the clearing in front of them. No shots had been fired -- the gold miners had been caught napping -- or worse -- playing video games.
They crept as close as they dared. The light passed over them a few times and they froze, but it was clear the attackers assumed they had already won.
"That's all of them, sir. Seven I.D.'s were presented at the ATM and they match these seven."
"We've got them!" the officer in charge said. He was loud and bombastic, to match his large and inflated outline in the darkness. "Ten thousand dollar bounties on each of them plus twenty on the infamous Charlie Emmet."
He kicked out at the bundled shape under him and Freedy heard Charlie grunt.
So there it was, Freedy thought. The big loophole. He'd ordered the Key to call off the authorities, but he hadn't specified bounty hunters. He and the Key were going to have to have another talk, Freedy thought. For all the good it would do. There probably weren't enough words to cover every single possible situation.
He hadn't brought a credit card with him, so he hadn't tried using it at the ATM. Sheila had found out hers was inactive earlier at the motel. A happy accident. Apparently, the bounty hunters didn't know about them.
The other six miners were sitting at the picnic table, three to a bench, their hands bound behind their backs by zipties and their heads were covered by black cloth hood. They had only one guard -- the others were gathered around their leader.
"The copter is coming back at 9:00, this was supposed to be harder. So all we have to do is wait."
"Sir? What about those Harley's? Shame to just leave them here."
"Sorry, Javier, we do it by the book, this time. That was made very clear. No infringement of rights, no absconding with personal possessions."
"What about the guns in the van, sir? Doesn't seem safe to just leave them."
The entire cadre moved over to the back of the van, after which there was a low appreciative whistle. "We earned our money today, boys. These guys were ready for war."
The big man moved away from the others, and faced away, toward the stream, putting his hand to his ear.
"Sir?" It was the leader's voice and there wasn't an answer, so Freedy realized he was talking into a cellphone. "These guys were armed to the teeth. Should we leave the weapons? Yes, sir. I understand sir. Will do."
"Lock the van doors, leave the guns," Freedy could hear the regretful shrug in the lead bounty hunter's voice. "What happens after we leave here isn't our responsibility."
"Damn shame," one of the others muttered.
Since the entire crew was on the other side of the campground, Freedy figured it was a good time to whisper to Sheila. "Still got your badge and your gun?"
"See what you can do to create a diversion. I'll sneak around to the other side and see if I can free the guys -- or try to get one of the weapons."
"Can you shoot someone if you have to?" Sheila asked. "These guys aren't breaking the law, you know."
He winced. He'd been thinking exactly the same thing. Maybe she knew him better than he realized. "I don't know," he hissed. "But I can try to bluff."
He couldn't see her face but nevertheless got a perfectly good picture of her cute nose wrinkling, and her mouth moving to one side in a grimace. "These guys don't look as though they bluff."
"No, they don't."
"I guess we'll both find out. I'll give you ten minutes to get into position," she said.
To the other side of the campground from where they had approached, it was mostly road and other campgrounds. Freedy decided it was safer and quicker to take a big loop around out of sight, and approach from behind.
It took him less than five minutes, even moving carefully. The moon had started to come up, which was a shame. Sure the road had a soft glow in the moonlight and he could easily negotiate it, but he'd be that more visible when he actually reached the prisoners. When the zigzagging headlamps of the bounty hunters was behind him, he turned toward the campground again.
He got into position
The next five minutes were agonizingly slow. He had time to think of all the things that could go wrong. He wasn't worried about himself, he was surprised to find. All this sneaking around felt almost natural, and it was better than doing nothing. No, he was worried about Sheila. These six bounty hunters looked plenty tough, and she seemed such a tiny woman.
Freedy quickly found out how wrong he was.
He'd never seen her in full F.B.I. mode, except through a monitor underground. It was impressive when she approached the campground without hesitation, looking twice her size and with a commanding voice.
"Sheila Moller, F.B.I. Special Agent, Cybercrimes Unit!"
All six headlamps trained on her, and she was holding up her badge with one hand, and had her gun in the other. She looked magnificent. Freedy had to prompt himself to take advantage of the distraction. He crawled over the the three miners who were sitting on the picnic table closest to him. The guard was on the other side of the table, so those three -- whoever they were -- were going to just have to sit out the encounter.
He saw that one of the shapes was bigger than the others, and guessed it was Jim. He touched the bound hands, and the big man seemed to jump a foot. "What the...!"
Freedy dropped to the ground and lay flat. The guard had walked a couple of feet their way, before Jim spoke up again, sounding chagrined. "Man, I just had the biggest bug run across my hands..."
"Shut up, you big wuss," the guard said, but he went back to his original position.
Freedy rose up slowly until he guessed his mouth was near the approximate position of Jim's ear.
"It's me," he hissed. "Freedy."
He had his pocketknife out, and was sawing at the ziptie. It took longer than it should have, and he could hear the conversation between Sheila and the other bounty hunters.
"I don't care who you are!" she was saying loudly. "My badge takes precedence here."
"I'm sorry, Agent Moller," the leader sounded surprising calm. "That simply not true. By law, these men are our captives. You can have them after we've delivered them to the proper authorities."
"I am the proper authorities, you idiot." Sheila nearly shouted.
"Well, you see -- that's just it. Not if you don't have eighty grand to pay us, you aren't."
"Are you saying I wouldn't credit you?" Sheila did shout this time.
"Not at all. Still, just to be safe."
Freedy had sawed through the next pair of hands, and from the calluses he figured this was either Bob or Billy, which meant the next prisoner was either Billy or Bob. When he had all three free, he whispered into each of their ears: "Wait for my signal."
"I'm an F.B.I. Agent, and I couldn't receive a bounty even if I wanted one. The bounties are all yours, Mr....?"
"Herm Hickman, ma'am."
Freedy looked over at the van. They hadn't closed the back door, and the guns were just sitting there gleaming in the moonlight. He had to try.
Again, he took the long way around and came into the campground near the front of the van and crept his way toward the open door.
He froze about halfway down the length of the van, when he saw the guard standing there two feet from the bumper. The guard reached in surreptitiously and grabbed one of the sleek pistols and shoved it into his pocket and quickly walked away.
So much for honesty, Freedy thought. His guess was these guys were nearly outlaws themselves, in fact probably spent most of their lives on the wrong side of the law. It made what he had to do a little easier.
He crawled the final few feet.
Near the entrance of the campground, the shouting match between Sheila and the other bounty hunters was reaching a crescendo. Sheila must have finally said something that upset Hickman, because he was shouting now, too.
"To hell with that! You're not taking them! Where's your backup, agent? Where's your car? You planned to arrest seven highly armed fugitives with a handgun and your admittedly big balls?"
"That's right, Hickman. Bigger balls than yours!"
"Hey, boss. Do you remember they said that someone tried to use a credit card at the motel where these guys were staying? A woman. What was the name...?"
"You're right. I forgot about that. It started with an S...in fact..."
That tore it. Freedy stood up and grabbed the biggest gun in sight which fortunately was the same big rifle he had handled at Lorn Mountain, the one weapon in the entire world that he was familiar with and comfortable with.
He swung it toward the nearest guard, and said in a low voice. "Drop your weapon."
The guy turned around swiftly with his rifle still in his hands, and Freedy shot a round at his feet. There was a sudden silence, and then the man dropped the gun.
"Now!" he shouted, and Jim, Bob and Billy jumped up, tearing the hoods off, and running to the back of the van and loading up. Under the hoods, Jay and Steve and Sam were shouting, "What's going on?" and "What the...?"
The remaining five bounty hunters had frozen at the shot and by that time, Sheila also had her gun trained on them. They looked rapidly from Freedy to Sheila and back again as if trying to figure out if they could take them. By that time, Jim had joined Freedy, quickly followed by Bob and Billy.
Herm Hickman put one hand up, and laid his gun on the ground with the other. The others quickly followed suit.
"You're breaking the law, Agent Moller, if that's who you really are."
"I'm Agent Sheila Moller, all right."
"My guess?" Hickman said bitterly. "Not for long. I figure you owe me eighty thousand dollars, lady."
"Yeah, well good luck with that."
When Sheila was certain that the bounty hunters were covered, she holstered her pistol and helped Charlie to his feet, freeing him. Charlie marched over and punched Hickman in the chest hard enough that the bounty hunter fell down.
"Next time you won't catch us napping! Remembered, we're armed for war and prepared to fight one. So think about your precious bounties are really worth..."
They quickly freed the other three miners. The bounty hunters took their place at the picnic table in exactly the same positions, with the same hoods. Only they were further gagged and their feet bound and tied to the table.
Charlie checked his watch. "The copter is coming back in ten minutes. We've got to load up and get the hell out of here."
There was one last thing to do.
Freedy had seen that the iPad was abandoned on top of the picnic table. He reached through two of the prisoners and snagged it."
"Hey, watcha doin' with that?" Jim cried, alarmed.
Freedy walked over to the outhouse and opened the door.
"Hey that thing cost me six hundr...."
His objection was cut off by the loud splat of a flat hard object landing on soft watery objects.
"You hear that boys?" Charlie said, laughing. "The next time Freedy Filkins, International Jewel Thief tells you do to something, you'd better do it!"