Jason's Ramcharger careened around a blind turn on the narrow dirt road and almost went into a ditch.
Tom held on to the strap above his door and closed his eyes in fear as they fishtailed. "You're lucky there aren't any trees in this stretch, Sheriff."
Jason gunned out of the loose sand and veered back onto the washboard road. "Yeah, and it's a good thing we're police officers, otherwise we'd get ticketed for reckless driving."
"We're pretty near Bighorn Buttes, aren't we, Sheriff?"
Jason concentrated intently on the road. "Those are the Buttes dead ahead. We'll be there in a few minutes. Try to raise Dwayne on the radio again."
Tom keyed the mike. "Dwayne Johnson, this is Mutz. Do you read me? Over." He repeated the transmission twice more before giving up. "Doesn't sound like there's anybody home, Sheriff. You want me to keep trying?"
Jason swerved to avoid a large rock on the right edge of the road. "No, if Dwayne doesn't answer his radio, it's because he can't. You better get the shotgun ready. If Saunders is there, it'll be your job to keep him pinned down."
The Ramcharger bounced its way up a small hill, two giant rock columns loomed a quarter of a mile away. "We're almost there. I'm going to really – "
Jason slammed his foot on the brakes to avoid hitting a green Forest Service truck that was sitting in the middle of the road a hundred feet ahead.
"LOOK OUT!" screamed Tom as he braced his whole body for the impending collision.
Jason could feel the Ramcharger starting to power-slide out of control. He savagely jerked the wheel left, then right, as he pumped the brakes. The truck spun 180 degrees and came to a stop in a cloud of dust, inches from the other vehicle. Jason held the steering wheel in a death grip and let his head fall back against the vinyl head-rest as he thanked God they had managed to stop in time.
Tom opened his door and jumped out, his shotgun held at the ready. Whatever danger was afoot could not possibly compete with the scare he had just had inside the truck.
Jason drew his pistol and followed. "That looks like Dwayne's truck to me." His eyes settled on the message scribbled across the back window of the Ford. "Pinnacle Ridge? Now what do you suppose that's supposed to mean?"
Tom opened the driver's side door of the Ford and scanned the interior. He noticed a lunch cooler sitting on the floor of the cab, and picked it up. Scrawled atop the plastic handle in black Magic Marker was the name DWAYNE JOHNSON.
"You're right, Sheriff. Here's his gut bucket."
Jason nervously eyed the surrounding hills. "See anything else?"
"Well, somebody shot his radio transmitter. But I don't see any blood or anything like that."
"Let's split up and search the area, Tom. You go up the road and I'll circle around to the left. Go slow, and be careful. I don't want any heroics."
Tom smiled. "I still haven't paid off the house yet, Sheriff. So, don't worry about me. I'm here for the duration."
Jason grinned and headed off for the left side of the Camel Rocks. He tried to remember where Pinnacle Ridge was located. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he just couldn't place it. Ten minutes later, he and Tom met at Linda's abandoned truck without having seen anything out of the ordinary.
Jason surveyed the battered Datsun. "It looks to me like Linda left here in a real big hurry. There are clothes scattered all over the inside of the cab, along with food, and a bunch of other junk; but there's nothing that indicates a struggle of any kind. Except, of course, that all the tires have been slashed."
Tom pressed the metal latch and raised the hood. "Yep, and the distributor cap is also missing, Sheriff. "
Jason walked around the side of the truck and stared in at the engine. "That's the same thing that happened to her truck when she left it out at Jumpup the day Willie Meeks was murdered. This has got Saunders' name written all over it. The question is: did he kill Dwayne and Linda, or did they somehow escape? Pinnacle Ridge! I remember now. It's on the eastern edge of the Paria Plateau." He pointed beyond Bighorn Buttes. "Dwayne wrote that inscription on his window to let us know that's where he was going."
Tom looked confused. "But why, Sheriff?"
"Beats me. But it's the only thing that makes any sense. Linda's sleeping bag is all balled-up over there by the fire, and her gear is still here. She was probably camped for the night when Saunders showed up. The point is: Dwayne's gone to Pinnacle Ridge."
"Don't you think we oughta make sure they still aren't here, Sheriff? Maybe we should honk the horn or something. You know, see if they answer. Tom started beeping the Datsun's tinny horn. "And what about Jenny Hatch?"
"I don't see her truck, or any of her camping gear. Maybe she's at Pinnacle Ridge." He started walking back to his truck and waved at his deputy to join him. "Come on, Tom. That's enough of the horn. Nobody's going to answer you."
Tom struggled to keep up with the Sheriff. "Do you think they're still alive?"
"That's a good question, Tom. Dwayne obviously left here alive, because he told us where to look. And we know that Jenny was alive at eight this morning, because she called in on the radio. Beyond that, I’m not sure. What I want to do right now is bring in some of our deputies from town and some more from Page, and get both ends of the House Rock Valley Road closed off. Saunders had to have driven in here, because the chopper has been in the shop until this morning. The next thing I want to do is alert Sheriff Smoot to what's happening. He can get a team together to cover the Kanab airport. The judge who picked up the chopper has his Lear Jet sitting back on the runway in Kanab, so we know he's got to return there sooner or later. And I want Barry Smoot to be waiting there with a warrant to search his helicopter and jet when he does."
Tom removed his hat and scratched his head. "How far is it to Pinnacle Ridge, Sheriff?"
"Thirty minutes if we drive like we did coming in. As I remember, the road gets pretty bad up on top of the Paria Plateau. And once you turn onto Pinnacle Ridge, the whole place turns to sand."
Tom clapped Jason on the back and smiled confidently. "Well then cheer up, Sheriff. If we made it out here in one piece, we can do it again."
Jason increased his step and looked back with anxiety at his young deputy. "Yeah, but don't forget, this is the second time today we've been late for a date with Saunders. First, at his house, and now out here at Bighorn Buttes. And I've got a bad feeling that from here on out, we're going to start finding bodies."