Patricia Falcon stood rigidly in front of another ‘No Trespassing’ sign.
This piece of coastal Georgia wetlands had remained untouched since the Revolutionary War, yet a developer was proposing to defile it with a nightmarish sprawl of luxury estates. Her stomach churned. She would gladly use her family’s legal skills to save as much as possible.
She clenched her fists, resisting the urge to kick down the rusted marker. Years ago, when she was an idealistic teenager, she probably would have spent the day collecting the offensive signs and selling them to some scrap dealer. Now, vandalism was unimaginable.
On either side of her, aged oaks towered and intertwined to form a dense ceiling. She’d seen plenty of old oaks, but nothing like these dinosaurs. Beauty. Grace. Magnificence. Nothing man-made could compare to such perfection.
The pungent aroma of marsh mud scented the warm September air. A coastal saltwater marsh was less than a quarter mile away. Birds chirped. Their songs mingled with the rustle of leaves to soothe her, though her mind fumed over what might happen to this place.
Her boots crunched decayed foliage as she walked to a tree so massive that she and three others could never get their arms around it. She stopped at its base and pressed her hands against the trunk. A sense of union with nature filled her.
This wild forest, home to innumerable species, was too precious to be abandoned to development. She shivered, but not from cold. Endangered plants grew here. Bald eagles nested. Alligators sunbathed.
Paradise. She inhaled a deep breath, savoring the mixed aromas, then took one last mental snapshot, for future recall. Ageless Southern wilderness unmarred by man.
With a purposeful stride, she headed down the property line, careful to stay on the public right-of-way.
Patricia scanned the limbs above. Gnarled arms draped with gray Spanish moss arched from furrowed trunks. She strained to see what might be lurking.
There. In the shadows.
A bald eagle watched her intently.
She tugged up her camera and zoomed the lens, but before she could focus, the eagle shrieked, beat its wings and lifted into the air. It circled, rising, then flew off through a break in the canopy toward the marsh. The shadows appeared empty.
She knew better. The forest teemed whether or not she saw the critters.
Patricia continued walking the border marked by the rusted signs and photographing several irreplaceable trees. Not a place for mansions and country clubs.
Returning her camera to her backpack, she took a sip of bottled water, and hiked the narrow footpath back toward the dirt road she’d driven in on.
As she emerged from the tunneled path cut through a house-high rhododendron thicket, she froze. Her heart fluttered.
A hefty man with a sour frown and a rifle notched in his arm was standing next to her Escalade. Who was he? What did he want? A hunter? Hunters didn’t wear city clothes.
His dark brown eyes were glinting with menace as they roamed over her, lingering where they shouldn’t.
Patricia glanced down. Her sweat-stained tee-shirt clung to her, revealing too much. Not good. Not good at all. Her body tensed. The forest quieted. Not a sound. Nothing but the quick thumping of her heart.
She cast a quick glance over the road to see if the gunman had a partner lurking. He appeared alone and she could see no vehicle nearby.
Patricia took a deep breath. Okay. First things first. The rifle barrel was aimed downward. His trigger finger was pointed forward in the safe position.