The Navajo kids were playing in their yard when the outlaw walked up.
Looking dirty and tired, dressed in camouflage pants and limping under a heavy pack, he emerged from a dry creek bed the morning of July 27 and passed within 100 yards of the house.The children ran to their mother. It's him! they said. One of the bad guys!
She looked out the window and saw they weren't joking. There, just beyond the horse corral, was Alan "Monte" Pilon, one of two suspected cop-killers sought in the biggest manhunt in Rocky Mountain history.
Amid the twisting canyons and lonely mesas of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado, Pilon and partner Jason McVean had out-witted an army of lawmen for two months - and Pilon was about to do it again.
If he noticed the Navajo family staring at him, he didn't let on. Head down, he trudged up a rocky hill and vanished over the ridge.
A Navajo SWAT team arrived two hours later, confident that this time, after so many close calls, they'd finally get their man.
But Pilon had other plans. As the Navajo trackers studied the ground, they could tell that the fugitive had broken into a run atop the ridge. He'd circled, backtracked and hopped from rock to rock, hiding his trail so well that the team spotted just one complete footprint over four miles of tracking.
"He used every trick there is to throw us off," said Lt. Leroy Deale.
They stopped tracking at nightfall but resumed at daylight, still hopeful that the trail, however faint, would lead them to Pilon.
But then it started to rain, a rare desert downpour that turned dry creek beds into muddy torrents and washed away every last trace of Pilon's passing.
He'd beaten them again.
The search for Pilon and McVean, anti-government survivalists wanted in the May 29 killing of a Colorado police officer and the wounding of two sheriff's deputies, has cost nearly $2 million and netted nothing but frustration.
A third suspect - 26-year-old Robert Mason of Durango, Colo., - turned up June 4, wounding a sheriff's deputy a few miles west of Montezuma Creek, then fatally shooting himself as authorities closed in.
But his two partners have eluded a manhunt that, at its peak in early June, involved more than 500 searchers from 51 agencies.
The posse has dwindled since then to a much smaller force of local officials from Colorado, Utah and the Navajo Nation, but they're still determined to find the suspects who stunned this region with a violent blast from the lawless Old West.
The morning of May 29, police officer Dale Claxton was on routine patrol in Cortez, Colo., when he spotted a water-tank truck that had been reported stolen the day before.
The truck pulled over just south of town, and as Claxton waited in his patrol car for backup, a man wearing camouflage and a Kevlar combat helmet leaped out of the truck. He opened fire with an automatic rifle, spraying 19 bullets through Claxton's windshield and 10 more through the side window.
Claxton died instantly, still buckled into his seat belt.
"He didn't have a prayer," said Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane. "It was an assassination."
The three gunmen barreled along back roads south of Cortez. They ditched the water truck in someone's driveway, trading it at gunpoint for a flatbed truck, then doubled back toward town.
One gunman crouched on the back of the truck, spraying every police car they met with bullets. Two sheriff's deputies were wounded, and as the outgunned pursuers pulled back to keep from getting shot, the suspects roared down a back road and out of sight.
Forty miles west of Cortez, across the Utah state line, they abandoned the flatbed truck at the bottom of a wild canyon near the Indian ruins of Hovenweep National Monument. Then they vanished on foot into the desert.
The dark side
As searchers hunted for the three, detectives searched for clues to explain such a brutal attack by three local men.
Pilon, 30, was part of a respected family in Dove Creek, 40 miles north of Cortez. McVean and Mason, both 26, lived in Durango, 45 miles east, where neighbors described them as clean-cut and hardworking.
But investigators soon found a darker, hidden side.
All were fascinated with weaponry. McVean, a welder and construction laborer, was obsessed with "The Monkey Wrench Gang," Edward Abbey's novel in which environmental saboteurs plot to blow up a dam and escape into the desert. Pilon was angry at the IRS, which was hounding him for $1,500 in taxes. And Mason's brother, Gary, told authorities that Robert was a survivalist who collected guns, bought ammunition by the case and had long held anti-government views.
According to affidavits, the three had told friends they were stockpiling weapons and food "in preparation for the end of the world, which will be in the year 2000."
Authorities theorize the stolen water truck may have been part of a robbery plot to ram a casino. Or, filled with diesel fuel and fertilizer, "it would make a heck of a pipe bomb," Lane said.
Pilon and McVean are believed to have attended meetings of a secretive militia group called the Four Corners Patriots, but Lane said their actions don't appear to be part of an organized effort.
What united the men, authorities say, was their mutual passion for guns and wilderness survival. In the past two years, the friends made many forays into the desert, caching food and ammunition and practicing survival skills.
They couldn't have asked for a better proving ground. The Four Corners area, where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet, is where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid from the law a century ago - and not much has changed since.
Red sandstone bluffs and canyon walls are riddled with caves, crevices, old mine shafts and Anasazi ruins, each a potential hiding spot and a cool refuge from the burning sun.
The creek and river bottoms offer even better hiding places. Cottonwood, tamarisk and willow form green thickets up to a half-mile wide along stream banks. Brittle, thorny branches slow progress to a painful crawl and can hide a person crouching just 10 feet away.
McVean and Pilon have negotiated both the mesas and canyon bottoms with cunning, Deale said. They've waded through rivers and creeks to foil tracking dogs. They've walked on tiptoe so their tracks resemble a cow's.
"I don't know what book they've been reading, but I'd like to read it myself," Deale said.
The merciless terrain that has concealed the hunted has been hell on the hunters. Infrared detecting devices were thrown out of whack by heat radiating from sun-baked canyon walls. Tracking dogs wilted after just 15 minutes in temperatures of up to 110 degrees. Officers collapsed from heat exhaustion.
Five times, authorities thought they'd surrounded the fugitives. But five times, the men slipped away, or hunkered down until their pursuers left the area - or perhaps were never there to begin with.
After an intense but fruitless search following Mason's shooting on June 4, authorities scaled back the manhunt, only to return in force June 28 to Montezuma Creek when a Navajo girl saw two men thought to be Pilon and McVean "messing around" with a water truck near the San Juan River.
During the following two weeks, searchers heard voices and laughter at night along the closed river. Flashlights bobbed in the brush. One Navajo officer saw the fugitives cross a road, but they dove into brush and escaped before a search party could follow.
Officials brought in an armored vehicle, which rumbled along the river but failed to flush out the fugitives. They fired flares into the thicket to clear brush from the canyon, but the fire burned only about 5 percent of what they'd hoped.
In recent weeks, the search has shifted gears. Investigators are interviewing rural residents, trying to generate leads so small tactical teams can move in quietly to selected areas.
"Now it's more like guerrilla war," said Deale, 45, an Army veteran who grew up tracking livestock on the reservation.
He and his fellow SWAT team members have a few wilderness tricks of their own. Moving silently through the brush, they can read the smallest sliver of a footprint and can tell whether the person who left it was limping or carrying a heavy load.
This past week, checking out some caves near Montezuma Creek, Deale scuffed his foot on the sandstone.
"See that?" he said.
"There," he said, pointing to a faint scrape the size of a fingernail clipping. "That's enough to keep us on a track. What we're looking for is anything out of the ordinary."
As they work their way across the landscape, poking into caves with a pistol and a flashlight, Deale and others often get the spooky feeling they're being watched.
"We're real good targets out there," he said.
The panic is gone
Early on, many residents thought they were good targets, too. They loaded rifles, herded the kids into the living room, and stood guard all night.
But now the panic has faded. Motels are full again in the tourist hamlet of Bluff, which was evacuated after Mason shot himself a few miles to the east. Many residents seem to have accepted fugitives in their back yard as another price of desert life, like rattlesnakes or coyotes.
"We keep out of people's business. As long as you don't do anything to him, he won't do anything to you - that's what we assume," said the Navajo woman who spotted Pilon two weeks ago. (She's still nervous enough, however, that she doesn't want her name in the news-paper.)
Though police chief Lane believes Pilon and McVean are still "out there somewhere" in the 2,000-square-mile search area, he and other authorities say it's possible that the suspects have separated, are dead, or are even sitting in a living room somewhere, drinking beer and laughing at TV reports on the manhunt.
A $300,000 reward ensures a steady stream of tips, most of them worthless, but authorities check them all, Lane said.
What worries him more than false alarms is the possibility that the fugitives are getting resupplied by sympathizers.
Early on in the manhunt, when investigators scoured the countryside for caches of food and ammunition, they found plenty - but not all had been put there by McVean and company. On one rural parcel outside Dove Creek, searchers found a hollowed-out tree stump with hinges. It opened up to reveal a ventilation system for an underground bunker.
"In that area, that's not an odd thing," Lane said. "What these guys believe in is not a rarity. There are people out there who would help them."
The manhunt's "war room" at the Cortez police station, once staffed by 30 investigators, now has just three.
But if the May 29 attack was a flashback to a more lawless time, Lane and other local officials are determined to honor another frontier tradition - that of the lawman who never gives up.
"They have all the advantages right now. We're on their playing field," Lane said. "But I believe that sooner or later, we'll get them. Time is on our side."