Lloyd turned on the four wheel drive, headed toward a gate on the pasture fence line, he didn’t speak and his expression was grim.
As they drove across the pasture toward the Ridge, Kyle asked, “What didn’t you tell her?”
“Tank said the guy with Donatello Valtini is probably his cousin Giovanni. He killed a girl only a few years older than Milli. He got out of prison on a technicality but he will be going back if they can catch him to be tried again. We are in for a fight. The Valtinis have nothing to lose.”
Kyle’s face hardened and he glanced back at Benton, who warned, “We’re just here to rescue the girls, we aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize that.”
Lloyd looked at him out of the corner of his eye, “Is there something I should know?” He followed the old truck track that led to the Notch. It was away from the horse trail so Lloyd hoped the Valtinis wouldn’t hear them.
As he turned on another switchback, Kyle answered in a deadly angry voice, “I believe Giovanni Valtini is the reason my brothers and Camille’s sister are dead.”
“If you are going to do anything that would put the women at risk I will leave you handcuffed and locked in the back of my jeep, Mr. Hightower. I am already going against orders by not waiting for Sheriff Tanner and the S.W.A.T. team.” Lloyd warned.
“I just want Camille and the girls to be safe, I won’t do anything foolish,” Kyle promised.
Lloyd parked at the turn-about and climbed out. He lead them through the trees to the Notch, a dip in the stone cliff between two boulders. Benton leaned over the dead man they found there and closed his eyes with a muttered profanity. The old man seemed greatly pained by the younger man’s murder, but stood up with resolute determination and stalked after Lloyd. Rand and Kyle followed.
“Damn I wish we had Heith here. He’s a better shot than either of us,” Rand whispered. Kyle only nodded but before he could say anything they heard gunfire and shouting. The four charged toward the sounds.
“The trail to the Fire Tower is just on the other side of the river,” Lloyd explained. “It sounded like they were close to the high water crossing.”
They crossed the bridge and Lloyd could see the one he assumed was Giovanni Valtini carrying Coach Wally. Donnie was nowhere in sight. Lloyd waved them ahead and they moved as quickly and quietly as they could toward and old iron and wood plank bridge. Benton and Rand stayed on the far side and hid while Lloyd and Kyle crossed back over and waited behind trees. Lloyd didn’t feel his normal detachment before combat, he felt heated rage. He was about to face the men who were hunting Tiana and terrorizing Milli. He was going to make things right for the women he loved.
As soon as Giovanni Valtini walked onto the bridge holding Camille Wallace, Lloyd stepped out and shouted at them.
“Sheriff’s Department. Put the woman and your weapons down, and raise your hands.”
The criminal barely spared Lloyd a glance as his service weapon pointed at his head, his complete attention was on the man next to Lloyd. Giovanni Valtini was staring at Kyle Hightower the way a child looks at an interesting insect.
“Hello again, Mr. Hightower. What did you do to keep your brother from coming back to bet with me? He was still playing and pay for two more years then stopped. I missed his easy money,” Gio taunted.
Lloyd noticed that Camille’s hand hanging limp made a gesture, the baseball hand signal for two runners on base. She was telling him the other Valtini was close. He took a moment to glance around while Kyle confronted his enemy.
“You’re a liar, Mr. Valtini. You ruined all our lives that night, but I heard you killed a girl and went to prison. That’s not much of a retirement.” Kyle shouted back over the noise of the river.
“Keep him talking, ” Lloyd said in a low voice.
Kyle continued. “Where’s your cousin so we can get this over with?”
Giovanni laughed, it was a mirthless hard sound. “Donatello is around somewhere, probably chasing after that little girl he got pregnant. He always was a fool, who liked whores. Just like you and your brothers. I know that Kristopher died and it was because he killed himself. He was a weak boy. He let his pathetic girlfriend gamble away everything they had and then instead of protecting her, and paying what they owed me, he let her pay it with the only thing she had left. Her body. He couldn’t handle it, so he let her come to me so stoned she couldn’t stand up. She was as weak as him, nothing like this angel. The one you threw away for some painted prostitute.” Gio’s words made Kyle’s soul grow cold.
“You don’t know anything about us,” Kyle shouted back angrily.
“Easy Kyle, he’s baiting you,” Lloyd said softly, still scanning the trees for Donatello Valtini. He had already promised himself that Tiana’s rapist would not leave the mountain alive.
Giovanni continued to taunt Kyle, “I know much. I know you are in love with her but she does not love you. I know that she is beautiful and graceful and strong. I know that she is stronger that Ron was, stronger than you are.”
Camille moved and Gio looked down into her. Kyle and Lloyd couldn’t hear what she said to him or what he said back over the sound of the river but he shifted her so she was standing, still in his arms, while they talked. Her expression became one of pained horror. Giovanni was looking at her in a strangely possessive way.
“Camille, come here,” Kyle called out to her but Giovanni only held onto her tighter. His gun pressing against her back.
“Step away from my cousin and his friend,” Donatello Valtini shouted from the trees. Lloyd picked him out from between the evergreens immediately. Shifting his aim to Donatello. He and Donnie stared at each other as Lloyd called out to his cousin.
“Let her go and surrender, Valtini.” Lloyd chose his words to let them both know they weren’t leaving a free men, but trying not to make them feel their situation was hopeless. “You both are already wanted for assault, don’t add abduction.”
“You heard the man, release Coach Wallace,” Benton shouted from behind Giovanni, who glanced over his shoulder at the other two men.
“No, she is mine,” Gio snarled, raising his gun to point at Kyle then everything happened at once.
Donatello shot at the same time as Lloyd, the sheriff deputy’s rounds exploded in the tree next to the criminal’s face, as Donnie’s bullets caught Lloyd in the side of his vest and in his hip below his vest. The impacts knocked Lloyd to the ground as it felt like his pelvis broke. Camille was struggling with Giovanni, whose pistol fired toward them. Kyle staggered backwards falling over Lloyd who was already on the ground. Benton, Rand, and Donnie exchanged gunfire. Kyle rolled over and got back up. Lloyd pushed himself up and fired at Donnie again, forcing him to flee. When Lloyd looked back to the bridge Giovanni and Camille were gone. Kyle shouted at Benton to find the girls, and Rand to help Lloyd, who was clutching his side below his vest.
Rand rushed over to Lloyd, “Where are you hit?”
“S.O.B. got my hip and my vest,” Lloyd groaned then his radio squawked.
“McConnell? Where are you?” It was Sheriff Tanner.
“We’re at the high water crossing. Officer down, two armed suspects, one has a hostage, they headed toward the falls.” Lloyd answered.
Moments later, Sheriff Tank Tanner and two highway patrol deputies were sprinting toward them.
“How bad are you?” Tanner demanded, he looked as angry as he did concerned.
“Forget me, the girls are at the Fire Watch Tower with Donnie Valtini on that side of the river and Giovanni Valtini has Camille.” Lloyd pointed to the river, “On the other side, Hightower went after them alone. They headed toward the falls”
“AirRescue is on the way, Sheriff.” Officer Willis of the Highway Patrol interrupted. “Swat is still at the ranch.”
“Green, you’re with me. Willis, Deeks, stay with McConnell and don’t let him die before I fire him.” Tanner turned to go.
“What the heck do you mean fire me?” Lloyd growled through the pain.
Tanner turned back suddenly. “I ordered you to wait for backup. Now, I have two armed murderers running through the woods with a woman hostage. And you better hope she makes it out of this okay and those girls too.” Tanner’s eyes took on this steely hard edge that Lloyd had never seen before the sheriff turned away and jogged across the bridge.
“Damnnnn,” Deeks swore.
Willis gave a low whistle. “It ten years I have never seen Sheriff Tanner get pissed. What the hell were you thinking, McConnell?”
“I was thinking that my niece was up here hiding from the man who raped her, and I didn’t have time to wait,” Lloyd answered. Suddenly there was the muffled sound of more gunfire and they all turned turned toward the River. Minutes later, indiscernible shouts from near the Falls.
Benton spoke over the radio. “McConnell, this is Benton, I’ve got two sea monsters and a tadpole.”
Deeks and Willis looked confused as Lloyd answered, “Stay put until Tanner gives the all-clear.” He was about to pass out and he knew it.
Tank’s voice was the next to come across the radio, “Ruby, get the Forest Service search and rescue, and that helicopter up here. We have two, possibly three people who went over the Ridgeline Falls.”
Lloyd tried to ignore his own pain as he drifted out of consciousness. He knew Camille would be fine if she went over, she’d made that jump before but the only other people on the Ridge were, the Valtinis, Hightower, and Rand Green. He malevolently hoped it was the Valtinis and that they died. Through the haze of blood loss, Lloyd had the vague awareness of a rescue basket being hoisted up before the AirRescue flew on. Flashbacks from Afghanistan filled his mind. An IV was put in his arm and an injection burned but he couldn’t react to tell them no pain medication. He hated it. It felt like it did the last time he was shot-up and they put him under to evac him, it felt like someone pushed the pause button on death and he was trapped in between.
Lloyd woke up slowly, He felt worse than the time the IED had thrown the armored personnel carrier in front of his onto the hood of his APC. His driver had managed to back out from under the burning armored vehicle as they scrabbled out to help and lay down suppression fire. The other driver had died in his arms. Then a RPG had rolled his APC over into a ravine. He had dragged the others out even though all but two were dead. Those two he had carried a mile down the ravine with three bullets in his body. The beeping reminded him of when he woke on a Naval hospital ship. He didn’t want to wake up, he didn’t want to remember his friends were dead.
“Uncle Lloyd, are you awake?” Tiana’s voice sounded so sacred and so far away, but he could feel her tiny hand in his like a lifeline.
“T-tiana... water...“His throat felt like he had swallowed a pinon cone.
A straw was pressed against his lips and he sucked greedily, coughing a little before drinking more. She sat the glass down and pushed the nurse button.
“Can I help you?” Came a woman’s voice.
“Please send the doctor, my uncle is awake.” Tiana’s blue-green eyes shined with tears of relief as she squeezed his hand. “Does it hurt?”
“I’m okay, mermaid,” he whispered gruffly. “Are you okay? The Valtinis didn’t hurt you?”
“They’re dead... I’m fine... I... I just glad you didn’t die,” Tiana cried.
An older man in a white coat came in, he looked over Lloyd, told him how lucky he was that the bullet stuck in the bone after nicking a vein, instead of bouncing around his guts and turning them into swiss cheese. When Tiana turned white and started crying again, Lloyd demanded to know when he could go back to work and then dismissed Dr. Houser. Gracie showed up a while later and she and Tiana went to get coffees. Hightower still wasn’t awake after his surgery.