Camille wandered among the herd checking the cows, none looked ready to go into labor. She sighed, she remembered the first time she had checked the cows with her grandfather. It had taken all day when he was alive, now it took an hour. It grieved her heart how far the ranch had fallen into poverty but with hard work and prayers, maybe by the time Willow and Gracie were through college it would be returned to the prosperous place it once was and ready for their families. Camille wondered what kind of men her daughters would find to love.
Camille pulled the dog food out of her pack and let the cattle dogs eat a full meal. She petted Roger and Rabbit while watching the herd graze. Her mind lingered on Kyle. They had been through so much together and apart. She knew when he kissed her on the beach below the sushi restaurant that she still loved him desperately.
Her resentment rose and fell like the tides, always surprising her with its fierceness in reminding her of her heartbreak but her mind now knew its source and she found herself struggling to let the pain go. It had been her constant companion for fifteen years. Not feeling it, not carrying it around like a stone in her heart was like trying to cut off her own hand. She didn’t know how to love him and not hate him at the same time. She felt like all the carefully separated colors of her world were running outside her carefully drawn lines.
Her tears came and she let them fall, she wanted the pain to be over, she wanted to feel loved again. She wanted what she and Kyle had before 328 pictures destroyed everything she believed. Pictures that were based on deceit. She had kept herself closed off since that day, when she confessed to Kyle she wasn’t strong enough to lose him again, it was the truth. Her girls were her world now. Maybe that was all she had left in her, just to be their mother till they didn’t need her anymore. She was so tired of the grief, tired of the pain, tired of the fight. Packing the dog bowls in her backpack, she headed to the house.
She was shocked to see three of the horses in the meadow at the base of the Ridgeline trail. Cursing silently, she turned the ATV toward the waterfall. She knew Cajun would stay with his rider, he’d have to carry double back and she would take the other two on the ATV with her. She was going to have a talk with Willow about her wretched horse and its ornery nature.
Halfway up the trail Camille saw something that made her blood run cold. Dirtbike tracks in the muddy snow over the top of hoof prints. Someone had followed the girls and Sheridan up the trail. She followed the tire tracks and the trail to just below the top of the ridge, counting on the terrain to hide the sound of the ATV. Pulling off, she parked behind a cedar tree.
Camille cursed herself for not bringing her rifle or cell phone as she moved silently parallel to the trail. She could hear the girls’ laughter echoing toward her. Then the sound of a gunshot and screams.
Camille ran and saw two men standing in the notch between two boulders. Tiana was getting off Cajun, Willow was standing by Cajun’s rump with her hand resting on it. Camille couldn’t see Gracie but she could hear her crying. From her vantage point there was no sign of Sheridan. The blank, almost calm expression on Willow’s face told Camille what her adopted daughter was thinking. The bodyguard was dead and Willow was going to use Cajun to distract them. The old cattle pony had training only two people outside the family knew about.
Unarmed and without the hope of covering the distance unseen, Camille reached out to her girls the only way she could. Camille whistled the signal for evacuate the pool and diver on platform in the tones of a whippoorwill and Willow nodded ever so slightly. They had the start of a plan.
A few minutes earlier...
Donnie Valtini sneered at the girls, “He was a real laugh riot. Now get off the horse, my angel, or one of the twins will join him.”
“He’s dead,” one of the sisters whimpered.
The other sister stood between him and the one kneeling over the dead man, her hand on the horse’s rump. Tiana slid off the horse gracefully. She was more beautiful than Donnie remembered.
Giovanni stepped out from his spot, standing on the trail as Donnie hopped down to stand next to him. They loomed over the path in front of girls blocking any chance of them running past the men.
Neither paid attention to a whistle-like bird call.
“Cajun, get the coyotes!” The taller twin shouted and whistled shrilly as she slapped Cajun on the rump and the horse reared and lunged at the men, snorting angrily.
Giovanni jump to the side as the charging horse slammed Donnie into the rock, striking his arm with a hoof. Giovanni tried to shoot the horse but it reared again and struck at him. A shrill whistle sounded and the horse lashed out with its back legs, kicking Gio and knocking him to the ground before it ran away. Cursing, Giovani emptied his gun after the fleeing equine.
“Forget the horse, get the girls!” Donatello shouted, but when the Valtinis recovered enough to look around, the girls were gone.
Giovanni cursed, clutching his rib where the horse had kicked him. Donatello held his arm, then reached to pick up his pistol with his left hand.
“What the hell!” Donnie cursed.
“The horse was trained, like an attack dog. When the girl whistled, it obeyed,” Gio growled out.
“Who trains horses to attack things?” Donnie pulled his belt off, and making a loop to sling his arm in. “It broke my arm!”
“It acted like a Lipizzaner,” Gio answered calmly, he began to walk around looking at the ground.
“What the hell is a Lipizzz... Lizzazer... Lipa-whatever? You know what never mind, I don’t care. It’s gone and we need to find those girls. They saw you kill this guy.”
“We only need yours.” Gio pointed out. “We should kill the sisters.”
“We take all three. I am going to make something out of this before I kill that bi*tch Tonia. She got us into it,” Donnie hissed as he bent his arm to put it in the belt looped around his neck. Cursing the turn of events, he called out loudly, “Girls! Girls!” he shouted, “If you come out, we won’t kill you. We only want Tatiana. Tatiaannnaaa, we have your mother, unless you want her hurt, you better come here right now.”
Camille watched the men looking around, listened to them and knew that the one shouting was Donnie Valtini. They were after her girls and Tiana, and they had Tonia. She slipped around them and ran for the waterfall, she knew where the girls would go and she needed to catch up to them before the Valtinis.
“Keep going!” Willow shouted as she gave up trying to catch up with Gracie and Tiana. She knew they were heading for the old fire tower. She stopped and rubbed her leg, it burned like she was going to have another muscle cramp. She heard the man she suspected was Donnie yelling.
“Girls! Girls! If you come out, we won’t kill you. We only want Tatiana. Tatiaannnaaa, we have your mother, unless you want her hurt, you better come here right now.”
Willow knew her mother was close by but how could she handle two armed killers alone, Willow wondered. She stomped through the snow at a fork in the trail and made it look like the three of them had run the path toward the path down the cliff to the valley floor. She tried to make it look like her sister and Tiana were all running a different direction than they were. Willow knew she couldn’t run anymore but she could lure them away from Gracie and Tiana until help came. The only place on the ridge where they could get a cell signal was the fire tower and Gracie had her phone. Both sisters knew the lockbox combination so Willow knew Gracie could lock herself and Tiana inside until help came. Willow decided she had to give her sister time to get there, then she would try to sneak back to the house.
“Come on Tatiana. I’ll let your friends go, if you come out.” Donnie called out again.
Limping quickly, Willow almost collided with her mom coming around a boulder. Both jumped back in shock then hugged.
“Mom, they’re coming up the trail,” Willow whispered.
“I know, they want to take all of you back to where they have Tonia. Why didn’t you go to the tower with Gracie and T?” Camille murmured back.
“My leg gave out. It hurts so bad, Mom, I can’t run anymore.”
“Get on my back, I’ll carry you,” Camille turned and bent.
“You can’t carry me, Mom!” Willow hissed. “We’re the same size.”
“If I can carry your uncle around the house, I can carry you back to the ATV. Hurry up or I’ll throw you over my shoulder like a feed bag,” Camille insisted.
They could here Donnie and the other man talking in a strange language where Willow had run through the snow. Camille struggled under the weight of her foster daughter but years of physical training and a mother’s determination helped her. By the time they reached the notch in the boulders, Camille’s legs felt weak. She set Willow down and gasped for breath. They both tried not to look at Sheridan, then Camille walked over and began checking his pockets under his coat.
“Mom? What are you doing?” Willow hesitatingly asked.
“I had the dogs when I checked the cattle so I didn’t bring my rifle. I just headed up here when I saw the horses wandering. All of Benton’s men carry firearms, we need Sheridan’s pistol,” Camille answered.
“It’s on his belt in the back,” Willow gagged out, the sight of so much blood making her queasy. She had spent her childhood helping birth calves and care for wounded animals but this… this was different.
Camille rolled him over and pulled the M&P-9 out of its holster. It felt bulky in her small hand.
They heard Donnie’s voice shouting again. “Tahhh-tiaaaana, come out and come out now or we will have to kill your friends when we find you.”
Whistling softly, Willow started limping down the trail hoping Cajun hadn’t run too far as Camille laid Sheridan back the way he fell. She hated to leave him there but she didn’t have a choice, she had to get Willow away and then get to Gracie and Tiana.
“Mom,over here,” Willow’s urgent but quiet voice pulled Camille away from their dead friend. Cajun was trotting up the trail and there were two motorbikes leaned against the granite wall.
“Horseback or dirtbike?” Camille asked.
Willow shook her head, “I couldn’t shift gears, my leg is cramping and my foot will barely move.”
“Up you go, when you get home call Ruby at 9-1-1 dispatch then call Kyle, Benton is with him and they are closer than town.” Camille advised as she helped Willow onto the old horse.
There was blood on his flank but Camille didn’t tell Willow that Cajun had been shot. She hated putting him through a five mile hard ride and she almost told Willow to get down.
Instead she rubbed Cajun’s cheek. “Just get her home, old man. Then you can rest, I promise.”
Her Grandpa Ben’s horse snorted, rubbing his head on her shoulder. It was a familiar comforting gesture. She watched them start down the rocky trail. Help was now more than an hour away unless Gracie had gotten through on her phone. Camille moved the dirt bikes to where she had hidden the ATV, with any luck she could get the girls from the fire tower, sneak past Valtini and his partner, and they could ride back to the ranch. She prayed as she started back up the trail cautiously, trying to figure out where the men were before she went after the girls. Sneaking past them once wouldn’t be a problem, but twice?
As soon as Cajun reared up, Gracie grabbed Tiana and ran back toward the high water crossing. Her mother had whistled the signals for ‘evacuate the pool’ and ‘diver on platform’. It sounded like a birdcall but Gracie saw Willow nod slightly. Both knew their mother wanted them to run and the only platform around was the old Forest Service fire watchtower. If they could get there, they could lock themselves inside. It was also the only place on the ranch that got cell service beyond the wifi of the house. That is if barely half a bar part of the time could be considered service. Gracie hoped she could get at least one call through. As they ran, Willow had shouted at them to keep going and Gracie prayed her sister didn’t do something stupid like confront those two murderers.
‘Just sneak around them and go home, Willow,’ Gracie silently begged her sister.
“Gracie... slow... down... I can’t... keep up...” Tiana wheezed, she was clutching her side as she stopped. “Where’s... Willow?”
Gasping for breath, Gracie hoped Tiana could make it up the 90 steps ahead. “She’s going to get help. Come on, we have to get to the fire tower.”
Suddenly Tiana vomitted, and Gracie gagged, trying desperately not to join her while she held her friend’s hair.
“They... they k-killed Sheri... they j-just killed him and... and they’re g-going to t-ta-take me. J-just leave m-me, Gracie, leave m-me and hide,” Tiana stammered between sobs and heaves.
“Shh, it will be okay... We just have to get to the fire tower and I can call for help after we lock ourselves in. We’ll be safe.” Gracie tried to sound confident, but she was more scared than she had ever been in her life. Pulling Tiana to her feet, Gracie slung her friend’s arm over her shoulder, “Lean on me, I ain’t letting nuthin’ happen to my Tadpole, that’s my baby brother equivalent.”
Tiana sobbed and laughed at the same time. “You’re such a weirdo.”
“Nope, just suffering from an unfulfilled obsessive need for a baby brother. It’s a syndrome don’t ya know,” Gracie grinned, trying to hurry them toward the tower, saying any stupid random thing that came to her head, to distract Tiana from the fact if those men caught up with them, they were screwed.
Tiana slumped when she saw the tower, “Are you freaking kidding me? That thing’s a mile high!”
“It’s only three stories, just 90 steps,” Gracie assured her. She glanced at her phone, still no signal. She hoped they would have better luck at the top. From the top, she would be able to see the valley and the town.“Five less than to the top of a 10M platform.”
They climbed quickly, at the top Gracie held out her phone, walking back and forth on the deck. She found a spot with a slight flicker of a bar. She dialed 9-1-1 three times before the call went through but the voice on the other end was broken and indecipherable then the call dropped. Gracie dialed again, this time as soon as it connected she started talking.
“Ruby, if you can hear me. It’s Gracie Wallace. We’re trapped at...” The call dropped. Angrily Gracie dialed again. “It’s Gracie. We’re at the old Fire Watchtower above Ridgeline Falls. Tell Sheriff Tanner, Sheridan is dead. Donnie Valtini is here. We need help.”
Ruby’s voice was broken in the crackle of static,“Gra... call...hear... Sheriff T... ner...” the call dropped.
Gracie tried again but there was no signal. She was about to throw her phone off the tower when Tiana called her over to the other side.
“Look. Someone’s riding back. I think it’s your mom or Willow.” Tiana felt hopeful for the first time since Sheridan was killed.
“Good because I don’t know if Ruby understood me and I’m not getting a signal at all now.” Gracie scowled down at her phone before, scanning the trees for Donnie and his buddy. “Was that the guy that... you know... Tadpole’s father?”
Tiana nodded, “That was Donnie but I don’t know who was with him. What are we going to do? They might hurt you, hurt both of us. The door is locked and if we stay up here they will see us for sure.”
“I know a magic trick.” Gracie knelt in front of the door and spun the knob on the lock box, it popped open and a key fell out. She put the panel back on the front and twisted it till it clicked back in place. Then she opened the door. “After you, fishbowl.”
“Fish. Bowl.” Tiana demanded mortified. “Really?”
“What else would you keep a tadpole in? Willow wants to call you frogpond or swamp-belly,” Gracie shrugged. “How about lilypad?”
“None of the above!” Tiana facepalmed as Gracie locked the door behind them.
The only light in the dusty, shuttered space came from a single small skylight. The air was chilly. It was a single square room, with a few chairs and a cot leaned upright on one wall.. Gracie began digging through a cabinet and pulled out a couple of blankets. She handed them to Tiana before she pulled the cot down and set it up.
“How did you know to come here?” Tiana wondered aloud, wrapping the blanket around her shoulders.
“Mom told us to come here, she whistled diver on platform. This is the only building up on this end of the ranch besides an old lineman’s cabin at the bottom of the falls. It’s as high as a platform.” Gracie sat down next to her.
“How did it get here? How did you know how to get in?” Tiana had never seen a fire tower up close.
“The National Forestry Service built it, and since it is on our ranch, we take care of it when there’s no one here. Gramma Doreen used come up and clean it before the rangers got here for the season but now it has cameras mounted on the top and a cable to the ranch. They ran 6 miles worth of cable and hooked into our DSL just so they wouldn’t have to pay someone to stay here and watch for fires.” Gracie explained then she began telling about when and why the towers were built, anything to keep both their minds off what was happening outside.