Kyle was having a nightmare, Camille was chained, suffering. She wouldn’t look at him and he couldn’t reach her through a cell door. Horrified, he watched as her tattoo tore itself from above her beating heart and fluttered toward him. Its grotesque flesh wings dripping blood as it passed through the bars. It dropped to the floor at his feet, flopping helplessly. Dying...
“Please don’t hurt me again,” Camille whimpered, “I’m not strong enough.”
Kyle stared at her, seizing the door and shaking it harder as she seemed to slump, a bloody hole above her heart. He strained to reach through to her but she was just beyond his grasp.
“Camille... CAMILLE!” he shouted helplessly. Tears falling, he bowed his head, “Please don’t leave me, I can’t lose you again.”
Looking down, by his feet lay a key with a jeweled butterfly at the top. The tattoo butterfly gone. He bent to pick it up... It was his only hope to reach her...
Before he could rescue her, his nightmare was interrupted.
Rand burst into his room. “Get up boss, we got trouble.”
Kyle rolled over, groaning, “If it’s Sophia, call the sheriff. I need sleep.”
“Hightower, get out of that bed. Sheriff Tanner thinks Valtini’s up at the Wallace ranch,” Benton’s gruff declaration had Kyle on his feet so fast he got dizzy. A stream of profanities issuing from his mouth as he yanked on yesterday’s clothes that he had carelessly thrown in a chair.
“How the hell did they find out they were there so fast? We just got back yesterday morning. Where’s Sheridan?” Kyle demanded as they hurried out to the Hummer. He roughly threw it into gear, not caring about the transmission.
“Gracie called 9-1-1 but the signal was broken. Tanner said his dispatched thinks she heard the girl say someone was dead and they were at the tower above the falls. Evidently, there is an old forestry service fire watchtower about 2 miles upriver from the Ridgeline waterfall. Tanner’s on his way back from Durango, he sent one of his deputies but he will need help.” Benton’s calm explanation had Kyle’s blood running cold, in his heart he was panicking with worry that Camille or Willow was the one who was dead.
Rand leaned forward, “Boss, how are we going to handle it if they are armed.”
Kyle had not even realized Rand had gotten in the back of the Hummer, all he could think about was getting to the Wallace ranch and his family. He couldn’t lose them again.
Benton answered, “The Wallaces have plenty of hunting rifles.” He held on to the door as Kyle took a turn too fast to be safe. “Easy Kyle, if you wreck us on the way there, we won’t be able to help anyone.”
After watching Willow ride off, Camille felt a small twinge of relief that one of the girls would be safe, but it was quickly replaced by a tsunami of worry. She was alone on the ridge with two armed murderers and still had to get Gracie and Tiana away. The thought of what they wanted to do to her girls, that they wanted to make a profit after they were done with them, made Camille want to just shoot them and leave their bodies for the wildlife. But she knew she wasn’t as good a shot with a pistol as she was with a rifle. She wasn’t sure she could kill them without getting herself or one of the girls killed. She couldn’t take the chance.
She cursed herself for leaving her rifle in the gun safe because she was going to check the herd and had relied on the dogs to keep the predators away. One time accidentally stampeding the herd had been enough to make her terrified of shooting around them. She had just planned on driving up to the ridge, retrieving the girls and Sheridan and going straight home but Sheridan was dead, and Gracie and Tiana were hiding in the only locking shelter on this end of the ranch or so she hoped.
Camille crept back to where the trail split, she cautiously walked down the trail, she could see the men standing at the top of the trail stairs that led down to the valley. They appeared to be arguing. One was pointing where she knew the old Lineman’s shack was. The red tin roof was easily visible in the green trees of early spring.
Creeping closer, she listened as best she could over the sound of the river and the waterfalls. She only understood Tiana and Tonia’s names.
They started down and she breathed a sigh of relief. Willow’s ruse worked. Moving as quietly as she could she peeked down the trail and watched them turn at the first of a half dozen switchbacks. It was a mile to the base of the falls and half a mile to the shack. It was not an easy climb in the summer when the trail had been maintained. After the winter snow melt, the trail must be a rutted, muddy mess. She hoped one of them fell and broke their leg.
Camille turned and hurried back toward the high water crossing and the fire tower on the other side. She was exhausted from carrying Willow but she had to get to Tiana and Gracie and get them to the ORVs before the bad guys got to the shack realized they had been tricked and climbed back up. She froze in the woods, hearing something huffing and making whining growling sounds. Instead of going straight to the fire tower, Camille followed the sounds. A small bear, barely more than a cub, was chewing on a dead red Angus cow. Camille retreated without shooting it. She was afraid the men would hear if she did. The juvenile would have to be trapped and relocated or euthanized, sadly once a bear got the taste for beef, it became their meal of choice.
She followed the river and turned off at the fire tower trail to the high meadow.
Willow’s leg hurt less when Cajun cantered up to the house. She eased herself down and almost cried out at the shooting pain in the muscle. She had sprinted over a mile before the pain had become unbearable. She was terrified for her mom, sister, and friend. She was also worried about Cajun. The poor horse had been shot while attacking those murderers. Willow unfastened the cinch and dumped the saddle off him. The bullet had gone through the saddles and she could actually see the lump of the bullet under Cajun’s spotted hide in the muscle.
“You’re gonna be okay, old man.” Willow promised. She limped into the back door and grabbed the phone.
“Nine-one-one, this is Ruby. Gracie?”
“No, Ruby. It’s Willow. Did Gracie tell you what’s going on?” Willow sagged against the counter in relief.
“We barely understood her call. Deputy McConnell is on the way now but Sheriff Tanner was on his way from Durango,” Ruby sounded worried.“Tell me exactly what is going on, Willow.”
“We rode up to the Ridgeline falls because Tiana had never seen them up close. Two guys showed up and killed Mr. Sheridan. Me, Gracie, and Tiana ran. They went to the Fire Watch Tower to lock themselves in. T gets tired really fast. I was trying to sneak past them when Mom found me. We tried to trick them into going down to the bottom of the falls instead of up river. Mom sent me home on Cajun but he was shot too. Please Ruby, they need help.”
“Is Tiana hurt? Does she need an ambulance?” Ruby asked concerned.
“No, it just ’cause of the baby,” Willow answered sharply as she dug through the cabinets in the kitchen for something to use on Cajun’s wound.
“Willow, you’re not making sense. Tiana had a baby with her? Whose baby?” Ruby sounded surprised.
“That guy’s baby, the one who killed Mr. Sheridan.”
“Why did she have his baby with her?” Ruby sounded even more confused.
Frustrated, Willow snapped at the older woman. “Ummm because her mom let him rape her, that’s why she’s having his baby!”
“Tiana is pregnant!” Ruby sounded so shocked that Willow realized that the part-time dispatched didn’t know what had happened to Tiana.
Willow face-palmed when she realized Tiana’s dad’s family didn’t know what was going on or had not shared it with the whole family. “Jeez, your family has worse communication skills than mine.”
“Willow, what happened to make Tiana’s pregnant with some murderer’s baby?”
“Look Ruby, I don’t have time for this. We need the police, the vet, and an ambulance. I gotta patch up Cajun and get back. Mom is up there with those two murderers. If you want to know what Mrs. Ballard did, ask Molly or Lloyd, they know what happened.” Willow hung up on the dispatcher and limped outside. She pressed a tea towel on Cajun’s wound. She heard a vehicle pull up in the front followed a few minutes later by another.
“Willow!” Deputy McConnell bellowed.
“I’m out back!” Willow shouted back.
Kyle came through the house first and out the back door. Willow practically jumped into his arms.
“Kyle!” She shrieked and started crying as he held her.
“Sh, its okay Willow, we’re here.” Kyle tried to comfort her.
Willow blurted out as fast as she could, “No, it’s not okay. Mom and Gracie are still on the ridge with those men. It’s the guy that raped T and another really scary looking guy. He killed Sheridan. Didn’t say anything to us, just shot him. You gotta go! Mom has Sheridan’s gun but she isn’t good with a pistol. And Gracie took T to the fire tower to hide. Mom said she heard them talking, they want to take all of us girls away. She made me ride Cajun back home, but he’s been shot. I called Ruby and she said Tank was halfway back from Durango. You gotta go, dad! Those guys killed Sheridan.” She repeated shakily, remembering how one moment they had been laughing and the next their friend was dead. Suddenly everything she hadn’t let herself feel came rushing out and she started sobbing.
Helplessly Kyle held her in his arms, he was torn between his need to comfort her and rescue Gracie and Camille, “Willow honey...”
Wiping her tears, the teen took three gulping breaths then pushed away from her uncle, “I know you have to go. Mom needs help.”
Benton interrupted softly, “Sweetie, we need you to open the gun safe, only the deputy and I are armed.”
Willow nodded as she limped back inside.
“Willow, what’s wrong with your leg?” Kyle demanded.
“I twisted it running and the muscle keeps cramping around the spot where I stabbed myself with a branch,” she answered, chewing her lip while she worked the lock on the old fashioned safe. Rand and Kyle each took a rifle.
Deputy McConnell looked at Willow, “Lock yourself inside until Sheriff Tanner gets here. We’ll get Tiana and Gracie from the tower and find your mom.”
“Deputy Lloyd? Tiana said you were the best stepdad she ever had,” Willow said quietly.
He frowned regretfully and said, “I never should have left her with Tonia. Lock yourself in, Willow. I mean it.” To Kyle, Benton, and Rand, he said, “Load up, we’ll take my Jeep, we can drive to the Ridgeline Notch. Then we’ll have to walk the three miles to the fire tower.
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 Willow. 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?”
Kyle stopped gritting his teeth to answer, “I believe Giovanni Valtini is the reason my brothers and Camille’s sister are dead.”
“I told you they did not come this way,” Gio snapped at Donnie.
“Just shut up and walk.” Donnie growled at Gio.
Just below the second switchback, the trail was completely covered by a small landslide and fallen trees. There also had been no footprints in the mud or snow. His cellmate after he had killed Ron was an Ayurvedic practitioner in prison for the possession and distribution of controlled substances, which he claimed were purely medicinal and that his rights and religion were violated. He had told Gio many stories about the ways of his beliefs and his childhood in India before his parents sent him to school in America. When he had seen the pictures of Camille Wallace, Gio had kept from Ron’s person items, he had told Gio the Ayurvedic believed blue butterflies to be a sign of healing. Gio found his beliefs ridiculous but interesting, however the teachings about butterflies had fascinated him. His desire for the tattooed diver had become an obsession greater than before. Giovanni believed that Camille was his destiny.
At the top, Donatello was huffing and wheezing like he was dying. “I need a break.”
“You sound like you need a doctor,” Giovanni retorted judgmentally.
“F* you,” Donnie snarled back, but his impotent anger only amused his cousin.
Gio felt slightly winded because of the thin air, but years of daily workouts had left him far stronger and with better endurance than when he had been convicted. He looked down on Donatello’s bent over form and wondered how he ever managed even an hour with a woman if he was this weak. Smirking darkly, Gio decided that this must be the real reason his cousin preferred virgins. Donatello simply did not have the stamina to last like a real man.
“I am going looking for your bride and her friends. Try to be quiet until we catch them.” Gio began walking up stream and found a bridge.
Admiring the landscape, he searched for signs of his prey. Listening to the world around and savoring the symphony of nature denied him by years of incarceration. Spring was coming to the mountains, his least favorite of seasons. He wondered what it was like in the dead of winter when the snow and cold clung to the altitude like a shroud. The rushing water was a sound he enjoyed but quickly another sound drew him, crouching, he approached a clearing and watched a small bear eating on a dead cow. Too small to be on it’s own, Gio admired how voraciously it consumed what nature had provided, how it wanted to live. He admired its will to survive, to fulfill its purpose. Gunshots drew Giovanni’s attention and when he looked back, the little bear had run away.