Cash, Rocky and Hank checked the third snow shack in their grid. It was empty. Cash walked away from the other two, despair gripping him.
“This is 1, no one in the third shack,” Hank spoke into the radio.
“I’ve marked it,” Ruby answered back. “4 has finished all the shacks in their grid. I’ve moved them to help 14; they have the most snow shacks.”
“Sounds good,” Hank responded. “We’re on our way to the fourth shack. I’ll let you know what we find.” Hank put the radio back on the snowmobile and looked at Cash and Rocky. “Time to go.”
Rocky just nodded, while Cash didn’t even acknowledge what Hank said. He just trudged back to his snowmobile, head hanging and shoulders slumped. Every call that a shack was empty meant even more time Katie was alone with Damien.
‘We’ve gotta find her,’ Cash thought despondently. ‘I...I can’t do this without her. I’m nothing without her.’
“Boss?” Rocky asked, the concern evident on his face. “You ready?”
Cash just nodded, starting the snowmobile and heading toward the fourth shack. This one was built near a small pond with trees near it. It would be an ideal place to hide.
Katie waited a few minutes before slowly opening the door to the snow shack. She knew Damien wouldn’t be moving fast, as drunk as he was, and he wouldn’t be bothering to hide his footprints. Katie saw they headed north, which must lead straight to the big house. Straight to Cash. Katie took in a deep breath, tightening her grip on the knife, then stepped out into the cold. The wind hit her with unexpected ferocity. She had barely moved and she was already shivering.
‘Fight through it. Just fight through it. There wasn’t another coat or sweater. Just focus on Cash. I have to get to Cash before Damien does.’
Katie started walking through the wind and blowing snow, taking note that the sun had nearly set. She just shook her head, knowing she had to keep going even if it was dark. Her right arm was in searing pain. The rope was still around that wrist, so Katie had fashioned a crude sling to keep it close to her chest. She could feel the blood from the cuts on her eyebrow and lip starting to coagulate. When she glanced down, she saw blood drops in the snow, following her path, from her left wrist.
Katie’s left eye was already starting to swell shut, making it even more difficult to concentrate on Damien’s tracks. Her cheekbone hurt both from the blow Damien had dealt and from the blowing snow and wind hitting her face. She could also feel her throat swelling from Damien’s hands wrapped around it. She stopped and knelt in the snow, scooping some up with her left hand while ignoring the biting cold. She brought it up to her mouth and slowly chewed until she could swallow a little water.
‘I got back from town around two and it’s at least 6pm. I need to get rehydrated. I can’t pass out now.’
Katie glanced around at the surrounding land, hoping she recognized something. Katie didn’t know the terrain of Skyheart well, spending most of her time in or near the big house. The shack was near a small grove of trees and it looked like there was a frozen pond nearby.
‘Okay, avoid the pond, no idea how deep it is, and there’s no way I’d survive falling into freezing water. ... What is that sound?’. Katie started slowing down, then stopped completely, convinced she heard motors in the distance.
‘Is someone coming? Is it Cash?’ Katie’s heart jumped at the idea Cash might be near, then sunk straight to her feet when she remembered Damien and the gun. ‘I’ve got to find Damien. Even if that isn’t Cash, Damien won’t hesitate to kill any of the hands if they find him. Jesus, this is a fucking disaster.’
Katie picked up her pace, but the light was fading fast since the sun had set. She could barely see Damien’s footprints anymore, and the wind was picking up, blowing straight through her sweater and jeans. Suddenly, two bright lights were shining behind the trees and they were moving closer.
‘ATVs. Shit. I have no idea where Damien is and I can’t circle around to the ATVs because they’re moving too fast. Wait!’ Katie squinted hard, seeing movement in the trees. It looked like someone was climbing them. ‘Jesus. Even drunk, he can climb trees.’
Katie moved quietly toward the clump of trees, skirting the pond. Her left hand was shaking hard, making it difficult to keep a firm grip on the knife. Then, the sound of the motors stopped and she heard voices.
“Can’t see a damn thing,” Cash yelled over to someone else. “We’ll have to walk.”
“Boss,” Hank said, “are you-”.
“I’m not driving the snowmobile into the damn pond, Hank. C’mon!”
‘No, no, no, not Cash, not Cash,’ Katie thought, panicking. She could already feel tears gathering in her eyes, but she tried to focus on the tree grove and the man she knew was sitting up in the trees. She couldn’t see Damien anymore, so Katie decided to do something both stupid and desperate.
“Damien’s in the trees, Cash! He’s got a gun and he’s in the trees!” Katie screamed as loud as her hoarse throat would let her.
“Angel?!” Katie heard Cash cry out. “Where are you?”
“He’s got a gun, Cash, turn off the damn lights!” Almost immediately, the two lights from the snowmobiles went out, casting the world into darkness.
“Katie, stay where you are!” Cash ordered. “Don’t move, don’t come any closer!” Katie stopped, her heart pounding.
‘Please, please, please,’ she begged in her head. Suddenly a loud band rang out, making Katie jump. Another two shots quickly followed. She could see little flashes of light each time a gun went off.
‘One of those lights came from the ground. They brought guns too! God, I never thought I’d want to hear a gunshot again, let alone be happy about it.’
Three more shots rang out in quick succession, then Katie saw a large shadow fall from the trees. She stood, frozen, waiting for Cash to call out and tell her it was safe to move. Each moment passed like an eternity, until-
“Angel!” Cash cried out. “Angel, follow my voice!” Katie let out a breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding and started running towards the trees. The two bright lights from the snowmobiles switched back on and Katie could see four figures, one lying prone on the ground.
“Cash?!” Katie yelled. One of the figures broke away from the group, running towards her at lightening fast speed.
“Angel!” Cash and Katie collided into each other with such force, they fell onto the ground, Cash on top of Katie. She let out a short scream as all of Cash’s weight landed on her right arm, tied to her chest with the rope.
“Oh, god, Angel, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Cash said, immediately lifting himself off Katie and standing, then crouching to pick her up. He buried his face in her hair and Katie buried hers in his massive chest. The floodgates finally opened and she started sobbing.
“I’m here, I’m right here, I’m not going anywhere,” Cash kept murmuring to Katie as he walked back to the clump of trees, holding her so tightly to himself it felt as if he would never let her go. Katie couldn’t stop crying, the absolute fear of being in Damien’s clutches again and the threat to Cash’s life too much for her to handle. When they reached the trees, Katie started taking in big gulps of air to try and calm down.
“Is he dead?” she tentatively asked. She could feel the growl rising in Cash’s chest, but he wasn’t the one to answer her.
“Not yet,” Rocky said, sounding almost displeased. “But he’ll need to get to a hospital to get the bullets out of his leg and hip. Are you gonna need the hospital, hon?” Katie nodded, which made Cash clutch her more tightly and caused Katie to yelp as he jostled her right arm.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” Cash said.
“I-it’s okay, I’m okay,” Katie reassured him.
“Hank, help me load up this bastard for the trip back.” Rocky and Hank picked up Damien, causing him to scream.
“You motherfuckers!” Damien angrily yelled. “You fucking shot me! Don’t you know who I am? You’re going to spend the rest of your miserable lives in prison! I can do anything to you, I-aah!” Rocky and Hank dumped him none to gently on the back of one of the snowmobiles. Cash carried Katie to the other one. He abruptly stopped and stared down at her, his eyes wide and full of tears.
“Oh, angel, what did he do to you?” Cash’s face was full of anguish.
“I’m okay. He j-just hit me a f-few times. Hurt m-my throat. Oh, and b-broke my arm. T-that’s going t-to need to g-get set.” Katie’s voice was hoarse and she was shivering, her teeth chattering despite how warm Cash was. “D-do you have an extra s-sweater? Or c-coat? I’m f-freezing.”
Cash gently set Katie down on the snowmobile and unzipped his coat, wrapping it around her and zipping it up, since she couldn’t put her arm through the sleeve.
“Thank you,” Katie said gratefully. Cash brushed her wind blown hair out of her face and stared down at her, his eyes filled with love and relief. He leaned down and kissed her forehead, probably the only part of her face that wasn’t bruised.
“I love you so much,” Cash said.
“I love you too.” They both gave each other trembling smiles as Cash gently wiped away the tears on Katie’s face. Damien was still screaming obscenities, but someone had the smart idea to gag him, so no one could understand what he was yelling about. Cash began speaking, his eyes not leaving Katie’s for a second.
“Rock, call in all the search teams. Tell them we found her. Then check with Ruby to see if the sheriff and the EMTs have gotten here yet.”
“On it.” Rocky grabbed his radio, but before he did anything, he walked over to Cash and Katie. He gently took Katie’s face in his hands and kissed the top of her head. “I’m so glad you’re safe, hon. So damn glad.”
Katie gave Rocky a watery smile before he walked a few paces away to call everyone on the radio. Cash carefully mounted the snowmobile behind Katie, making sure she was safely situated in front of him.
“Let’s go home, angel,” Cash said.
Home. Katie had been searching for years for a home and now she had one. She had a best friend who loved her and was going to have an absolute meltdown when he saw her. She had a grandfather figure that loved her and would always be there for wisdom and advice. She had a ranch full of protective older brothers. And she had the man of her dreams, who loved her more than anything. Katie gave a happy sigh and leaned back against Cash as both motors came to life and began to move away from that shack. They were going home.