CHAPTER 17 – Baying of The Hounds
Nate drove them all in Barry’s car to the spot they had decided on. It was a level area between two curves. If Erin waited farther back down the hill, there was a greater chance she and Emmie might be discovered before Jason and Nate got back with Rachel. Erin and Emmie curled up together under a sleeping bag on the front seat to wait.
“Don’t sleep too soundly, now,” Nate cautioned them. “You may not be able to hear any gunfire from here if it’s just the .22, but if you do, get the engine started and be ready. We’ll probably be in a hurry.”
“Don’t worry; I couldn’t sleep if I tried.” Erin answered. “Good luck.”
Jason stepped to the driver’s window and said, “But remember, too, if we aren’t here by the time it gets light, don’t wait any longer. Just hit the highway and head north.”
“Dad!” Emmie’s voice quivered. “We’ll wait! And you’d better come back!”
“We will, sweetheart. We will.”
But his eyes, barely visible in the dim, reflected light of a hooded flashlight in his hand, asked Erin to take care of his daughter. Her reply was a squeeze of his hand where it rested on the door.
Nate led the way down the hill. They trudged through fog-dampened ash still powdery enough beneath the surface to puff beneath their steps, and it soon coated them in gray from the knees down.
Jason carried the coiled ropes like bandoleers. Nate’s well-worn, back-up field jacket helped against the night’s chill even if it was too small for him to button up. He carried the 30-30 in both hands and ready for instant use. Nate toted the twenty-two in one hand, and he balanced the saw over the other shoulder. The pockets of his field jacket bulged and sagged with the rest of their equipment.
The moon climbed above the eastern hills, and the sky was clear above the sea of fog that submerged all but the crest of the hill, so a cold, eerie light filtered through. Evelyn and Jim’s house was dark as they went by, and the smashed-open front door gaped like the entrance to a violated tomb. From there, they followed a circuitous route down through a wasteland of charred forest spotted here and there with gutted ruins of houses. The absence of foliage and the surrealistic shaped black corpses of trees standing above the ash-laden ground gave the scene the appearance of a classical, Hollywood graveyard. Everything seemed as insubstantial as shadows, and the dim and diffused moonlight cast mere ghosts of shadows. Engrossed as he was in the strangeness of his surroundings, Jason was surprised when he stepped onto the solid, unyielding surface of a road. They had come out onto the lower, main road near the bridge that crossed the creek behind the inn.
Jason walked to the bank of the creek next to the bridge and peered down. The creek bed was only five or six feet deep and only slightly wider, and water maybe a foot deep trickled along its sandy bottom. The brush-grown and nearly vertical sides would be too steep for any kind of vehicle, even one with four-wheel-drive like the Bronco.
“You’re sure this bridge is the only way out? They could get across down at the beach, couldn’t they?”
Nate joined Jason on the creek bank before replying softly, “From down where they are, yeah, other than on foot. They could get around the creek that way, but they’d still have to cross the meadow. And that’s if they were even aware of it. But they won’t do that in a hurry. There’s a couple other creeks they’d still have to get over, and there’s only a couple of places they could do it without fighting their way through bogs and thickets. Then they’d have to go south a ways to get onto the highway before coming back north. Strangers like them would just get lost in the fog and darkness. It’d be confusing even in daylight. They probably couldn’t find their way out at all.”
“Okay,” Jason said as he dropped the rope to the ground and laid his rifle across it. “Let’s put that saw to work.”
“I’d better get the rope in place before we cut.” Nate said as he dropped his jacket onto a bed of forest debris.
“Maybe I’d better do the climbing.” Jason shrugged half out of his jacket.
Nate waved him off. “Don’t worry. Just last week when Patty and I... I climbed fifty feet up a dead cedar to check a hawk’s nest that was tilted. I do this stuff all the time.”
After shedding his weighted-down jacket, Nate hauled one end of the rope up the tree they had selected to a notch where the main trunk split nearly thirty feet above the ground and tied it securely. By the time he scrambled back to the ground, Jason had the other end wrapped around the base of a burned tree on the uphill side. Nate helped him pull the rope just tight enough to prevent the tree from falling prematurely and tied it off.
It was a pine over a foot across at the base and tall enough for the top to be merely a guess in the fog. It stood a good twenty feet from the road bridge that spanned the creek on its way out to the highway.
“Are you a lumberjack, Nate? If this thing misses the bridge, it has to at least block the road. Otherwise, we’re likely to be in deep shit.”
Nate looked up at the tree and those nearby on both sides. With a nod, he said, “It looks about right to hit the bridge with those thickest and bushiest limbs. Oughta bury it good.”
It was harder work than Jason anticipated. They kept their pace down and remained constantly aware of the amount of noise the saw made as it gnawed its way in. Jason’s arms dropped to his sides, and he stepped back when Nate announced it was time to set the wedges.
From his jacket on the ground, Nate dug out two wedges of green painted steel, each a foot long and two inches square at the butt ends. Then he pulled a small towel and a small, short-handled sledgehammer from another pocket. He held the first wedge to the saw cut with the folded towel in place over the butt. He swung the sledge, pausing after every stroke to examine the progress and to allow the night and the fog to swallow the sounds. When the wedge was deep enough to hold itself in place, he positioned the second one several inches from it. Then, alternating his blows between the two, he drove them in several inches. He then set about getting the undercut just right, deep enough to let the tree fall easily when it was time, but not before. They pulled their jackets back on, and Nate whacked each wedge until the creaking rope signaled it was enough. He left the hammer against the trunk.
Jason followed Nate back up the hillside and around through another series of burned over pockets interspersed with unburned underbrush and trees to the south side of the hill. He was surprised by how soon Nate signaled him to stop and pointed ahead. The little steel shed in the clearing behind Vince’s house seemed to beckon with a promise of easy access—or threaten like a cocked bear trap.
“Sure would like to take my knife to the tires on that Bronco out front,” Nate whispered as they crouched together.
“Not having doubts, are you?”
“No. I’d just like to cover as many bases as we can.”
“I don’t know. It’s clear out front. Should we take the chance of being caught before we get Rachel out?”
“No, just wishing.”
“Okay, then. You’ve got the cutters.”
Nate pulled bolt cutters from his jacket pocket and edged forward.
Jason nestled the 30-30’s stock into his shoulder with the barrel pointed toward the back of Vince’s house, ghostly white in the fog-filtered moonlight. Thumbing back the hammer to full cock, he whispered, “You’re covered.”
Nate’s form blended with the ghostly shadows around the clearing as he made his way to the front of the shed.
The closed lock hung on the hasp as it had when he had last seen it. The hasp bolts had been re-tightened. He peered back over his shoulder at the back door of the house one more time before raising the heavy cutters up to the lock. He positioned it and set his feet apart for balance, hunched his shoulders, and the lock shank parted with a loud snap.
Nate’s fingers fumbled with the hasp until he dropped the bolt cutters and used both hands to twist it into line with the slot. He popped it open and gave the door a shove. The beam of his flashlight probed the inner blackness of the empty shed just as the screen door on the back of the house slammed open.
“Oh, Christ! I got ’em! I got ’em!” The voice from the doorway sounded more scared than threatening, but it still meant they had been discovered.
Nate spun around to see Kirby coming down the steps two at a time and raising the barrel of a shotgun in his direction. But before he reached the ground, before the shotgun in his hands could rip Nate apart, the sharp crack of the 30-30 split the air.
The shotgun slammed against the side of the house as Kirby spun around under the impact of the bullet. By the time he sprawled out on the ground, Nate had rejoined Jason.
“She’s not there!” Nate shouted in a hoarse whisper. “Let’s go!”
They had no sooner turned to run than another voice from the opening screen door shouted, “Out here! Out back!”
They had just enough time to duck behind a tree before bark flew off the other side of the tree in answer to three sharp pops while simultaneous ricochets sang into the night.
They were out of sight from the house, but pursuit was certain. To sounds of increasing confusion and chaos behind them, and so that their pursuers didn’t wind up between them and their route up to the car after dropping the tree, Nate altered their escape course around to the wooded ravine that cut past Vince’s house.
Leaning on his cane, Vince hobbled down the steps and stood over Kirby at the bottom. He scowled at Carl who came running around the corner of the house. Kirby lay on his back looking up at them with pain and fear contorting his ashen face. His hand clutched the blood-soaked hole near the middle of his zippered jacket, and blood oozed between his fingers.
“Why the hell did you yell?” Vince growled before turning in disgust from the man on the ground. “Carl?”
“I told him, Vince. I told him when I told the rest.” Carl’s own flashlight beam swept from Kirby on the ground to Cappy White approaching the tree beside the shed with his target pistol leading the way. “Shoot their legs, I told ’em. Shoot first, I told ’em. Don’t give ’em any warning, I told ’em.”
“Well, the damned idiot blew it. If they get away, it’s on him.”
Kirby still hadn’t said anything, but his eyes flitted between Vince and Carl as he followed their words. He started to speak, but a spasm of pain cut it short. The only thing to come out of his mouth was a trickle of crimson. After his eyes cleared again, he peered about the small clearing.
Logan came tearing around the corner from the front yard, paused enough to take in the situation, and joined White near the shed. Kirby tried to catch the eyes of his friends, but they had both picked up on Vince’s fury and avoided looking his way.
White pointed towards the tunnel of darkness beyond the tree with chipped bark. “They went through there, Mister Morgan,” he said, “I think I may have hit one, maybe both.”
“With what—bank shots? I could hear the ricochets all the way from my bedroom.” Vince stepped over Kirby’s legs as though they were discarded and forgotten rags.
He lumbered toward the two at the shed as he raged, “Don’t just stand there! Get after them! You too!”
He grabbed Logan’s arm and propelled him after White, who had turned to face the dark forest.
“Carl, stay with those two. They should know their way around this hill, but they’re just as apt to shoot each other.”
Eager to be away from Vince’s wrath, Carl picked up the shotgun, gave Logan another shove after White and followed them into the night.
In the dark, Nate stumbled over what he took to be a large root protruding from the steep side of the ravine. After a moment, his eyes became accustomed to the deeper shadows beneath the trees, and with the light of the few moonbeams that made it through the fog and foliage above him he realized his mistake. The twisted shapes of three bodies sprawled within just of few feet of where he rested. The odor of large quantities of fresh blood dispelled any doubt he might have had that the horrors before him were real.
One was a man with a destroyed head, but Nate thought he recognized the clothes as those of Erin’s friend, John. One was a large woman in a colorful muumuu, a lady Nate had seen at the inn a few times but had never met. The third was the mutilated remains of what had once been a young woman.
He grasped another root before he went down and sucked in a couple of deep breaths. Jason flopped against the earthy cliff next to him for a few seconds and, gasping to catch his breath, sucked in a lungful of the stench.
Before Jason could utter a word, Nate shushed him and whispered, “The house is right up above us.”
“Oh, Christ!” Jason held it to a whisper as his eyesight improved to the point that he, too, could see who shared the narrow space with him besides Nate.
Jason looked around and beyond the three bodies and said, “You sure Rachel’s not here?”
“No, not really. I know who two of ’em are. The third one is likely the girl Erin called Crissy. I didn’t really get a good look at her face when I…shot her. I’m pretty sure it’s not Rachel.”
“Dear God…” Then, after a moment’s rest, “And you’re positive she wasn’t back in a corner, or maybe behind something?”
“There wasn’t a thing in that shed but a bucket and a handful of rags. That’s all. Vince had her out of there and his men waiting for us. It was a trap.”
“And he’s sure not going to leave her unguarded, now. We’re not going to be able to get her away at all, not without some help. Probably chain her up in the house—if he doesn’t just kill her outright.”
“Let’s go. Just a little farther and we’ll have open running all the way to the bridge.”
Logan carried the flashlight, closely followed by White still armed with his target pistol. Vince had kept the Python, just in case Vic’s murderers doubled back.
In the lead, Logan held his pace down. Since the quarry had at least one rifle and had demonstrated a deadly willingness to use it, he wasn’t real eager to run up their backs.
The trail was easy to follow in the damp ash, like following a rabbit in snow. When the tracks suddenly changed course and circled around toward the ravine east of the house, he stopped to consider any ramifications. White, in his eagerness to catch the prey, plowed into Logan’s back. Neither went down, but the flashlight popped from his grasp and a string of obscenities wafted into the night.
“You idiots,” Carl growled. He grabbed each by their collars and shook them like schoolboys caught fighting on the playground. “Pick up that light and get moving.”
Nate crept out of the cover of the brush in the mouth of the ravine at the bottom of the hill. The moon, although not visible above the fog, still shed enough light now that they were out from under the trees. But the fog still limited visibility to less than twenty feet.
When Jason stopped beside him, Nate leaned closer and whispered, “If they keep up that talking and stomping, at least we’ll know where they are.”
They took off to their left at a slow, loping trot that muffled their steps on the sand sprinkled pavement.
“Oh, Jesus Christ!” cried White.
Logan had stopped abruptly when his light beam picked up the mutilated corpses in the ravine. Arms and legs jutted at odd angles like those of rag dolls after flopping down a flight of stairs. White managed to avoid running into Logan again only by dodging around him. But, he couldn’t avoid stepping on the heavy woman’s forearm.
Carl recognized the three bodies. Although his reaction wasn’t vocal like White’s, the sudden and unexpected appearance of the gory sight brought back to mind the ruthlessness of their earlier attack on the populace and of the slippery slope to Hell that Vince was leading him down. His pulse hammered with a twinge of what, for him, was guilt.
“Never mind. Keep moving,” he muttered.
As Jason and Nate neared the bridge, they split up. Jason took a position behind a large boulder beside the creek several yards downstream from the bridge. He laid the .22 on top of the rock and rested the 30-30 beside it, peering over the top of its barrel into the murky distance for signs of their pursuers.
Nate ran to the tree and hefted the stubby hammer in both hands. He braced himself and took two ringing, full-force swings at each wedge, driving them ever deeper into the cut. He dropped the hammer and ran up the slope to the anchoring rope where the blade of his SEAL knife sliced through the tough nylon with little effort. The towering fir creaked and groaned as the tension of the rope released, but it remained upright. At the edge of visibility, Nate could just make out Jason’s hunched form.
He ran back down the slope to the tree and searched frantically for the discarded hammer. Then, just as he laid his hands on the fog-damp handle, the 30-30 cracked.
Startled voices a short distance away cut short with a several more cracks of the 30-30.
“Hurry up, Nate! They’re here!”
The .22 barked at two-second intervals through ten shots.
Nate stood before the tree again, reared back with the sledge and delivered blow after ringing blow to first one wedge, then the other.
The boom of a shotgun followed two pops from White’s .22, but Nate couldn’t tell if the shots were at him or at Jason. He didn’t think they could see him through the fog since he couldn’t see them, but they may be shooting at the sounds of hammering.
“Damnation!” he mumbled, and again set to pounding the wedges. “Fall, damn you! Fall!”
Jason’s rifle spoke twice more, then the shotgun answered again. The hammer rang on the steel wedges, and the tree groaned. Then the sound of approaching footsteps startled Nate.
“Come on! Your .22’s empty and I’m almost out,” Jason panted as he slid to a stop in the damp debris. “Forget that and let’s move!”
The hammer struck twice more and thudded to the ground. Nate spun and led the way up through the forest of pine saplings and old growth.
Soon, like hounds baying, the shouts of their pursuers drifted up to them.
“Over here! I’ve got their tracks over here!”
“Are they going up or coming down? I’ve got some here, too.”
“I donno know...kinda sideways. I’ll follow ’em and see which way they go.”
“Quiet, you two!”
“Hey! What’s that?”
As though the hill, itself, was voicing its agony, it started as a moan, low, at the lowest depths of human hearing. It grew in volume as it rose in pitch. A staccato of popping and cracking joined in, overpowering the groans. The drama ended with the sound of a mighty crash felt through the feet as well as heard.
“A tree went down. That’s all.”
“Why would a tree go down now…all by itself…in the middle of the night?”
“Hell, I don’t know!”
Jason and Nate soon stumbled out into a burned over area and raced through the layers of ash, but there was no way to hide their trail as they pushed on up the hill at greater speed.
“You damned fool! Those are my tracks you’re following!”
“Well, stop runnin’ all over the place, then?
“Wait a minute! There’s three sets of prints here.”
“You must’ve been walking right on top of theirs.”
“See where they go!”
“They turn up the hill again.”
“Shut up, you goddamned idiots, or, so help me, I’ll blow you both away myself!”