CHAPTER 18 – Against High Odds
Jason paused and faced downhill.
Nate turned back when he realized he was alone. “What is it?”
Jason hefted the 30-30 and said, “I’ve only got two more rounds in this thing. That won’t do us much good in a firefight. But I may be able to slow them down now.” He pointed with the rifle. “Sounds like they’re where we turned uphill between that big stump and the boulder, that would be just about there...right?”
“Just about, yeah...no wait. Go left just a hair...okay, now down about the same. There.”
The 30-30 bucked once. Following the crack, the whine of a ricochet faded into the distance. And then came again the voices of the hounds.
“Son-of-a-bitch! The son-of-a-bitch shot me!”
“Here, let me see! ...You dumb-ass! That’s only a scratch from flying rock chips!”
“Now will you idiots shut your damned mouths before he puts a bullet in ’em!”
With a nod, Nate peered into the fog and said, “That ought to back ’em off a bit. Want to try the last one?”
Jason paused, and then shook his head. “I’d better save it—just in case.”
Erin bolted up out of a doze at the sound of Jason’s first shot, the one that dropped Kirby. She held off waking Emmie but went ahead and cranked over the engine of Barry’s car. The whine of the spinning starter and the loping growl of the slowly rotating engine seemed to go on for hours.
This thing must be as old as me. Hope we don’t have to push it too hard.
She was afraid she had flooded it, but then it fired, roared, and evened out to a rumbling fast idle. When she was sure it would continue running, she kicked the accelerator down to a slow, soft idle and sat gripping the steering wheel.
At the sound of each distant shot, she flinched and tried to form in her mind new acceptable scenarios that fit the pattern of shots. She refused to consider the most likely one: Jason and Nate had been killed, or—maybe just as bad—caught.
Fog swirled in slow tendrils around the car like shy but curious animals. She stood up beside the open driver’s door for what she hoped was a better view, and the fog caressed her with damp fingers. In the growing light of predawn, the fog seemed to change, to solidify into an impenetrable barrier, mocking her with secrets it would not reveal.
Were they still coming? Had they misjudged her location, wandering confused in the limited visibility? Are they out there higher up the hill futilely searching for the car? Should she shout for them? Perhaps honk the horn?
In the turmoil of her mind, she could almost hear her own answer. No, of course not. Not with the others out there, too. Besides, Nate knows his way around this hill.
What if Nate is dead and Jason and Rachel are wandering around lost?
What if they are all dead?
Jason said to wait no longer than dawn. No, he said daylight…or after the fog clears.
But I can’t take off and leave him and Nate and Rachel on their own with no way to escape.
But I also promised to take care of Emmie. I can’t let her fall into Vince’s hands. I won’t! I’ll kill her myself, first! Oh, God! What am I saying? How could I do that? How could I possibly hurt this child?
But what would she suffer at Vince’s hand? Remember Crissy—she didn’t die easy. I won’t let Emmie die like Crissy. Whatever it takes—I won’t!
Oh, Jason! Nate! Rachel! Where are you?
They squeezed through tangles of juniper hedges separating yards and thickets of them growing wild. Jason stumbled over an abrupt rise of the ground and skidded to his knees on pavement. Nate hooked a hand under his arm and helped him to his feet.
“You okay?” Nate panted.
“Nothing broken. Road rash hurts like hell, though.”
They made better time on the solid surface, but they still passed in and out of burned areas when they encountered blockages of the road. They climbed over fallen trees and skirted blackened hulks of cars, failed attempts to escape the inferno. They edged around them on the narrow road, careful not to gaze too closely at the contents in the growing light of approaching dawn.
As they stepped along the narrow shoulder separating one of the wrecks from a sheer drop, Jason commented, “It’s plain enough Vince’s Bronco will never make it up the hill by this route, just as you said, so, with that tree blocking the lower road…”
The coming dawn made it seem like they were climbing out of a dark hole and into the light. The mists swirled and thinned the higher they went. Occasionally, the road would dip into a low place before continuing toward the summit, and the air seemed colder and darker and the fog thicker in those places.
It was almost too light—too clear. She couldn’t wait much longer.
Erin studied Emmie’s face; it was so peaceful in sleep. I should wake her up before we go. But if I do, and Jason isn’t back, I’ll play hell getting her to go. And if I drive off while she’s asleep, what will she say, or do, when she wakes up and sees we’ve left him behind? I don’t know if I could take that much hate from her. I know I’m strong—hell, I killed Vic—but am I strong enough to fight Emmie? Dear God, please don’t make me find out.
While concentrating on finding his way through the changed terrain, Nate observed, “Haven’t heard anything from those guys for bit now. Maybe we lost ’em. Maybe you scared ’em off with that last shot.”
“I wish, but I don’t believe it.”
“Yeah, me too, I guess. But we may have thrown ’em off our trail by staying on this road. Except for a few patches, there’s no deep ashes to leave tracks in. They just may have spotted some other tracks leading off somewhere and are following those.”
Nate puffed and wheezed. “You’re right, I suppose. They could just as easily have learned their lesson about making noise.” After a few more steps he said, “I think it’s clearing off up on top. See how fast it’s getting lighter?”
Within a matter of minutes, the cover of fog had simply vanished, and the sun shone through a gap in the eastern hills. She felt like she was on stage inside the spotlight’s circle.
Vince’s army could be coming up from any side—or all sides; the fog still hid everything farther than a couple of hundred feet down the hill. What if they took her back to the house to another collar and chain?
I can’t go back to that. Not for anything. If they come out of the fog towards me, I’ll just put the car into gear and drive away.
But what if they have the road blocked ahead?
I’ll smash through whatever they have across it.
Even a truck sitting sideways? Or a tree across the road?
I’ll punch the gas and hit it so hard I’ll die right there.
Yes, her too. Better to crash and burn to death than to be taken back to that. Especially with Vince. He’s a hundred times worse than Vic.
Oh, Emmie, I’m so sorry. But I have to do it. Believe me, it will be better this way....
In her anxiety, Erin had convinced herself that capture was imminent. Her hand gripped the gearshift lever and tensed do drop it into drive as she prepared to floor the accelerator. She paused long enough to wipe away the tears blurring her vision.
“Listen,” Jason got out between pants. “I hear…engine running.”
“It’s them! We made it! And it looks clear just ahead!” Nate pointed through the haze to clear sunshine and blue sky.
The stitch in Jason’s side gripped him tighter as he and Nate tried to pour on more speed. His breath came in short gulps that didn’t seem to contain any oxygen. They had been running uphill since they left the tree that almost refused to fall. His legs seemed to have turned to rubber over which he was rapidly losing all control. He tried to breathe deeper, and the pain grew worse—like daggers twisting.
Slow...down...slow... down... his brain screamed at him in cadence with his pounding feet. Have...to...breathe... “Nate!” It was no more than a gasp.
Nate’s hand was suddenly under Jason’s armpit—holding him up—preventing him from dropping onto his knees.
“Okay, son. Breathe slow—slow and deep. Easy, just keep walking. Don’t stop now or you may not get going again. That’s it—one step at a time.”
Jason forced his head up so that he could look ahead, and there it was. Unable to speak, he raised his hand and pointed with the 30-30.
Straining to hold up not only Jason’s but his own exhausted body, Nate managed to wheeze out, “I…see it.”
Jason hung onto Nate while gazing with longing at Nate’s car just over a hundred feet away. They were coming up on the left rear quarter—he could see Erin’s head, but she was looking straight ahead. She doesn’t see us. She doesn’t know we’re here yet. And her window is up, so I’d have to yell pretty loud for her to hear me. I wonder where those guys are.
Erin let up on the pressure on the shift lever at the sudden movement of something in the rear-view mirror, a stimulus that swept her back to reality. Her panicky need for reckless flight vanished as the fog had done, with as little residue. The sun shone brightly on the figures emerging from the fog.
“Emmie, they’re here! Wake up—oh!”
When she turned around to look over her right shoulder at the trio, she realized it was not who she had thought. Two were only vaguely familiar, but there was no mistaking Carl.
Erin spun back to the steering wheel. Without thinking, without remembering the engine was warmed up and running smooth and quiet, she turned the key to start it. The starter engaged the turning engine and grated loudly. Reflexively, she turned the key back, but too far, and killed the engine. Panic returned in a flood. Her foot pumped savagely on the gas pedal, and she tried again to start the engine. But once again she heard the slow rotation of the engine that would not fire.
No! Oh, no! It’s flooded! Calm down...calm down...hold the pedal down. DON’T PUMP! Can’t rush...now, crank ’til it clears out the gas and it should fire if I can just not pump it anymore, but IT WON’T START! DAMN! DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!
At the crack of a rifle shot her hands flew to the side of her head, and the screams held in abeyance burst forth.
But, over her screams, Emmie shoved her arm across in front of her face and pointed out her window. “Daddy! It’s Daddy! Over there!”
The bullet from Jason’s rifle kicked up dust a few feet in front of Carl. The crack of the 30-30 in the clear morning air was numbing. In Carl’s concentration on the car, he had missed Jason and Nate’s oblique approach.
Cappy jumped a foot into the air and came down swearing. Logan simply crouched down and wrapped his arms around his head to fend off any subsequent shots. Carl froze with the shotgun half way to his shoulder as he looked at the muzzle of the 30-30 pointed at him.
“That was your only warning.” Jason’s voice was steady and cold. “You’ll never hear the next one.”
Jason kept the barrel of the rifle aimed dead on at Carl’s head as he and Nate continued their approach to the car.
Carl’s shotgun lowered to point at the ground.
“Toss it over there into those bushes.”
With one hand, Carl did as he was ordered. The shotgun disappeared into a clump of brush twenty feet to his right.
“Okay, now, the three of you turn around and get the hell back down the hill.”
Nate opened the driver’s door and slid behind the wheel as Erin scooted over and Emmie climbed over into the back seat. Holding the gas pedal down, Nate cranked the engine.
Jason stood beside the left rear door with the rifle still to his shoulder and watched Carl and his companions trod down the hill. The smell of gas was strong by the time the big engine fired, and Nate revved it a couple of times. Emmie shoved open the door for Jason and slid over to make room as he ducked in. As soon as he closed the door and spun to keep watch on the receding trio, Nate dropped the car into gear and punched the gas. The big car rose in the front as it accelerated up the hill.
Carl spun around as soon as he heard the car door close. “Quick, give me your gun!”
Cappy dug his target pistol out of his waistband and handed it to Carl who dropped one knee to the ground. He sat back on the heel of that leg as he raised the barrel to line up with the fleeing car, gripping it solidly with both hands. The first shot popped less than three seconds after he touched the weapon. He squeezed off the remaining five rounds in the clip at half-second intervals. By the time the faint echo of the last one died the car veered out of sight around the curve.
“Didja get ’im? I think maybe you did with two or three shots. What d’ya think?”
“White, shut your stupid face. Both of you, go find the shotgun—go on, move!”
Erin was almost afraid to breathe again as the big car sped away, Nate fighting its tendency to fishtail on the dusting of wind-blown sand. The roaring V-8 drowned out the pops of the target pistol, but Jason was watching Carl out the back window.
“He’s shooting!” he shouted. “Everyone down!”
Even Nate hunched low over the wheel. Within seconds they put the bank on the inside of the first curve between themselves and the shooter, and everyone rose up again.
When the fishtailing got worse instead of better, Nate slowed to a crawl and listened out the window.
“What’s wrong?” Erin was, again, close to panic.
“Flat tire, a rear. He must have shot it. Damn!”
“Oh, my God!” Erin cried. She could almost feel the pinch of the leash on her neck. “They’ll get us!”
“Easy, hon. Take it easy, now,” Nate spoke gently. “Nobody is going to get us. We don’t have to stop. We can keep going all day on a flat tire—just not very fast. I’ll just get us up the road a bit before I put the spare on. And once we get four good ones on the road, again, we’re outa here. Even if Vince does find a way out, it’s not likely he’ll be in anything that can catch this old beast.”
The vicious grappling hooks of panic began to release as she listened to Nate’s soothing voice. She looked from his profile back to Jason’s smiling eyes and nodding head. She could see Emmie was calm, though anxious.
After a moment’s pause, Jason reached over the seatback and gently clasped Erin’s shoulder. “We’ll be okay, now. Really.”
Silent, Erin nodded her head and let the soft kiss of a smile touch her quivering lips. Every slap-slap of the shredding tire and the steady loping of the slowly running engine meant one more rotation of the tire farther from Vince.
And then sudden, brutal realization gripped her. “Oh, no! Rachel! Where’s Rachel?” She glared at Nate then spun around to accuse Jason.
Nate’s voice was low, apologetic. “She wasn’t there, hon. The shed was empty. I looked inside, myself. And they were waiting for us. We walked into a trap.”
“But—but where is she? We have to go back! We can’t just go off and leave her to—”
“But, Erin,” Nate argued, “we don’t know where they’ve got her. She may even be dead.”
“No!” she screamed. “No! She’s not!”
“Okay, maybe not,” Jason interjected. “But we can’t go up against them without more help, or, at least firepower.”
“More help?” Erin sneered. “I thought I was in the company of men. You take off running at the first sign of trouble—and you leave that poor girl to be—”
“Erin, they have guns—we don’t,” Nate said.
“What do you call that?” She pointed at the 30-30 across Jason’s lap. “You had Carl in your sights, and you just let him walk away! You told him to go! He’s as much of a butcher as the other! He and Vic—when John—why the hell didn’t you shoot the sonofabitch? He—”
“It’s empty, Erin,” Nate said.
“Or why didn’t you give me the gun? I would’ve—what?”
“It’s empty. No bullets. So was my twenty-two.”
“But, you shot it.” She faced Jason again. “I heard it—just before you got to the car.”
“Yes,” Nate answered, “and that was the last one. We came half way up the hill with only one bullet in the thing—just in case.” Then to Jason, “Good thing you did save that last one, too. Worked pretty good to start the bluff. Without it, I expect you and me’d be dead by now. And no telling what with these two.”
“Bluff? Bluff!?” she shouted, incredulous. “All that back there was a bluff with an empty gun?”
With a sheepish grin, Jason said, “Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
She just sat staring back at him. “What…what if Carl had shot back instead of drop his gun?”
“That was the gamble. High odds, but it was our best chance. You do the best with what you’ve got. If I had hit one but didn’t continue to shoot at the others, it would have been obvious I was out of ammunition. But wasting a round on what was clearly a warning shot, considering the close range, made ’em believe there was more where that came from. And, I just didn’t see any other way to stop all three of them with only one bullet.”
“Those two with Carl know this area, too,” Nate said. “That was Cappy White and his drinking buddy, Ed Logan. I’m not surprised to see that they’ve joined up with Vince. He’d be a hero to them.”
“Will they be able to show Vince how to get around that blocked bridge?”
“I don’t know. Could be. I’ve never seen either one doing much walking around, but they may have spent more time out and about than I know about. The meadow’s probably a few good places to drink ’til they pass out.”
“Then they may be coming after us sooner than we expected. We’d better get this tire changed.”
Erin followed this conversation as well as she could without knowing all that had taken place at the bridge and that the other roads were already blocked. Then it hit her how she had attacked these two men who had already risked their lives several times in the two rescue attempts, unsuccessful though they were. They had also prevented her and Emmie, from being taken back into a life of unspeakable abuse, torture, and eventual death. Even before that, if Jason hadn’t come along when he did and fought Vic, she would still be a chained sex slave—or worse. Crissy’s screams still echoed in her mind.
Then, as though Emmie had thrust her Landsknecht’s dagger into Erin’s heart and viciously twisted it, from the back seat the child said, “My dad is not a coward.”
It was more than she could handle. Erin’s eyes brimmed with tears, and she jerked around to cringe against her door, hiding her face with her hands while silent sobs wracked her.
After an awkward moment, Nate reached across and gently placed his hand on her heaving shoulder. “It’s okay, Erin. We understand. I mean...well, I know something of what you’ve been through. I mean...I heard that poor girl’s screams. I saw what they were—”
Erin turned slowly and looked at Nate’s pained profile. “You saw what they did to Crissy?”
“Well, like I said, partly... Not all... I mean, only at the end when I ended it for her... And I’m pretty sure we came across her body along with John’s and an older woman, probably the one you and John were trying to help. It was...well, enough to see what Vince is capable of. I—we both have an idea of the nightmare you’ve gone through—something of the fear you’ve been living under. I guess you’ve got a right to...well, to...”
“Not to say to you and Jason what I said. Oh, Nate, Jason, I’m so sorry! And thank you thank you thank you forever for Crissy. I thought I heard a shot, but I couldn’t imagine what… You’re not cowards! Emmie, sweetheart, I know your dad is no coward. He and Nate are the two bravest men I know. Please forgive me.”
Stifling a sob, Emmie flew across the back of the seat and wrapped her arms around Erin’s shoulders and neck. Erin cried into the girl’s tangled hair as Emmie’s small hand caressed the back of Erin’s head and patted her on the shoulder.