"DUCK!" Bobbie cried out a warning as another shot slammed into a tree inches from them. While they had a good head start on Leo, Christy still felt nervous. She stumbled to remain upright as her friends started running faster. "Why don't we zigzag!?" she had to point out nonetheless, "Going in a straight line isn't helping...!"
There was another sharp crack from the rifle. With a loud cry, Jackie abruptly toppled to the ground. "Oh my God, Jackie!" Christy screamed at the horrible sight, "Oh Jackie, no!"
"Ow, ow, ow!" Jackie was clutching her leg in anguish, blood spurting from under her fingertips. "Don't worry about me, guys, just get Christy out of here!" she whimpered between gritted teeth.
"No, we're not leaving you; come on!" Christy strained to pull her back up. Bobbie pulled Jackie up and slung her over her shoulder. Leo was gaining ground now as they rushed down an embankment into a deep ravine. "There, under that outcropping!" Bobbie suddenly pointed to a large overhang of rock to their right, which was shielded from general view by a thick canopy, "Hurry before he sees where we're going!"
She and Dawn hustled Christy and Jackie towards the outcropping and under it, making it just before Leo crested the hill. "What luck!" Dawn exclaimed, seeing another cave under the outcropping. They rushed inside and went as far back into the darkness of the cave as they dared. "I can't go another step!" Jackie whimpered, grimacing horribly in pain.
"Just a little further, Jackie!" Bobbie continued carrying her back further and further until it was pitch dark around the four of them. They came to a stop and froze up as footsteps rumbled up above them. Their hearts in their throats, they waited with baited breath. Then, they heard Leo growl in frustration. "Don't tell me you lost them!?" Vinnie could be heard shouting in the distance.
"They can't have gone far!" Leo bellowed, "You go that way, I'll go this way! And hurry!"
Footsteps pounded away, and soon all was quiet outside the cave. "Oh that was close," Dawn breathed a sigh of relief.
"Yeah, we should be safe in here for the moment," Bobbie nodded, digging out a flashlight and flicking it on, "Help me get Jackie comfortable so we can take a look at her leg."
She took off her backpack, unrolled her sleeping bag and laid in on the cave floor. Jackie, her face flushed with terrible pain, haltingly sat down on it, still clutching at the gunshot wound. "You'll have to let us see it, Jackie," Christy told her softly, hoping her medical training would come in handy. She felt faint when her friend removed her fingers; while the wound was shallow, there was blood everywhere. "Oh my God," she choked up, "Oh my God, I'm sorry, Jackie, it's all my fault this happened to you!"
"Your fault!?" Jackie spoke up, her voice higher than normal, "No, no, Christy, this isn't your fault!"
She threw her arms around her friend sympathetically. "Yes it is my fault, Jackie!" Christy wasn't swayed, "I should never have stayed behind on the trail; you and Dawn and Bobbie wouldn't have been dragged into this, and...!"
"Christy, listen to me," Jackie took hold of her friend's head and stared right into her eyes even as she grimaced terribly from the wound, "Christy, don't beat yourself up over this. I'm not angry at you, so don't be angry at yourself. Understand!?"
Christy nodded softly. "If we had some forceps of some kind, maybe we could get the bullet out..." she started to reason.
"Actually, there might be some in my backpack," Jackie's face lit up, though still flush with pain. She reached for it and started unzipping compartments. "Here," she hefted them out and handed them to Christy, "I place my fate in your hands, Dr. Bryant."
"No need to be some melodramatic," Christy chided her, although she still felt nervous despite her first aid experience. Taking a deep breath, she maneuvered the forceps towards the wound. She closed them around the edge of the bullet, hoping she had enough of a grip on it. "OK, brace yourself, Jackie; this may hurt a lot," she warned her friend. Jackie nodded and took a deep breath of her own. Christy prayed for the best and pulled. The bullet came out without much resistance. Jackie grimaced horribly but did not cry out. "Thank you," she commended Christy through gritted teeth.
"Glad to help, Jackie," Christy rubbed her hair reassuringly, "Now get me some bandages; we don't want the wound getting infected."
"Got it," Bobbie rifled through Jackie's backpack herself and pulled out a roll of bandages. She handed them to Christy, who quickly wrapped up the bleeding wound on Jackie's leg. "That should do for now, Jackie," she assured her, "Better you stay off your feet for a while, though."
"Good work, Dr. Bryant," Jackie smiled in congratulations. Christy smiled back as she ambled over to the other side of the cave and plopped down against the wall. Exhaustion was starting to set in for her; she hadn't slept at all during her ordeal, and the fatigue from the lack of sleep and all the struggling was starting to overwhelm her...
"Hey," Dawn plopped down next to her, "I figured you could use someone to talk to right now."
"I guess so," she nodded softly, feeling very much like talking at the moment, "Thanks Dawn."
"Here, I think you could use a drink and some food," flicking on her own flashlight, Dawn handed a bottle of water and a candy bar to Christy. Christy eagerly eat and drank them; she had felt direly hungry, having last eaten almost twenty-four hours ago. "First off, Christy, don't blame yourself for what happened to Jackie, please," Dawn stared pleadingly right into her friend's eyes when she was finished eating, "It's the fault of the man who shot her, no one else's, all right? Jackie's going to be fine now that we got the bullet out and taped up the wound, so don't beat yourself up, promise me that."
Christy nodded softly. She leaned back against the cave wall and grimaced terribly herself as her dislocated shoulder touched the wall a little too hard. "You OK?" Dawn took her hand, "Where does it hurt you, Christy?"
"All over, Dawn," Christy mumbled between clenched teeth. Apart from the dislocated shoulder, the slash wounds, and her sprained ankle, she felt the painful effects of rope burns all over her arms and legs, and her lips felt bruised from the gag. "I just feel like my whole body's in anguish right now, to be honest, so if I could swap it for another..."
She clenched her teeth and tried to block out the pain, which, now that the imminent threat of death was over, was feeling worse than ever. Her face also felt sore from the repeated slaps she'd taking during her time as a hostage. "You were scared when you were tied up in that shed, weren't you Christy?" Dawn asked her gently, putting an arm around her, "It's OK to have been; I was scared too when I woke up and found myself tied up in the van."
"Yeah...yeah, Dawn, I don't think scared comes close to describing how I felt," Christy nodded, the tears starting to flow again as she relived the horrible ordeal again, "I don't think I've ever been more terrified in my life than by what those men just put me through. It's just a horrible experience to be left that helpless. You're all alone, you can't move a muscle in your body, can't make a sound at all, can't see, can't hear...I was petrified to feel that helpless and unable to get out of it. And it felt like...like...every second was going to be my last. When those men did all this..." she gestured at her reddened face and the slashes on her arm and leg, "I was scared they were going to kill me then and there. And then, just before you and the others showed up, they said they were going to kill me even if my parents paid them my ransom. You can't imagine what it feels like to think you're going to die before you've even begun to live...oh Dawn, I'm so glad you came and got me out of there!" she hugged her best friend as hard as she could, "Bless you, bless you so much!"
"Hey, Christy, it was the least I could do," Dawn was crying tears of delight herself, "How could I not help my best friend since first grade!? Every waking moment I was a prisoner in that van, I was determined to get out and get to you, because, heaven help me, I don't know how I'd manage without you, Christy. I can't bear life without you. Don't cry, Christy; I promise you, the worst is over, we're going to get you home."
"I hope so, Dawn," she sniffed, "All I want to do now is just go home, hug my parents, and then go to bed for a month and pretend this whole nightmare never happened. They were so scared when those men called them to say they'd kidnapped me; this must be torture for them, wondering if they'll get me back home alive or not. The sooner I can let them know I'm OK, the better."
The two of them continued hugging for what seemed an eternity. Finally Christy let out a loud yawn. "Actually, I don't know how much longer I can stay awake right now," she said, her eyes feeling heavy.
"Go ahead and go to sleep if you want, Christy; I'm tired out too," Dawn yawned herself, "Here, let me make it as comfortable for you as possible."
She unrolled her sleeping bag and laid it out on the floor, then pulled a blanket out of her backpack and rolled it up to make a pillow for Christy as she lay down. "You just rest easy, Christy; I'll be right here with you if you need anything," she assured her, taking hold of her hand for extra assurance.
"I appreciate everything, Dawn," Christy closed her eyes and tried to will herself to sleep, desperate to find some peace for at least a little while.
Jonathan saw movement in the woods about a half mile up ahead. It looked a like a group of police and agents, but he felt it better they not know he was there. He slid into the bushes to his right and peered out through the shrubbery. Fortunately, the men were speaking loudly enough for him to hear. "You hear something?" one of the agents said out loud, looking in his general direction.
"Nah, and if so it was probably just a bobcat," another said dismissively. Jonathan gulped as he saw a sheet-covered stretcher in front of the men. His heart abruptly froze. If this meant they'd just found Christy...
"What have we got here, guys?" it was Haverford, Jonathan saw, appearing in the woods ahead, "Oh Lord," he grimaced, "Please don't tell me that's...!"
"No, it's not, thank God," the first agent assured him, "But it's pretty gruesome regardless. It's the remains of Nancy McCrory the missing hiker, and as you can see, she got put through a whole lot of misery before she died."
"I see," Haverford looked green, "Yep, I think those escapees are definitely behind Mrs. McCrory's murder and the Bryant girl's kidnapping, all right."
"How can you tell, sir?" a younger looking agent on the fringe of the group, also looking green at the crime scene, asked.
"I worked her earlier case too. They killed her husband the same way as her," Haverford told him grimly. Jonathan saw a painful expression forming on the man's face from the bushes. "Nancy and Craig McCrory were driving on Route 71 on the other side of the park to visit her brother in Beaverdale when Gravelson and the others hijacked their car by pulling a stranded motorist trick on them," Haverford continued, "They forced the McCrorys to drive into the woods at gunpoint, then tied Nancy up and locked her in the trunk, apparently saving her for later. Then they dragged Craig deeper into the woods, took all his money, roughed him up a bit, then killed him and did that," he pointed to the stretcher, "to his body. Luckily Nancy managed to get loose and break out of the trunk before they came back for her, and was able to get to the highway, and hail down a state trooper before they could catch up to her. Her testimony sunk Corlick and White at their trial for that crime and their other crimes."
"Only now they got her in the end," one of the agents mumbled softly, "Do you suppose they lured her out here, or...?"
"No, I'm guessing it was sheer tragic luck. She must have run into Gravelson at some point while out hiking in the park and recognized him, and he grabbed her and abused her and killed her, both in revenge and to make sure she couldn't squeal on him until Corlick and White escaped. Poor Nancy," Jonathan could see tears in Haverford's eyes now, "She and Craig had been so happily married before it happened; she was too heartbroken to live for so long after that, and couldn't bear to come near here. I kept in touch with her after the trial; she'd hinted she was going to try and face her fears of these woods and hike through them-only the worst possible thing happened to her instead. At least she and Craig are together again now..."
"So if we don't hurry it up, the Bryant girl and maybe her friends'll meet the same fate as Mrs. McCrory here," a state trooper mused darkly.
"So let's get cracking then," Haverford ordered, "We at least know Gravelson has been here; spread out everyone in all directions and get the dogs over here to get a scent. "I'll go bring the relief search teams up to speed and make sure they have descriptions of both the girls and the fugitives. Call me if you get anything before I get back."
Jonathan felt it was time to bail out. Staying low in the bushes, which were quite thick, he crept down towards a ravine to his right that was out of the agents' sightline, trying not to make too much noise. He wanted to be well away before the dogs got there.
He wiped the sweat from his brow as he stood up out of the bushes once he was well out of the agents' way. For several hours now, he'd been searching the fringes of the park on his own, and had found no trace of Christy at all. He was starting to get fatigued and hungry. But he wasn't going to give up when Christy was in such extreme danger, as Nancy McCrory's gruesome remains had more than illustrated.
On and on he pushed deep into the woods, skirting with what he was sure was the boundary of the state park, if not going outright over it. Finally, with the sun beating down hard overhead, he came to a halt. It was time to call a break regardless of the situation's direness. He sat down on a stump and tried to catch his breath. He was starting to get discouraged. Odds were Christy and her friends hadn't been this way at all, either on their own or by force, given the clear-cut lack of evidence any human being had been along the route he'd taken. So some rescuer he had been...
He sniffed the air and frowned. Something didn't smell right at all. Almost like...
He turned to his right...and openly retched. There was a dead, nude body in the bushes-one of the park's rangers, he recognized-Mr. Everett, a nice man who had radioed in two weeks ago abruptly to say he was quitting and hadn't been heard from since-and now Jonathan knew why, and that the call to quit probably hadn't been of his own doing. He felt nauseated. Had Christy's kidnappers done this to him? It certainly stood to reason at the moment.
Something else caught his attention as he reached for his cell phone: the glistening of metal. Something was parked nearby in a thick patch of shrubbery-an old rusty van. And rather suspiciously, both the front doors were wide open. "Christy?" Jonathan called out loud, rushing towards it. His heart was doing somersaults; perhaps something terrible lay inside, such as Christy's dead body...
...but fortunately, these fears were for naught, as the van was deserted when he took a look inside. He did, however, take note of the ropes lying on the seats and floor of the van, and the trio of knotted handkerchiefs lying on the ground by the driver's side door. Somebody, or likely more than one somebody, had been tied up and gagged inside the van at some point, he knew. Maybe he wasn't so far away from Christy and her friends as he'd just thought.
"Christy?" he called out again. There was no answer. He bustled further through the woods, hoping he was going the right way, and that Christy or at least one of her friends were close by-and alive. Cresting a hill, he saw an old run-down cabin and shed below. His brow furled. Could that be significant? Taking a glance around, he hustled down the hill. He noticed the door to the shed was wide open, much like the van's door had been. He rushed to it. The shed, too, was empty, but like the van, it was clear someone had been held prisoner inside at some point: there were large piles of more rope surrounding an old wooden chair in the middle of the shed, making it clear someone had recently been tied to it. Christy, he thought with a gulp? Or one of her friends? And where were they now? Hopefully whoever had been tied up in the chair had simply managed to free him or herself and break out of the shed, and was now on their way to safety. He preferred to think that, that Christy's ordeal was now over. Still, there was always the chance something terrible had happened, even with no blood visible.
Someone had to know about this, he knew, even if there was no trace of anyone. He reached into his pocket for his cell phone, hoping he'd be able to get a signal out here...
...when without warning, he received a sharp blow in the back of the head, and dropped the phone as he slumped unconscious to the floor.
Christy stretched as she woke up. The nap had done good for her; now she felt very much refreshed. She checked her watch. It was now a little after five o'clock. She'd been asleep for seven hours. By now Leo and the other kidnappers had to have given up and gone far away.
There were low sighs to her left. On the other wall, Bobbie was still attending to Jackie. Quietly, so not to wake the still sleeping Dawn, Christy hobbled over to her. "How are you feeling now, Jackie?" she asked her, plopping down next to her.
"It still really hurts-too much for me to get to sleep like you did-but I do feel better that the bullet's out, so thanks again, Christy," Jackie thanked her, not looking as pained as she'd been before, "And since I didn't get a chance to say it earlier, I'm glad you're safe too; I was worried stiff something had happened to you since the last time we'd seen you."
"Yeah," Bobbie nodded, "You've always been a great friend, Christy; there was no way we were leaving the mountain until we knew you were safe."
"And you two are great friends too," Christy hugged the two of them in turn, "I don't know what I'd do without either of you."
"What time is it?" Dawn asked sleepily as she woke up.
"A little after five," Christy told her, "We'd better go out and try and get someone's attention; I don't want to spend another night alone in the woods."
"Agreed," her best friend nodded, "Can you walk on your own, Christy?"
"Let me try," Christy took a couple of steps, stumbling; it still hurt too much to put her weight on the sprained ankle. "I could use your help, Dawn," she conceded.
"That's what I'm here for," Dawn put Christy's arm around her shoulder. Bobbie helped Jackie up as well. "Entrance was this way," Dawn gestured towards a faint ray of sunlight in the distance.
"Wait," Christy held up her hand. A reassuring noise could be faintly heard, getting louder. "A helicopter!" she exclaimed excitedly, "The search teams are out! Hey!" she separated from Dawn and hobbled as rapidly as her ankle would allow towards the cave entrance, "Hey, we're down...!"
Suddenly a hand was clamped over her mouth mere feet from the cave entrance. Another arm dragged her down a side tunnel and wrestled her motionless. "Hello again my little meal ticket," Leo's terrifying voice hissed softly in her ear, "Didn't think you'd lose us that easily, did you!?"