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Submitted by Steven ODell on 9 July 2007 - 12:04am.

Chapter 21

Mose began to awaken slowly. He heard voices yelling and now felt a hand slapping him repeatedly on the cheek. He reached quickly and took the wrist tightly in his own grip. “That will be all, soldier,” he announced in his mechanical daze.

“Welcome back, buddy. Get up, we need your help. Ted has Denise.” It was Jon-Jon.

Mose raised on one elbow and asked, “Isn’t this where I came in?” He felt his nose and determined it was undeniably broken. It was already swollen like a small orange in the middle of his face. The tightness felt odd, but he knew the pain was yet to come. Paybacks are a bear, he vowed, thinking of his sweet revenge when he got his hands on Ted.

With two flashlights among them, Ron led the men behind the cabin and in the direction of the deeper woods and the river. He could hear running far ahead of him in the distance and feared that Denise would have either missed the rock formation in the darkness or she would forget about it totally in her fright. But then, it was possible that she had no option but to run and run fast. This poor woman had certainly had enough and more than her share of trials. Whatever power or influence determined our allotment of challenges had given her the jackpot and he wondered how she had been able to cope with it thus far. She was far stronger and more determined than he had given her credit. Now he must be as determined as she if he were to save her-and more determined than Ted.

The crunching of debris had paused for a moment or two and Ron waited to hear where it would go from there. Nothing happened and he tried to work his way slowly and quietly in the last direction he had heard the sounds. The beam of his flashlight scanned the forest in the same general direction, but there was nothing to be seen. Then he heard a woman’s scream followed by a bellow, as of a wounded animal. The subtle crush of debris began anew and then doubled, and he knew the pursuer was again chasing his intended victim. The lights were horribly inadequate to the task of following anyone in flight and the crashing of their own feet was so loud that it almost completely drowned any sounds that they wished to follow. Ron stopped and spoke to the others as they drew beside him in the darkness.

“We can’t do it this way. I can’t hear her with all of us stomping around and you don’t know the woods as Hunter and I do. We will have to go on alone. You guys stay at the cabin in case she is able to double back. Be ready for this guy, okay? Take him out if you have to, but stop him!”

“Okay, Boss. Be careful. He has a whole sleeve full of tricks.” Jonathan slapped Ron on the arm and poked at Hunter, too, in a sign language that said watch yourselves and then he and the other two turned to retrace their steps.

“Hunter, we have to split up. We will only confuse one another with all the noise we’ll be making.”
“Okay, I’ll check the ravine over the hill here and you take the upper ground-you were always able to cover it faster than I was.”

“I don’t know if she’ll remember anything I showed her, but it will be nearly impossible for her to find it in the dark, anyway. She could be anywhere by now. We will just have to hope we find her before he does.”

“Okay. Jon-Jon is right, though. Ted is unpredictable. Be on constant guard.”

“Right, Cuz. You, too.”

The ravine was where the river suddenly cascaded over a fall and into a large pool that formed beneath it. The going was easy enough in the day, but very dangerous in the subdued glow of the flashlight. The path into the ravine was narrow and Hunter cursed himself for not putting in fresh batteries the last time he had thought of it. It would also be nigh unto impossible for him to hear any noise in here other than the sound of the falls. It would drown even a scream for help, he guessed.

He scanned his flashlight over the breadth of the canyon and was surprised at how quickly the dim light dissipated. This was going to be wholly inadequate to the task, he knew. Oh, God, I hope you can hear me. I am going to be flying blind here, otherwise.

Ron continued in the direction of the higher ground. Would Denise go to the meadow? Could she even find it? was the better question. His heart sank at the thought of her being alone and frightened in the dark woods. It was hard enough for anyone who knew the territory, but she had seen only a glimpse of it in the daylight and never with the intent of memorizing it for travel in the dark. She could be badly hurt even now, whether she had been caught or not. He gritted his teeth and wiped a tear that blurred the beam of his already dimming flashlight. This was going to be a night of pure hell, he knew. God help us.

Mose, Bill and Jonathan had returned to the cabin and were in heated discussion. “Look, I know he’s right that we don’t know these woods, but ain’t there some way that we can help? I cain’t just sit here and wait.”

“What do you want to do, Bill, chase shadows? It isn’t easy for any of us-not just you. Maybe one of us can take the Mercedes and patrol the road. If she turns and circles back, it would be good to give her a friend and a safe place to go. You can do that, if you want.”

“Yeah, yeah! I’m on it like stink on skunk.” He was nearly out the door before the words were finished and the car door slammed seconds later.

“Mose, I know how he feels. This whole thing has been weird. It seems that nothing has gone the way it should have.” Jonathan shook his head, befuddled and weary.

“If Ted were a normal person, we could have figured him out, but I think he’s finally lost it and that worries me more than ever. I hope we find her before he does.” He stared off into space and was silent.

Ted had been temporarily persuaded by the pain in his right thigh to turn Denise loose, giving her the chance to begin running again, but it was only momentary. The rage welled up inside him like a bonfire and with the roar of a lion he again charged after her. He was not as agile and she ran amongst the trees, ducking first this way and then that, but she knew she would tire soon and then her fate would be inevitably sealed, unless by some miracle she found intervention. It was getting increasingly more difficult to see the outlines of the trees and avoid running into them. It was then that it happened. Her foot tangled in an exposed tree root and she went headlong into the thick underbrush at the base of the tree. The wind was knocked out of her and she bunched up in a knot as she tried to buck the convulsion in her diaphragm. Her ribs were screaming and she knew she would again lose consciousness in a matter of seconds. Oh, please…not again, she thought. She took the last precious moment before then to make certain that her body was covered in whatever brush and dead leaves surrounded her on the forest floor and then all was blackness.

The sound ahead of him had stopped altogether. Ted knew that she had to be there, waiting in the dark and this time there was no cave or rock to hide in. He also was prepared to remove any danger from whatever weapon she had employed upon him previously. It was a matter of minutes now and he would have her. If for no other reason than to prevent her from talking to the authorities, he had to find her. He settled upon it then. It was lamentable, but she would have to die.

Ron was nearly beside himself. He knew that she would be hopelessly lost by now. He dropped to his knees and began to pray and sob violently. He felt totally helpless and inadequate to the task that was his. He had no idea even where to begin. Oh, how could this be happening? I can’t lose her so soon; not like this. He forced himself to his feet again and pushed on toward the top of the next rise. Self-pity was not a luxury he could afford right now. He was going in the direction of the river. If she had found it in the dark, she may have fallen in. The water was gentle enough in most places and she could have gotten out, but the shock of hitting the cold mountain water, not to mention the chill of the air on her afterwards, would certainly take a tremendous and harsh toll on her already fragile and battered body. She might not make it through the night, for the temperature had already dropped significantly since the sun had set. Her one chance in that instance would be to cover herself above and beneath with leaves in order to fully insulate herself against the cold. And then, if she were caught in a rain, as often happened in these mountains, she would likely succumb. He hoped she remembered everything her Dad had taught her about surviving in the woods. He hoped her father had done a thorough job in teaching her.

Hunter felt that no one could have gotten this far, no matter how hard they were being chased. The terrain was just too treacherous for anyone that was not familiar with it. Coupled with the darkness, it would have been deadly. He knew there was no choice but to return to the cabin and get word to the police. It might take a search party to find Denise. He hoped she was alive when they did.

The lights of the Sheriff’s cruiser flashed and Bill slowed and pulled alongside, rolling down the window. “Hey, am I glad to see you. A gal is being chased through these here woods and the guy that’s chasin’ her is a nutcase of the highest degree.”

“We got a call from a cabbie saying a guy acting irrationally made him drive up here a few hours ago. You involved with him in some way?”

“That sounds like the man, officer. He came up in a cab, I’m sure. Y’all follow me and I’ll show ya where he went. Maybe y’all better call for reinforcements. He’s a dangerous man.” Bill turned the Mercedes in a tight U and made for the cabin road with the officer hot on his tail.

Blast that woman! How did she keep eluding him? Again, she had seemed to vanish into thin air, but he knew the earth had not swallowed her up. She was somewhere close by. But he heard no sound, not even her muffled gasping for air, and she must be entirely exhausted by now. None of the trees hid her, for he had checked all that he could. They were not the kind you could easily climb and even had she been able to do so, she could never have accomplished it without his hearing her. He had also beaten the bushes and she would have been flushed out like a scared rabbit. Yet, she was gone. She couldn’t be gone. There were no possible means to achieve it, but she was, nonetheless, gone.

It was cold when Denise regained consciousness. She began shivering immediately. She knew immediately that she was in danger of hypothermia. Her entire body was shaking violently and she thought her already protesting ribs would break from the muscle convulsions in her chest. Yet she lay as still as possible, having no clue how long she had been unconscious and fearing that Ted could be within feet or even inches of her at this very instant. She listened intently, with the ears of the animals of the wild. There was no sound but that of her own teeth chattering and the shaking of the sheath of debris she had made for herself. She could not stay on the ground, she knew. It would continue to suck the warmth from her body and she would never survive the night. She had to risk being discovered.

The Sheriff called for backup as Bill had suggested and then turned to the men who stood waiting before him. “You men want to help? Tell me all you know about this guy and don’t leave out a thing.” They entered the cabin, sat down together and the exchange began.

Barbara was absolutely frantic at this point and Paul could not calm her. She paced the floor incessantly and cried more than he had seen her cry in the last year. She would first sit and then stand and pace again, but there was simply no consoling her. Ron had promised to keep her posted and she had heard nothing since she had called him to inform him that his house had burned. Was she being unreasonable or was he being completely insensitive and callous? She made for the phone, nearly pushing Paul aside in the endeavor and punched the buttons with a vengeance.

Ron’s cell phone rang suddenly. It frightened him and for a moment he struggled to figure out what the noise was. It finally dawned on him and he thought how odd and out of place the sound was here in the quiet of these dark woods. There must be a translator tower near enough to get a signal up here, he reasoned. Opening the phone, he recognized Barbara’s voice and, though he could barely get a word in edgewise, he tried to explain what had ensued since he had last talked with her. He stood there in the middle of this forest and felt that somehow he was violating the sanctity of nature with his modern convenience. It was a strange feeling and he could not explain it. He felt empty, too,
without Denise. Somehow he managed to temporarily allay Barb’s concerns. His own were another matter altogether. He closed the phone, replaced it in his pocket and trudged on…toward what?

Sudden insight hit him and he pulled the phone again from his pocket and rapidly dialed 911. Why hadn’t he thought of this before now? In seconds the person at the other end was ready to record all information he was willing to give. Ron briefly told the operator what the nature of the problem was and requested she send the authorities and an ambulance. He was not able to tell her for whom it would be needed, but he felt certain that before this night was over there would be at least one occupant. He shuddered at the thought. The operator initiated a trace of his position by triangulation of his signal and asked that he stay on the line as long as was possible. Help was on the way.

Ted was still and waiting. He had waited for a full ten minutes by now. He would wait as long as it took, for his own life was at risk now. He would not go to prison and he knew that Denise would be more than able to put him there. She would do it without so much as a backward glance, the witch! She never saw how fortunate she was to have him. He cared more than any other man she had ever known. Well, she had blown it and now she would pay-with her life.

The stillness was suddenly broken by the distant sound of a cell phone. That could mean only one thing. Someone was near and they might run across him as he waited. He now had to be watchful of Denise and whoever this new threat was. He stooped and ran his fingers across the ground at his feet, searching for anything that he could use as a weapon. There. He found what he needed.

Denise heard the ringer of the phone and held her breath, holding completely still even as she formed the thought that she must get up. Who could it possibly be? Was it Ted? She could hear the voice distantly and knew it to be male. Then she heard the leaves rustle behind her and her heart began to race. There were two people presently near her. She had no idea which was friend and which foe. They were not yet aware of her location, she knew, but both of them were without doubt searching for her, one with intent to save and the other with intent to harm. The question was which was which and how would she determine the answer. She had to wait and let the circumstances unfold. There was no other choice if she wished to remain safe.

Ron put the phone, still opened, in his jacket pocket to ensure that it could not close unintentionally. The signal would be constantly broadcasting while he kept searching. The ambulance would look for the road at the milepost he had told the operator of and police help would accompany it. He knew they would first go to the cabin and if Denise were there, she would be treated promptly. If she was not, the police might follow directions to locate and join him. He listened a moment and then pressed forward again. The flashlight was nearly dead now. It scarcely showed any detail even on the ground immediately at his feet. He turned it off and put it into his pocket.

Denise now heard the nearest figure move slowly into another position and become still. She raised herself as carefully and quietly as possible, fighting the urge to whimper from the pain in her ribs. The leaves fell softly from her body and made no sound that would be heard beyond a few feet. Someone was coming her way; from the direction she had heard the phone ringer. The crush of leaves was not loud, but it was apparent. Who was waiting for who was the question—and with what intent? Her mind raced as quickly as it could, considering her physical state. She found it extremely difficult to concentrate on anything but the cold and the pain. What if the one coming toward her were Ted? Then she should be quiet and let the man lying in wait tend to the situation as he saw fit. If, on the other hand, Ted were the one waiting to ambush a prospective rescuer, she must warn him in time. The decision seemed insurmountable to her. Another time she might have thought more clearly. Why does it have to be now?

Denise knew also that if Ted were the one victorious then she must have a contingency plan of her own. She felt about her on the ground to find some way of defending herself if the unthinkable should happen. There was nothing within reach. Desperate to be prepared, she expanded her circle of reach, always taking care to stay low and not draw attention to herself. Yes! A stone about the size of her fist. It dawned on her that she need not be close to employ it. It could be used as a tool for distraction also, in the event that she needed to throw it. This might help her when nothing else would. She checked again in her pocket for the screwdriver. It was gone! Oh, please no….

Feeling somewhat more helpless now, Denise forced herself to take a firm mental stance. Everything had to be done perfectly or irreversible damage would result. Think! Think it out... If I warn someone who is coming to help me, that’s good. If I end up warning Ted—not so good. But if I am wrong in staying quiet, someone may get killed. If I am right, Ted will be stopped. Her mind was reeling with the enormity of the responsibility. Denise knew that she could not sit idly by and allow someone to be killed and decided that she must take the chance that she would be correct in her assessment of the situation. With a prayer in her heart, she prepared to give the warning at the appropriate time and she hoped for the best.

Denise stood fully erect against the tree, clutching the rock in her hand. She leaned slightly, attempting to see the combatants that would soon be engaging in battle. The dim outline of the one approaching was almost surely Ron, she thought. The height, apparent weight and the walk were all characteristic of Ron. Denise knew now that the ambusher was Ted. She no longer had any doubts as to what she must do. For Ron’s sake, she must take action. Leaning the other way to peer around the tree, Denise made out what appeared to be a person hiding behind an adjoining tree. There were no reservations in her mind as she raised the rock above her head and lunged at the shadowy figure. Alerted by the footsteps, it turned to face the onrushing body. At that moment she yelled as loud as she had ever done in her entire life.

The ploy worked. For the briefest fraction of a second, Ted was astonished enough to pause, the instinct to defend himself having failed in the sudden surprise that took place. The stone struck him full on the forehead and he reeled noisily backward into the underbrush. She could not chance the belief that he would not recover and attack anew. She raised the stone a second time and prepared to charge. Ted was stunned, but still conscious and rolling on his side he attempted to regain his feet. Denise let him achieve a partially erect stance and swung again, this time to the side of the head. A second time he went down. She was ready and willing to strike a third blow when her hand was grabbed firmly, preventing her from doing so.

“No, Denise. No! Don’t stoop to his level.” It was Ron.

Denise instinctively clung to Ron, dropping the rock that had served her so well. Ron held her a moment and then gently peeled her arms from about himself and told her to stand aside. He approached Ted’s apparently lifeless body and knelt to check for vital signs. Good, he was alive. Denise was no murderer. There was no way to bind him, though, and eventually he might come around and resist. Ron dug the phone from his pocket again and raised it to his ear in time to hear the operator’s voice. ‘Sir…Sir! Are you there?’

“Yes, I’m here. It’s alright. I’ve found her and her assailant is unconscious for the moment, but I have no way of knowing for how long. I would appreciate it if you could hustle the Sheriff’s men along ASAP, thank you. I’ll leave the phone on for as long as the battery may last.” He turned to Denise and extended his open arms to her. She wasted not a second in getting to him.

Denise again held Ron and she was completely silent, cold and drained beyond even the ability to weep. He just held her and said nothing for several minutes, being too emotionally charged himself to voice the feelings that welled up inside him. When he did finally speak it was only to say he loved her more than words could tell. She was safe in his arms and nothing else in the world mattered to him.

Ted stirred briefly at one point and Ron placed his foot against his throat, warning him of the consequences should he attempt to resist or escape. Gratefully, Ron did not find it needful to use further force. He thought how easy it would be to lose his balance and crush Ted’s windpipe. The temptation was very real after all that they had been subjected to, but it had been he who stopped Denise from completing the task of bashing in Ted’s skull and now he must practice what he preached, difficult as that might be.

Thankfully the cell phone battery held out long enough to direct the authorities to the huddled trio. When they finally drew near, the radio of the rescue workers could be heard approaching, guiding them to the location of Ron’s phone. Ron called to them and pulling the flashlight from his pocket, used the last surge of the batteries to show them where he was. Bill was with them and he readily grabbed Ron and embraced him. “Glad you are safe, buddy.” Then he turned to Denise. “Ma’am, I’d be honored if you’d let me help you back to the cabin.” The slightest nod was returned and she reached her arms out to be taken by Bill on one side and Ron on the other. She walked a few steps to a clearer area where she was asked to sit comfortably on a blanket that was provided. Another was wrapped around her in an effort to raise her body temperature to nearer normal. For the next several minutes the paramedics attended to Denise by the glow of their flashlights while the police secured and handcuffed Ted.

Denise needed bandages applied to her feet, which had been torn and were bleeding from her flight through the woods, but she felt entirely blessed to be alive. Ted’s wounds were also seen to, as he was bleeding profusely from the two strikes of the stone that Denise had guided with expert precision. His head was pounding like a jackhammer and he did not hesitate to say so when he was able to talk coherently. What goes around, comes around, Denise thought. And with that thought, she hoped never to think of Ted again.

It was over. Finally over. Too tired to cry or to laugh for joy, Ron and Denise began the long, slow trek back to the cabin, providing numbly whatever information the police required on the way. Denise was totally depleted, though she had tried valiantly to walk by herself. The last half of the way, her feet too sore to manage alone, she had to be transported via a ‘fireman’s carry’, Bill and another volunteer doing the honors. Ron, too, was entirely spent and Bill had told him to just carry himself and leave the rest to those who were here to help.

The balance of the police had returned to their vehicles when they saw that Ted was compliant and in need of medical attention. Two of them, one to a side, accompanied Ted to their waiting car, the others saying they would return to the station now that all was under control.

This was the longest and hardest few days the two lovers had ever experienced and it would not be easily forgotten. One could only try. When they returned to the cabin Hunter, Mose and Jonathan were there to greet them. It had been a hard walk. Denise had one last detail to attend to before she could rest.

“Ron, is there enough charge on your phone to call Barb and let her know it’s over?”

“I think so.” He reached into his pocket and pulled the phone free, handing it to her slowly, indicative of his present physical and mental state. “Remind me to get it on the…charger…in the car afterwards.”

“Barb, they have him. It’s over. Yeah. This is the freest I have felt in days. Uh-huh…we’re going to stay up here a few days, until Ron decides what he needs to do about his house. …I’ll let you know when I get back, okay? I have to sleep now. …Yeah, love you, too. Take care.” Denise nearly slurred the words in her exhausted state and Barbara knew she had better ask for details later.

The call was short and to the point and with much difficulty Ron plugged the phone into the car charger and then helped shuffle Denise into her bed. Life had changed now and they would all try to get back to some semblance of the order that had recently escaped them entirely. They all slept well that night, but Ron and Denise slept the dreamless sleep of the fully exhausted.

The officers were nearly to the road with Ted. They had left their cars where the radio dispatcher had told them they would be closest to Ron’s signal. Ted had given them no trouble along the way. He walked as though still unsteady and in a daze, stumbling here and there in the shaky glow of the flashlights. He would be given further medical attention at the ambulance and upon arrival in the city and then he would be off to be incarcerated and await trial. Ted groaned and went to his knees for a moment. He paused and panted heavily. The officers in attendance stopped, one of them leaning over to assess the problem.

“You alright?” Ted lifted one knee, planting his foot firmly beneath himself and with one sudden fluid motion thrust upward and forcefully planted his head squarely under the jaw of the officer who, with his own head snapped back, went tumbling over and was laid out cold on the ground. The other officer barely had time to reach for his pistol when Ted body-slammed him into a tree and dropped him also. As he hit the ground Ted began to viciously kick him in the side of the head in order to be certain he was unconscious. When the deed was accomplished Ted turned his attention to his next task—freeing himself of the hated handcuffs. He sat on the ground and rolling backward with his feet in the air, slid his hands, now bound behind him, around his sides, working the connecting chain of the cuffs under his bottom and then behind his knees. A few more efforts and the chain passed his feet and he was now able to use his hands in front of his body. Quick investigation found the key to the cuffs on one of the downed officers. Next came the guns and the keys to the cruisers, which waited with lights flashing just yards away.

The morning light shone through the window of the cabin bedroom that Ron now shared with Denise. He had refused to make the same mistake again. He would not leave her alone in any room ever again. They had both been so exhausted that it was highly improbable…no; it was entirely impossible that anything inappropriate would have happened. But Denise knew Ron to be too much a gentleman to allow such things. When they stumbled into the front room an officer greeted them, as did the most serious expressions of Ron’s friends.

“What is it, officer?” There was no hiding the fact that something had gone horribly wrong. It was plainly written on their faces.

“Sir, I have bad news, I’m afraid. The perpetrator we picked up last night has escaped. He eluded two of our men and stole a police vehicle. We feel it unsafe for the lady and yourself to be unguarded, so my partner and I will be here to make sure you are protected.”

Even a cursory inspection of the officer showed he was badly scuffed and disheveled, probably from an altercation with Ted. Ron walked to the door and looked outside. There was another officer at the doorway, but there was no official vehicle to be seen. It was possible that it had been parked out of sight, but if stealth were the goal, then the uniformed officer posted as guard would certainly be a dead giveaway. No, these were the men who had allowed Ted to escape. These were the men who had been deprived of their car and these were the same men that now would be guarding them. Whether their presence was a punishment, due to their embarrassment or because they were stranded was a debatable point in Ron’s mind. He did not feel safe at all, but he held his peace, wanting to discuss it privately with his buddies later. The chance came when the first officer went outside to patrol around the perimeter of the cabin area. Ron had noticed that they had no pistols and previously relayed that to the others by a silent show of signals. Information was now exchanged quietly and furiously and a plan was decided upon when the officer returned to report to them that all appeared to be under control.

“I really don’t believe Mr. Randall will be back, sir. He likely intends to put several county lines between himself and us.” To his credit the officer tried to portray confidence, but the men were secretly buying none of it.

“Thank you, officer. We will all rest better knowing you are on the job,” Ron lied.

A smile, a tip of the hat and the officer was out the door again. Ron and the others quickly arranged all the supplies that would be needed to keep two people warm, well fed and dry for several days; ropes, canteens, backpacks, etc.

Denise asked Ron for his phone and placed another call to Barbara. “It’s me. Yeah. I’m fine. You’ll never guess what happened, though.”

‘You’re not serious!’ Barb was astute enough to anticipate what Denise was implying.

“I’m afraid so. They had him in cuffs and they let him get away! Can you believe it?”

‘Do you need to come here? We’ll make room for you and Ron, too.”

“No, Ron and I are going to a safe place in the woods that he knows about. I don’t trust the police to protect us anymore. And there is nowhere safe down there, either, unless we want to be prisoners ourselves.”

‘Do you think that’s wise, going into the woods?’

“Ron is familiar with this area and he feels it’s safer in the open than being cooped up like a sitting duck.”

‘Okay, but you promise to keep me in the loop on this! I want to know you two are safe.’

“I will. Oh, will you do me one favor? Call the Sheriff’s office there and tell him that he has a couple unarmed officers stranded up here.”

‘You’re kidding! Okay, you watch yourself now, you hear?’

While Denise was on the phone, Ron had drawn Hunter aside.

“I don’t want to take any chances here. I need to be prepared for the worst. Do you have a pistol I can borrow?”

“Sure, but wouldn’t you rather have a rifle?"
“Not where we’re going. Too hard to manage.” Ron explained to Hunter what his plans were, promised to check in with someone in a few days and, when Denise was off the phone, bid them all a hasty farewell while the officers were momentarily distracted.

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