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For The Strength of Youth

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Submitted by Steven ODell on 9 July 2007 - 12:10am.

Chapter 24

The time was right for Ted. He had rifled through the police vehicle and found whatever he could use, eat or wear and it was time to move now. The activity on the radio had slowed to almost nothing. They had all assumed that Ted had left the area for good, to escape prosecution. The truth was more probable that they just could not afford to be scouring the mountains for so long when the likelihood of finding him was so remote. He had just waited them out.

A police cruiser would be too easily seen on the road. The way back to the cabin would have to be through the woods and on foot. That meant a longer delay. So be it. It was the price he would pay to get what he wanted.

Ted wandered through the woods staying relatively close to the highway until he found a hunters’ cabin that was unoccupied and pried the door open. Here he found all the food he needed, as it had been stocked recently. There was no rifle or ammunition, but he still had the firearms he had taken from the Sheriff’s men. These he had shoved into his waistband, beneath his belt. He was glad to be out of the police cruiser after so long. He had been going stir crazy. He reflected, if only people would have stayed out of his business, it would all have been so different. Now he must take care of anyone who had gotten or would get in his way.

Ted packed what he might need into a jacket that he spread out and when it was full he tied it into a bundle and bound it with a length of rope and fashioned a strap of sorts. This he slung over his shoulder before he exited the cabin. He had also found a First Aid kit and he waited long enough to sit on a bench seat and briefly nurse his aching and swollen leg. After squeezing out a large amount of discolored, foul liquid he cleaned and bandaged the wounds as best he could. The infection from the screwdriver was reason for concern and the pain was getting intense, but it would have to wait for now. He took some of the painkillers that he found in the box and headed off into the woods.

It was the third day after Ron and Denise had departed into the forest and Hunter, Jonathan and Mose were engaged in focused discussion. “It’s apparent to me that we’ve judged this guy wrong all along and we need to take a new approach if we want to stay ahead of him. That’s all I’m suggesting. ” Jonathan volunteered.

Hunter shot back, “We haven’t even seen or heard from him all this time. He’s long gone, guys.”

“Well, the new approach had better be able to take into account the antics of a lunatic, ‘cause that’s what he is,” Mose answered, ignoring Hunter’s lack of concern. “I’ll be darned if I can figure him out.” He was, without a doubt, the most frustrated of the three.

Hunter was perplexed, but changed the subject. “So, where did Bill say he was going? He disappeared right after Ron left and he didn’t take either of the cars-that’s what
puzzles me.”

“Jon-Jon says he told him he was going to ‘patch a hole before it rained in’, whatever that means. As many years as I’ve known him I still can’t understand how he thinks. Maybe we oughta take a ‘new approach’ with him, too?” Mose grinned insincerely as he said it, then took a deep breath and exhaled in exasperation.

Jonathan quickly stepped in, “We know he doesn’t do anything only half-thought-out, no matter how hard it may be to know what wavelength he’s on. So, let’s cut him some slack for now, Marvy. I’m sure he has his reasons to be gone right now. It isn’t like him to leave anyone ‘high and dry’. He’ll be back.”

“Well, I’d feel a whole lot better if he and that rifle of his were here, that’s all. The situation with Ted is more urgent now. I expect him to come back here. Now that the cops are gone he won’t hesitate a moment to try again and I think we need to be ready for him. He could even be back tonight, I would guess.”

“Mose, you couldn’t second guess him before, so what makes you think you can now?”

“Just a hunch, Hunter. Up to now, I’ve been thinking he would do the most likely thing, the most logical. I’ve been consistently wrong, so now I have to accept the pattern that he has been setting for us, if we’d been bright enough to see it. All we need do is expect the unexpected. He’ll do the last thing that we would ever guess he would do. So, I predict the unpredictable will be what he does. That’s why I think he would come back here, simply because no one in their right mind would ever think to do so. At this point, I think he’s in so deep that all he wants is revenge and nothing else matters.”

The other two nodded their assent, with Hunter grudgingly adding, “That does makes more sense right now than anything else. I agree that he is not the kind to just give up and run. He’s proven that already. It’s more the ‘bull in the china shop’ route that he takes. Okay, I’ll bite. What do you suggest we do to be ready for him? I want to stop this ‘puke’ once and for all, without any of us getting hurt in the process.”

Mose rubbed his misshapen, discolored nose and growled his consent. “Yeah, I owe him one and I intend to deliver it personally.”

Jon-Jon had pencil and paper all ready to take notes and make lists. “You’re not the only one. Okay, so let’s get busy, then. We need to be ready by the time it’s dark.”

The view of the third falls was truly spectacular, from above and below. Fully an hour was spent admiring the view from the top before descending the trail that led to the base of the falls. It was not so much a trail as it was the only feasible route to be taken. It was a tough journey, but Denise found it to be well worth the effort.

“Oh, Ron…this is absolutely incredible. The other two were beautiful, but this one is truly amazing.”

“I knew you would enjoy it. If we’d had more time when we were here before, I would have brought you here then. I loved it as a kid and it still astounds me today.”

“It must be one hundred feet high.”

“One hundred fifteen. Hunter and I managed to measure it once. We dropped a length of string over the side and tied a knot when it hit the bottom. We had no concept of trigonometry then—could’ve saved us a bit of a fright. Hunter slipped and almost fell over the edge. If he hadn’t grabbed my arm, he would have been lost. Scared us both so bad that we shook for an hour. Tied my stomach into knots for days whenever I thought of it. We never told our Dads, ‘cause we knew they would’ve never let us go hiking alone again had they known about it. Didn’t matter, though. We never went near the edge again after that. We just admired from a safe distance.”

Denise looked at the top of the falls and imagined in her mind what it might be like to fall from such a height onto the rocks below. She shuddered at the thought.

Ron felt her shiver and asked, “You okay?”

“Oh, sure. Just a bit cold here in the mist, that’s all.” A little white lie. It wouldn’t do to make him sorry that he had brought her here. It was quite beautiful and she had no regrets.

“Let’s get you into a coat then, shall we?” He put his arm around her and guided her back to drier ground.

As he was wrapping her in a coat she said, “Ron, you once said that you wanted me to know all there is to know about you and now you have asked me to marry you. I want that more than anything in the world, but as your wife it will fall to me to be a help to you in whatever you need to accomplish in your life—in our lives. If you have successes, I’ll be happy right along with you and if you have pain, I’ll hurt, too. I think you know that already.”

He nodded, but remained pensive and silent.

“I don’t want to pry, but I have the feeling that something in your past is still haunting you. I know you really don’t want to discuss it, but I want you to know that it will be a source of pain to me, also, after we are married. I feel what you feel, because I love you. Won’t you trust me and let me in? I want to help.”

Ron turned away from her and stared first into the trees and then at the ground. Denise walked around to face him and saw that his eyes were closed firmly and his cheeks were wet with tears. She reached a hand to wipe them away and he clasped her hand in his and kissed it fervently, then held it tightly to his cheek and paused, eyes still closed. He took a deep breath that shook as he inhaled. Slowly he let it out and seemed to resign himself to the inevitable.

“For years I … have been haunted….” Ron paused for a long time before continuing. “This is so hard.” The pain was something no one could miss. It was a very real burden that he had carried for a long time and was now about to put down, she hoped.

“It has something to do with your ‘problem-solving’ squad, doesn’t it?”

He nodded and opened his eyes, but still looked at the ground. “On one of our missions…” He swallowed hard and rubbed his eyes to clear the tears. “I followed the rules that I was given. Every fiber of my being told me to ignore them, but I stuck to procedure. A man died as a result. I’m convinced that if I had listened to that inner voice it could have been avoided and the mission still fulfilled.” He covered his face in his hands and wept again.

The picture was complete to Denise now. She held him close and comforted him with all the love she had. “And you thought that you were letting me down in the same way that you felt you were responsible for that man’s death.” It was not a question, neither was it an accusation. It was a gentle statement of fact that she knew instinctively to be true.

“Yes.” He began to sob and shake with the release of this terrible burden. The pain was still fresh, as though it was but yesterday, but she knew that maybe now he could begin to heal, once and for all.

“Ron, you have never let me down or disappointed me in any way.” There were now tears in her eyes, too, and her chin quivered as she spoke. “I know you love me and would do anything to protect me. Do you know what that alone is worth to me?” She brushed his hair with her hand and cupped his cheek.

The unqualified love she now offered was enough to push him over the edge into the realm of self-forgiveness. He held her close and sobbed like a child for several minutes and Denise just held quietly and loved him. “Ron, you would never have intentionally harmed anyone. You know that and I know that. Life is full of hard lessons that we seldom get to choose. All you can do is learn and go on. What you have learned is to follow the promptings of that inner voice and that sometimes one rule does not fit all.”

“Yeah…” he stared suddenly into the sky and said, “but I often wish that I could do it over again, the right way.”

“If you could do that so easily, you would never really learn the lesson, would you?”

He thought a moment and then replied. “No, I guess that’s true, but it doesn’t stop the wishing…or the hurt.”

“When you remove a nail from a fence post, you no longer have the nail in it, but there is still a hole from the nail. When you get cut and bleed, the wound will heal, but there is still a scar that reminds you of the hurt. My Dad taught me that. It’s just the way it is and we can’t change it. It serves a purpose, if we learn from it and change our behavior. The pain of touching a hot stove reminds us not to do it again.”
“I love you, Denise.” He touched his hands gently against her face and then pulled her closer to him.

“I love you, too, Ron.”

“Can you travel a short distance now? The safest place for us right now is a cave that I know of a mile or so further down the canyon, where it widens out. We aren’t protected enough in a tent. The cave is set high in the wall of the canyon and is dry and warm when there’s a small fire.”

The next mile was more difficult than the previous had been, but Ron helped her every step of the way. When they came to a wide spot in the canyon, Ron pointed upward and announced, “That’s where we want to go.” It was an opening barely visible from where they were. She was sure that it was a good seventy feet or more above them.

“We do?” she asked in a way that made it clear the desire might very well be one-sided.
With an amused grin he told her, “I know that it won’t be easy, but there is every reason to do so and none that are good enough not to. It really is for the best, Denise.” She studied him for a few seconds and then nodded her consent.

“First, though, I need to broach a delicate subject. This is the only fresh water available.” He nervously waved his hand at the river. “We need to fill our canteens and tie them to our rope, then you might want to take advantage of getting a bath. After the climb, it will be too hard to come down for that luxury, I’m afraid. It will be a lot warmer while the sun is still up. I’m sorry that it isn’t the Hilton. You can bathe first and I will go next, if you like.”

Denise looked at the river, then at Ron. He was uncomfortable, she could tell. “Well…not much privacy, is there?” She felt silly as she said this. Here she was being bashful when so recently she had been willing to give herself to him without reservation. What a switch!

“Oh…I’m sorry…over there, behind that big rock.” He regained his composure to a small degree and pointed more specifically, about twenty yards downriver from their position. “It’s deeper there and you can be totally covered.”

Ron nervously looked at the ground, avoiding her eyes. He really was having a hard time with this. Denise’s first thought was that it was cute. It was sweet, funny and gallant. He was such a mix of different characteristics and emotions. For such a strong man he was so shy and unassuming. A big teddy bear. This was not your average Fabio-type hero. Here was a ‘knight in shining armor’, it was true, but a reluctant knight, unsure and unaware of his own worth and prowess. He was so different from Ted. And worth so much more than he yet knew.

“I…uh, I’m sorry there is nothing I can do about the water temperature.” He looked up for a second and then as quickly avoided her gaze again.

Just as well, for she shivered suddenly at the thought of the cold mountain water on her warm naked flesh. “I’ll just have to call the management and complain, won’t I?”

He smiled and again looked her in the eye, grateful that she was so blending in a situation that was at best barely tolerable.

Ron turned and busied himself with filling the canteens and tying off the backpack, tent and bedding with the rope so they could pull it up after themselves.

Denise worked her way around the back of the rock he had designated and when out of sight she began to undress. The cool air felt good on her body. Maybe she would go up to the meadow and sunbathe nude if there were enough time before they went back home. It had been years since she had done this outdoors. Not since she and Lenny Kowalski had been skinny-dipping in the lake. She giggled at the thought of her and Ron going skinny-dipping here and decided he would probably have a heart attack at the thought of doing that before they were married. She had no further opportunity to reflect on the humor of the thought, for she stepped into the water and sank deeper than she would have liked in one step. Gasping violently, she held her breath, unable to move for some time. The water was indeed cold, as he had promised. Now Denise had to wonder if it would be she that was about to have the heart attack. After the shock had worn off and she was again able to move, Denise made quick work of scrubbing herself. There would be no lazing and lounging about involved in this task.

When Denise was finished bathing, she came out of the water and dressed quickly. She vowed that any more baths here would not be by full immersion. The sun was not nearly as warm as she would have hoped. Thank goodness that was over. She couldn’t wait to get home to a hot shower. If she were grateful for anything ever again, it would be for hot water.

It was now Ron’s turn. As Denise returned to where Ron had finished his preparations and organization of their supplies, he asked her how it went and all she could answer was, “Invigorating, to be sure.” There was no enthusiasm in her voice, he noted. He nodded silently and proceeded hesitantly to make his way to the same rock and disappear behind it. Curious, Denise waited and in a few moments she heard an audible gasp. No, it isn’t any warmer yet. She chuckled and sat down on a rock to allow her hair to dry as much as it would.

Later, with the baths out of the way, it was time to ascend the wall of the canyon. Ron guided her in every foothold, following and coaching from behind. A few times he placed a hand to steady her or to let her rest a moment. It was the worst part of the whole journey, but she had promised not to complain and she gritted her teeth and kept climbing. Her feet were protesting with each step upward. There was genuine doubt in her mind that she might ever make it to the top. What if she just got too tired and gave up? On second thought, maybe death was preferable to this. When she finally reached the top she fell onto her stomach and panted uncontrollably from expending so much energy. Her arms and legs were burning from the efforts, but she was finally there. Seventy feet felt like a million miles.

Ron climbed up and sat next to her. He patted her back and assured her, “You can rest now. This is it. You’re finally safe.”

To her pleasure he, too, sounded a trifle winded. At least it isn’t all me. I may not be the ‘powder puff’ that I thought I was.’ After Denise had caught her breath she raised her head and looked around. She was surprised to see that the opening to the cave was much wider than she had seen from the ground. It was formed from a layer of softer deposits that had washed out during some long distant deluge and the cave receded into the canyon wall much further than one would have guessed. There was a dim light coming from the rear of the cave.

At the mouth of the cave was a pile of wood, essentially just scraps of branches, stacked neatly as possible and ready to fuel a fire when needed. She raised herself to her hands and knees, then slowly to her feet and went to join Ron in the rear of the cave. He had taken an armload of wood and retreated into the darker areas at the back. Now she saw why. The light that she had seen was a shaft in the rock where the sun shone through into the farther reaches of the cave. It also served as a chimney, evidenced by the fire pit directly beneath it.

“Perfect. Made to order.” She smiled and brushed the hair from her face. It was matted and still dirty. Ron felt so sorry for her and wished he could be with her in Hawaii at this very moment.

“You really have been a trooper through all of this. I want you to know how impressed I am by your strength.” His face told her there was genuine admiration in his heart.

“Thank you. You were right, though. It hasn’t been easy, but I can’t think of anyone else I would rather be in hell with.”

He laughed out loud for the first time in days. It felt so good to him. Denise just smiled in appreciation and turned for the first time to the mouth of the cave. She stood completely still for several seconds and then approached it again, slowly and in awe. “You’ve done it again, Ronald Jameson.”

“What?” Questioningly, he studied her.

“Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more beautiful, it has. I have never seen anything like this. I take it all back. I can’t think of anyone else I would rather be in heaven with.”

“Glad you like it. It was a favorite of ours when Hunter and I found it. I’m sorry the climb is so hard, but that’s one of the advantages, too. Makes it harder to attack. More of a fortress.”

Denise stood and took it all in for several minutes and then said, “I think my two most favorite places in the world are ones you have shown me. The meadow and this cave.”

“That means a lot to me, babe.” The word was another with which her father had often addressed her and rather than thinking it to be demeaning or offensive, she found it unexpectedly endearing and held him in silence for a long time.

After getting all their gear pulled up and settled in, the two of them sat at the mouth of the cave and looked out on the view of the canyon. Denise looked off to her right and could see that the canyon widened appreciably more for a short distance and then narrowed again as the river passed through a draw in the rocks. In the distance to her left were the falls-the spectacular falls. It was an awe-inspiring sight, both restful and exhilarating at once. It was a feeling hard to describe, but there was no need to describe what the soul could translate without effort. It spoke to the very heart and nature of humanity, if humanity were listening.

“Ron, tell me something—you do find me attractive, don’t you?”

He looked as if someone had just slapped him. “Yes, of course I do! How can you think otherwise?”

“I don’t doubt it for a minute. I’m just baffled by something. You have kissed me passionately, you have made it clear that you love me-by every word and deed possible and you have proposed marriage to me, yet you turned down the opportunity to make love to me. Why?”

“Denise, would that have made you love and respect me more than you do now?”

She shook her head a second and then stopped. Now she shrugged her shoulders and looked to be on the verge of crying. She was very confused. It was plain that she had not entirely understood his explanation the night she had offered herself so willingly to him. He still trembled inwardly at the thought of how tempted he had been and how difficult a battle it had been to deny his urges. He had come so close to giving in and abandoning all inhibition. He knew now that he would have hated himself afterward. Denise deserved far better than that.

Ron took her hand and said, “Look at me. Listen closely and memorize this. I love you more than you can know. I told you at the cabin that I wanted to marry you. I thought you understood then how I felt. If you wanted only sex, you could have had that from any other man in the world. What would you have then? A one-night stand? I want to be more than that to you. When I give you my heart and soul, you will have my body, too-and I will then have yours. That moment will be when I have shown my full commitment to you by taking your hand in marriage and not before then. What other man will show how much he truly loves you by not cheapening it for an instant of gratification? Don’t you think a little self-restraint is in order? And I want to stand out as different from any other man in the world. You will remember me as the man who loved you for all of you, not just your body; the man who never made you doubt his motivations or made you regret waiting for it all to be perfect. Do you understand?”

She was crying now. “Yes, I do. Well, sort of…and I love you for it.”

“I know I may sound a bit quaint and old-fashioned, but I really believe this is the best way. I won’t make loving you a cheap and common commodity, Denise. You are my treasure. I will pay the full price for such a rare jewel as you are and I will not take possession until I have paid in full. Got that, young lady?” The last four words were spoken forcefully and in a matter of fact way that showed her there was no other option for her to consider except this one.

“Yes, sir. I do.” They both smiled at the formality. Ron pulled her close and kissed her affectionately on the forehead. It was such a tender kiss that Denise fairly melted. She now understood his restraint and could respect it. And it felt right when he kissed her-even in a controlled way. She would never fret about that again.

Still, Ron felt the need to explain further. “Denise, there was a time that I had little inclination to control my passions and appetites.” He turned and looked out upon the canyon, now beginning to glow orange in the sunset. He looked every bit the philosopher, the wise old sage in his mannerism. “What I found was that they ruled me instead of me ruling them. I was no longer the master of my passions, but a slave to them. They dictated what I would do and under what circumstances I would do it. I was out of control and that is dangerous. The drinking I was doing at the time just made it worse. An enemy can use that against you to control or destroy you, according to his own pleasure—no pun intended.” He turned to grin at her in that silly way that always surprised and disarmed her. Then just as quickly he was serious again. “What kind of man do you want?”

She wrapped both her arms around one of his and leaned against his shoulder. “I’ve already told you. I want you.” They continued to watch the evolution of the chasm before them until it was too dark to see and then they moved inward to the fire that was burning low but warm in the back recesses of the cave. Here was warmth. Here was good company. Even Ron was finally confident that it would be a truly safe night for once.

It was again after nightfall and Hunter was pacing the floor. Mose had convinced him and now he was worried that they had somehow overlooked one detail that might prove crucial to stopping Ted. What it was he had no idea and that was why he worried. He had seen already that Ted was unpredictable and there was no reason to believe that he would have changed appreciably in the last few days. Then he thought of another reason to be concerned. “Mose, they are probably getting close to being out of food by now.”

“Listen, mother hen, you ought to know your own cousin by now. He’ll be fine. I’m sure they’ve been careful to ration the meals. They took the First Aid kit with them and they have plenty of water and a pan to boil it in, okay? Stop giving yourself ulcers.”

“Yeah, and stop pacing around in the dark. You’re gonna step on my feet.” Jonathan, too, was getting annoyed. He and Mose were getting uneasy about how long they had been away from their own homes and families. There had been no real contact since they arrived. Their families and bosses were surely wondering by now. This Ted character had proven to be a real pain in the derriere. It had taken them far more time than they had planned.

“It’s my cabin. I know every inch of it in the dark. Keep your feet out of the way and you won’t get stepped on.” Hunter was showing obvious signs of impatience.

It was Jon-Jon that decided that they must get their emotions under control. “Okay, I’m sorry. Look, we need to all take a deep breath and calm down here. We aren’t doing any good to ourselves or to Ron and Denise if we save Ted the trouble of killing us.”

“Not funny, Jonathan.” Mose never called him that. It was a certain sign that he, too, was extremely perturbed.

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