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Submitted by Steven ODell on 9 July 2007 - 12:16am.

Chapter 29

Ted could see a car parked along the edge of the road ahead, lights flashing in the twilight darkness. He slipped into the trees on the same side as the car and inched quietly closer. There were two men in this vehicle. It was not the Mercedes, but the car he had recognized as Barb’s. Where there had been one occupant before, there were now two. It might be more difficult to take possession of the auto now. It might also be worthwhile to find out who they were and why they were out here in the woods at night. What purpose could this clandestine conference have? He drew as near as he could without discovery. The men each stepped out of the car and went to the trunk. In short order, the goods in the trunk were transferred to a backpack. Wait! The second man was Ron! Ted had no idea of the first man’s identity, but he knew that this second man was the one he must follow if he were to find Denise and get his due revenge on them both. The driver was of no consequence. Ted remained hidden and waited for the meeting to break up.

In a few moments the men shook hands and the driver jumped back into his vehicle and made a U-turn and retraced the route by which he had arrived. The lone hiker turned, walked into the dark growth of trees and silently disappeared. There was a partial moon that dimly lit the forest. Ted waited a moment and then followed, taking care not to get too near or too far from his prey. He trailed in the dark for a long time, finding the terrain difficult to maneuver with his bad leg. Twice he slipped and fell, sliding down the hill several feet. Each time he kept perfectly still afterward, waiting and listening. It was too important. He must not be discovered.

Ron was aware that twice there were crashes in the forest debris on the hill above him. He was uneasy about it. He stopped, turning off his flashlight and listening each time. Paul had driven off and Ron knew that he should now be alone. He could not help but suspect that he wasn’t, though. The feeling weighed on him like a stone collar. He had only two real choices. He could stop here and wait for daylight, being patient and quiet in case he was truly being tracked. Or, he could double his efforts to get back to Denise and hope to lose in the darkness whoever might be following him.

The first choice might allow his tracker to catch up to him and a confrontation would certainly ensue. He preferred to avoid that, except as a last resort. It would also be very difficult to engage in hand-to-hand combat on uneven, debris-strewn ground, in the dark of night and against an unknown assailant. True, it could be an animal, but wild animals would not normally be so clumsy on their feet as that. Not even in the dark. This was their terrain and their home. On the other hand, it could be Ted. Ron certainly wanted to confront him again, but only in an arena that was conducive to winning. It would be foolish to handicap himself when past experience had shown him that Ted would use any means, ethical or not, to achieve his goals. And now Ted was armed with at least one deadly weapon, if not two. To fight him here would be foolishness of the worst kind. He had to fight him from a position of advantage.

The second choice, to flee faster into the woods, was dangerous as well. This type of terrain was hard enough in the daylight and at comfortable speeds. To run through it at night without the benefit of his flashlight was to expose himself to a variety of pitfalls, any one of which could severely injure or kill a man.

He wasn’t very fond of either of these options, but it seemed he had no real choice but to take the second one. He would have to take his chances against nature and maybe survive another day, whereas he had little or no chance against a properly placed bullet. Ron took a deep breath and increased his pace. The terrain would even out soon, for he was near the bottom of this particular draw. Then it would as quickly be uphill again. This was mountainous landscape, uneven and unforgiving. It would take a toll from him in any event, he knew.

Ted became certain that his intended victim had been alerted to his presence. The dim glow that had been guiding him went out and the sounds of controlled and deliberate footsteps was now more a haphazard crashing through the brush in an attempt to lose him. He now had to decide. Do I speed up and risk my own safety in an attempt to catch him or do I find his tracks later and hope I can make him think he gave me the slip? Ted knew that to use his own flashlight at close range would be to give himself away and maybe be led totally in another direction from that which led to Denise. There was but one option. He chose to proceed at a controlled and reasonable pace. Morning would come soon enough, he reminded himself. He would hope there would be tell-tale clues to follow.

Ron was getting winded and he had nearly fallen face first into the dirt and rocks a few too many times for his liking. It would be crazy to maintain this pace all the way back to Denise. He could not think clearly while running flat out. He might only get more disoriented, but he could also be hurt badly. He stopped behind a large boulder and panted heavily, waiting to catch his breath, wanting some indication of the proximity of his stalker, but his own breathing was so loud he feared his stalker might be led to him like a hunter to a coon dog. Turning again toward his goal and walking in a more calm and reasonable fashion, he would continue to make progress while simultaneously gaining rest from the slower pace. He would need the energy later. He pulled the phone from his pocket again and punched the button that lit the face. He scrolled through the numbers until he found Hunter’s and pushed the ‘talk’ button. Please let me get a signal!

They had been over the stretch of road several times and Hunter was now jolted from his concentration by the chime of his cell phone. He quickly dug it from his shirt pocket and flipped it open. “Hello…Ron!” He looked over quickly at Jonathan. “Where are you? Are you alright?” He listened for a prolonged period of time without saying a word.

“What’s he saying?” Jonathan was getting impatient.

“Shhh!”

Jonathan shot him a pointed ‘how-dare-you’ glare and stopped the car, putting it in park. He turned to face Hunter, who shrugged his shoulders in apology and lifted a finger to signify ‘just a minute’.

Several times the lay of the land had changed drastically. It was grueling work. Ron pushed himself a bit faster than he would have liked, but he felt that if he could achieve the high ground before his enemy he would have so much the advantage. He would choose his own battleground, if he could. Maybe he could even contrive a means to stave off any threat of combat. He could not use martial arts against a man with a gun except at hand-to-hand range and it was dangerous even at close proximity. At more than that range, he stood little or no chance of disarming an assailant or avoiding his own demise—and if he died, Denise might, also—whether by Ted or the elements, he knew not.

After a few hours, the river gorge lay at his feet. He was nearly spent, but he must descend the wall—only to ascend again, he knew, on the other side. He had judged acceptably and was near the falls, for they could easily be heard about one-eighth mile to his right. Ron turned and corrected his path in order to find ingress to the canyon below. It would be dawn far too soon and he wanted to be in the cave where defense was more certain.

Ted had decided to back off in his pursuit of Ron, taking a slightly more patient approach. It was inevitable that he would eventually find his targets. When he felt that Ron was far enough in the lead and would not detect it, he produced his flashlight and was able to choose his steps more carefully. The leaves, grasses and dirt were disturbed in sporadic streaks down the hillsides and up the opposite banks as well. There was little way to avoid that while in flight. He was on the right trail, to be sure.

The rock face now lay before him and Ron called to Denise to throw down the rope. He cringed even as he called, knowing it could alert Ted to his presence. After it had grown dark, Denise had waited near the mouth of the cave, where she had fallen asleep. She had been nearly frantic after such a prolonged absence from Ron and her eventual sleep had kept her from fretting over what she could not control. It was now beginning to show the first dim glow of morning on the canyon rim and she knew that on top of the escarpment would be the first rays of sunrise. It was good to hear Ron’s voice again and know he was back to stay now. Denise threw one end of the rope down and called to Ron, “I missed you! Are you okay?”

“We’ll talk in a moment!” He tied the pack to the rope and began to climb. The climb was harder than before. He was drained of energy from the night’s activity. He was hungry, tired and dirty. Not the condition he would have chosen to be in when about to have a life or death confrontation. At length he reached the top and crawled inside, shoo-ing Denise away from the mouth and into more secure regions of the cave, where he collapsed on the floor and rolled over onto his back. She sat beside him while he struggled to catch his breath and stop trembling from the efforts required by the climb.
“What is it, Ron? You’re okay, aren’t you?” There was deep concern in her voice and expression. She needed reassurance immediately, but he knew that this news would be anything but reassuring to her.

Ron nodded his head and managed to pant, “I was followed…it may be Ted.” He watched her face. The look was one of horror and disbelief. She stood quickly, shook her head and turned away from him. “No…no. No! Not again!” The tears were immediate and profuse. Ron understood her anguish. He felt that even he could have cried at this point. Ted was like a nightmare that wouldn’t end and what hurt most of all was to see Denise having to relive it over and over again.

Ron now forced himself to stand and he took Denise in his arms and held her close, cuddling her to his shoulder. She was the most precious thing in his life right now and this monster was trying to take her from him. It was unthinkable. Who does he think he is, God? Ron had not anticipated that the cave would ever be under attack. He had failed to plan for this possibility. All that aside, what was needed now was clear reasoning. He held her firmly by both arms and stared into her eyes with evident resolve. Ron’s breathing had now slowed somewhat and he was able to speak more smoothly and coherently. “He doesn’t even know where we are yet, but we need to think of every way that we can defend ourselves. It is conceivable that he could keep us pinned down in here for a few days, but I’ve talked to Hunter and told him our situation. He’ll get help and he has a few rifles at his disposal, as well as the men to use them. If one of us stays awake at all times, we can be alert enough to keep him out—we have a gun to cover the entrance to the cave and our eyes are used to the dark, but he’ll have to adjust to it, so we have that in our favor.” Ron thought to himself, how could it get much worse than this, but he needed to provide hope.

“I thought we were finally safe.” The burden of this renewed peril weighed so heavily on Denise that she dropped to her knees in anguish.

Ron placed his hand on her head and stroked her hair. “We haven’t been beaten yet. Don’t give up until I tell you.”

Her words were spoken in a barely controlled whine. There was little hope left in her, he could see. “All he has to do is wait for us to die in here. How can you still believe he can be stopped after all that has happened?”

“We’re still alive, aren’t we? Where there is life, there is hope.” The old cliché sounded pathetic even to him at this point. “We have food enough for several….” His words trailed off as the sudden realization hit him that he had tied off the backpack, but had failed to pull it up after himself. It would be a dead giveaway, leading Ted directly to them. How could he have been so foolish?

Ron abandoned the rest of his thought and ran to the mouth of the cave. He stooped quickly, grabbing the rope that hung over the side and dangling into the canyon. With a renewed energy born of desperation he hauled the rope in, hand over hand, until his burden was almost there.

Bang! A shot ricocheted off the cave floor next to his foot. Bang! A second whizzed past his head and into the darkness behind him. Ron dropped to the floor and continued pulling with a vengeance. The second that he could touch the backpack he was rolling away from the opening with it and scrambling to his feet to find cover. He scarcely escaped a third bullet as it hit the cave wall beside him.

“Ron! Are you alright?” Denise was frantic.

“Yes. What about you?”

Relieved, all she could do was nod her head several times quickly.

Until now Ron had fought hard to control his indignation, but the realization was being thrust upon him that he was the only one standing between Denise and Ted. It was becoming quite clear that he would be left with no alternative but to stop Ted permanently and there was no one else to do the job but him. Ron had commanded men who were assigned to take a life in the service of their country, but he had never yet been required to do so personally. He pondered the possibility now more deeply than ever before. Sometimes there was no choice but to do that which we loathe, but it didn’t make it any easier to know that it was necessary. Necessary? It was mandatory!

Ron guided Denise as far back into the reaches of the cave as he could, then he returned forward a few paces to their sleeping bags and blankets. From the folds of his blanket he produced a .38 caliber handgun, pausing long enough to stare in deliberation at the tool. There was no other choice.

Ted had fired from the opposing wall of the canyon. From there it was an easy task to fire down upon the cave entrance on the opposing wall. Ted was supremely confident, until a return shot was fired from the darkness of the cave. It narrowly missed his head and he quickly dove for safety into the dirt behind him. Just as immediately he was rewarded with the excruciating pain of the infection in his leg. In the excitement of the moment he had scarcely noticed any discomfort, but the painkillers were now gone and the last ones had worn off. The sudden rush of adrenaline was causing his leg to throb and he knew that he was now left with the agony that would inevitably follow. Blast them all to hell! With a renewed desire for vengeance, Ted crawled forward and peeked over the edge of the canyon.

The way down the canyon wall was too much to handle in his present condition. To climb up again on the other side would be nearly impossible for the same reason. What if he could get above them somehow? Could he then approach the entrance to the cave without detection? They could not stay in there forever. They must come out eventually, he knew. The problem was that they might outlast him due to the infection now raging in his veins. If he developed gangrene, he would lose the leg altogether. He could not let these less-than-worthless piss ants rob him of a limb. He must accelerate his plan and get the attention he needed.

Ted looked to his left. There was nothing down canyon that would allow him access to the other side. He then searched the right-hand side and found the falls, estimating them to be a mile or less away. The banks above the falls were considerably shorter than the walls directly below him. That would be his route. He would cross over above the falls and emerge on the other side to take control of any route of escape that they might attempt. He could fire down upon them directly as they emerged from the cave. He might also find a way into their stronghold if he were lucky—and so far he had been. Ted backed away slowly from the edge and when he was out of sight he stood and made directly for the falls.

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