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Submitted by Steven ODell on 9 July 2007 - 12:19am.

Chapter 31

Bill never made it to the falls. He looked across the canyon and on a level equal to his own he saw a man with a pistol in one hand reaching down and pulling a woman up by the neck with his other arm. He immediately recognized the woman as Denise and the man was Ted. It was almost as if he had pulled her from the very ground beneath his feet. It was impossible, Bill knew; but all the same, like a magic trick, it had been done. Bill dropped flat on the ground and remained still, checking his rifle to make sure he was prepared. The distance was long, but not prohibitively far. He could make the shot if an opening appeared. Then the unthinkable happened. Again, as if by magic, a body emerged from the identical spot in the earth that Denise had been produced from. This time Bill recognized his friend Ron and he saw him stand, turn and face the gunman.

A brief exchange of words seemed to be going on, accompanied by some yelling, when suddenly Denise began to struggle. She was loose! Bill leveled his rifle and took aim. Too late. A shot rang out that was not his. Ron dropped to the ground as Bill’s mouth dropped open in shock. Denise fled past Ron and toward the chasm that Bill knew was ahead. How to warn her? It was all happening too quickly.

Ted was now in pursuit, limping and lunging quickly forward in his attempt to catch Denise. Bill forgot himself momentarily and was on his feet, staring in desperation across the canyon. There was no way to get there quickly enough. He would have to help as best he could from where he was. It was a long shot—in the fullest sense of the words.

Bill ran back in the direction from which he had so recently come, attempting to remain evenly across the gulf from Denise and her assailant. It was hard enough to hit a moving target when one was calm. As hard as Bill’s heart was pounding, it could be danged near impossible, he thought. And he had only one shot before he was discovered. If he was accurate, he would not have to reload. If he were to miss…he recalled the words he had told Ron-if a man missed, it was because he was too far away or he was incompetent. Bill clenched his teeth at the memory, but he would have to be embarrassed later. There was no time now for wallowing in self-doubt and anguish.

Denise reached the rope bridge and stopped dead in her tracks. She turned and saw Ted coming closer, almost in a gallop with his wounded leg. She quickly turned again and without emotion stepped onto the span of rope. It buckled under her weight and sagged, creaking noisily with the new strain. She held tightly to the side-rails, which were shaking extremely in her grasp and she paused to balance herself before taking another step. From somewhere deep inside herself she summoned the strength and courage to proceed to the middle of the span without further hesitation. It seemed as if it were all in one motion.

“Denise! Stop right there!” Ted looked at her and then at the bridge, swaying gently beneath her feet. She shot a quick glance over her shoulder and pressed onward again. He was pointing the gun directly at the back of her head.
“I said stop! Now!” She could hear in his voice that he was livid. She stopped and turned slowly about where she was and met his gaze, coldly and calmly. Her eyes never wavered or blinked for an instant. He, too, had come to a complete stop, ready to fire the pistol. For a moment he gathered his composure and she waited patiently. Ted lowered the gun and stepped slowly toward her.

Bill had again raised the rifle to his shoulder and was beginning to squeeze the trigger when he saw Ted lower his gun and proceed in a more orderly and controlled fashion toward Denise. His trigger finger relaxed a bit, but remained where it was, ready when required. This was not something Bill wanted to do. As much hatred as he felt right now for this beast of a man, he knew it would be the hardest thing in his life to pull the trigger on him, no matter how much he might deserve it. And Bill knew, too, that it would change his life forever. The memory would always be with him as a constant companion. He would never be able to outrun or escape it for long.

Ted stood at the end of the bridge, assessing it carefully. Uneasy, he kept shifting his glance from Denise to the ropes at his feet and back again. “Come back, now!” He held his hand out to her, almost as if he cared what happened to her, but there was something missing in his eyes. There was an empty coldness where there may once have been a warm and considerate person.

Denise looked down into the chasm for a long time. When she again looked up at Ted, his hand was still extended to her. “I’m afraid,” she said simply and quietly, keeping her eyes on his.

Ted lowered his hand and set foot onto the bridge. Just as quickly he tried to remove it, grabbing at the rails on either side to steady himself. The creaking was loud and the stake beneath him had felt as if it would slip from the rocky ground. He caught his breath, envisioning what may have been the result had he placed his whole weight and faith on the span. The rope waved up and down beneath Denise, energized by the application and removal of Ted’s weight. He glared at her again. “Come back here now.” He bit the words off deliberately with his teeth, it seemed. She remained still and shook her head, never deviating for a second in her gaze. Her expression remained calm as a summer’s day.

“Then you give us no choice.” Ted raised the pistol again and aimed deliberately at what he knew to be her heart. Bang! Bang!

Denise froze and her heart stood still. For a moment she thought she would release the ropes and fall to a certain death on the rocks below her, but instead she saw Ted lower his gun hand and stare at her in disbelief. Bang! Again the peal of gunfire.

Denise assessed the situation in a split second as she watched Ted fall forward onto the bridge. His limp body struck the footing squarely and caused a large resultant wave to go across the length of the rope, just as she turned away and grabbed the side ropes with as strong a grip as she could muster. Ted’s body hit, bounced momentarily and rolled to the side where it folded in half and squeezed between the vertical webbing, plunging over one hundred and ten feet to the rocks below. Denise found her feet shaken from the ropes beneath her and clung tightly with her hands as she felt her body begin to drop. Both feet had slipped to one side of the span and she hung in abject terror, suspended only by her hands, which had slipped also under the sudden strain. She struggled to lift her foot to the lower ropes.

Bill’s heart stood still in his chest as he forced a yell from his throat. He had to encourage her. He could see she was in trouble and he couldn’t keep quiet at this point. He hollered across the canyon as loud as he could, “Denise, you c’n do it! Hang on, baby! Hang on!” In his excitement, he spoke more clearly and precisely than he ever had in all of his life.

Denise heard and recognized the voice, taking new courage and striving with every fiber of her being to throw her foot over the ropes. Her hands were aching with the efforts to cling by what now felt like her fingertips. She wasn’t absolutely certain that she would make it. Then another voice, sweet and loving, spoke to her. “Denise, you can do it.” Her heart leapt within her bosom. It was Ron! He was alive! He was waiting there behind her. She focused her attention again on the ropes and somehow managed to lift her foot high enough to toss it over the lower ones. She then took a chance and let go with one hand long enough to lunge her upper body forward to the next section of webbing that lay ahead of her. In a few moments she had placed herself firmly and squarely in the middle of the footing and she lay there just long enough to catch her breath.

When Bill had finally succeeded in getting across the falls to Ron and Denise, he was puffing like a locomotive and shaking like a leaf. Ron was holding his woman tightly and she was clinging to him like there was no tomorrow; quiet as a church mouse, her eyes tightly closed. “Are you two aw’right?” was all Bill could manage to ask.

Ron nodded quietly, glancing briefly at Bill and then closing his own eyes. He, too, was still trembling, though in profound relief. There was blood covering nearly half of his shirt on the right side. Denise never moved a muscle. She still held fast to her man like he might vanish into thin air should she let go of him.

Bill collapsed on the ground, sitting in a heap and slumped lazily forward, staring at the ground. It was a full ten minutes before anyone spoke. It was Denise that broke the silence. “Bill, thank you for saving my life.”

Bill turned with genuine surprise toward Denise. His mouth was open and he was clearly puzzled. “Much’s I’d like t’say I did it, I cain’t. T’weren’t no way I could do it in time.” His drawl was back in all its glory, the adrenaline rush having run its course. He hung his head and stared again at the stony ground beneath him.

Denise eyed him in complete confusion and then gave the same questioning look to Ron. “Bill had a single shot rifle. There was no way he could have fired that many shots so quickly.” Ron turned toward Bill and said, “You seem disappointed that you didn’t shoot him, Bill. I’m glad you didn’t.”

Bill now stared in disbelief. “Wh’…?”

“If you had, you’d never have been able to live it down and forgive yourself. That’s just the kind of man you are and I love you for it. If, on the other hand, I had not shot him, then I would never have been able to live it down. It was meant to be, Bill. Okay?”

Bill thought for a second and then smiled and nodded his agreement. Denise waited for Ron to look at her and said, “Then it was you who got him.” Her satisfaction was evident. She was proud of him and she knew that such an awful thing as he had just done was completely defensible in this instance—he had saved her life. She looked up at him. There was no remorse—only love and relief. Ron stared back lovingly into her eyes and then kissed her long and passionately.

Something had changed in her and something had changed in him-she could see it without trying. This moment had wrought a change in all their lives. “Ron, let’s go home.”

Bill interrupted, “What do we do ‘bout all this?” He nodded his head in the direction of the bridge, where far below lay a broken and lifeless body, and gave a questioning look to Ron.

“Right now…I couldn’t care less. Let’s worry about that later. He might do some good for once in his life-as fertilizer.” No one laughed. No one even smiled. They all knew without discussion that there was not meant to be any humor in the statement. Ted had spent his whole life thinking he was the center of the universe and now all those with whom he had come in contact wished nothing more than to forget him as quickly as possible. It was a sad commentary on a man’s existence—an even sadder one on his passing.

They turned wearily about and began the long trek back, this time without so much as a doubt that they were finally safe. Life and God had granted them a new beginning and Ron and Denise were more in love than ever.

Bill and Mose drove together back to the city, while Ron and Denise rode with Hunter and Jon-Jon, who gave them the quiet time they desired. The drive back to the city was uneventful and seemed horrendously long. Ron phoned the authorities from the car and reported the details of the day. The officer in charge wanted them to come downtown and take care of ‘pinpointing’ on a map where all this ‘fracas’ had taken place, but Ron took one appraising look at Denise and told the officer that they might do that the next morning—if they darned well felt like it. He was far too tired to worry much about being polite. Bill can deal with it tomorrow.

Denise took the phone now and entered a familiar sequence of numbers. She was greeted by the canned message of her mother’s answering machine. “Mom, it’s me. Do I have a story for you! I’ll tell you most of it when I get back from Hawaii in a week or two, but for right now…I’m getting married.” She turned to glance at Ron before adding, “Tomorrow!”

Ron momentarily raised his eyebrows in surprise at this news, but quickly recovered and nodded his consent to her. Right now that sounded like the best thing in the world to him. Denise ended her call abruptly and nestled into his side and soon was asleep. Everyone was exhausted and felt the sudden ‘letdown’ that comes after a traumatic experience such as this. It was hard to care about anything but sleeping right now.

Without waiting for night, both of the weary lovers got a much-needed sleep at Denise’s house. They slept like the proverbial rocks. Ron kept his promise never to leave her alone again, but Denise refused to let him sleep on the couch when she was ‘so far away from him in the bedroom’. Ever the gentleman, he insisted that if she were going to be so stubborn, then he would sleep on the floor next to the couch and she could be near him, sleeping on the couch. She finally relented and agreed, but she’d wanted him beside her—in her bed, where she knew without doubt that she could touch him and know they were both safe.

Even Hunter felt a sense of having been personally violated in his own cabin and found it preferable to go somewhere else for the night. He needed time to let it sink in that Ted was truly gone. He and the others had promised to see Ron and Denise again the next morning. They wanted nothing more than to get some ‘shut-eye’ at a local motel.

The swelling in Moses’ nose was subsiding a bit, but the Technicolor rainbow across his face was more vivid than ever. He sat on the edge of the bed and stewed openly for a few minutes over the turn of events. “It’s just that I feel cheated, that’s all. I owed this guy one and he up and dies on me before I can deliver it. What a creep. What a dirty, stinkin’, low-down, rotten, filthy creep!” Mose enunciated each word separately in his exasperated state.

Bill was amused at this sudden outburst and couldn’t help but respond. He asked the question with all the seriousness he could muster, but the slightest hint of a smile adorned the corner of his lips. “So, Marvy, d’ya think he died on purpose, jus’ t’make ya mad?” Jonathan just raised his eyebrows and lay down to sleep. All Bill got from Mose was a scowl and he decided to leave it alone until all parties were well rested. He turned to his own side of the bed and made quick and appropriate use of it.

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