It was still this side of pitch black when Vin and JD crawled out of their dirt cave. Stars broke through the clouds above, but the raindrops, still clinging to every blade of grass and off every tree branch, were drenching the already chilled men.
With chattering teeth, they ignored the wet ground and moved with purpose over the forest floor, feeling their way through the dark with their fingers. Neither paid attention to how cold they were, or how much pain they were in, shoving those thoughts to the back reservoirs of their minds as they hiked on.
Dusk was breaking into dawn when Vin stopped at a small creek to drink and search out food.
"What, JD? I realize it ain't a five star restaurant, but we have to eat, so dig in before I chow down on all of it," Vin said as he watched JD pick through the food they had found.
JD looked down at the assortment of dried dewberries, squawroot, stinging nettles, acorns, dandelions, and wild asparagus that sat on the ground in front of him. Trying not to make any faces, he picked up a chunk of squaw root and slowly started to chew on it. "Okay, JD...just tell yourself it's not a hunk of dried out wood...it's a big Mac, oversized fries, apple pie and a large Coke on the rocks...just gotta keep telling myself that."
Vin tried to grin, but dang his jaw hurt worse today than it had yesterday after Sorenson had hit him. He glanced at the bruises that marked JD's face and the fat lip JD was gingerly eating with. He doubted he looked much better, in fact he probably looked worse. He was pretty sure his eyes were black and blue rings and his nose felt swollen. The bump on his head had receded slightly, leaving the residue of a dull numbing headache.
"We make quite a pair, don't we!"
"We look like the Blues Brothers except neither of us can carry a tune," JD started to laugh with his mouth full of dandelions, but quit when it made his lip throb.
"Come on, we have lots to do before the sun comes up, we need to make our way back to the mountain we climbed yesterday and do some work, then let Sorenson and his men find us," Vin said with more confidence than he felt as he stuffed the last squaw root into his pant pocket and the two continued up the mountain.
"At one o'clock, about two hundred meters out."
"I see him, it's the youngest one. You best let Sorenson and Stan know, I think he wants first dibs on shooting that one," Bill whispered to the other hunter, than turned to keep watch on the dark haired youth.
A minute later Sorenson, Watts, and Stan quietly stole through the woods and squatted down beside Bill.
"Where is he?" Sorenson asked as he scanned the trees.
Bill pointed to a rock the young man sat on, his gray sweatshirt blending in with the rock, making him hard to see.
"What's he doing?" Stan asked.
"Nothing, just came and sat on that rock and hasn't moved."
"Any sign of Tanner?" Watts asked.
"Nope, just the kid."
"You think Tanner died going over the falls after all yesterday?" Watts asked Sorenson, with an 'I told you so' quality to his voice.
"I told you last night Watts, Tanner is alive and you will get your chance to take him out this afternoon."
"Well, you can argue over Tanner all you want. Me, I'm going to go blast that little $#@^% off the face of the earth," Stan said as he slung his rifle over his shoulder to rest against his back and slowly started to creep towards JD.
About a hundred feet from JD, Stan brought his rifle back around and lined up the rock in his sites, but the kid was no longer there. Stan lowered his gun and searched the area with his eyes. Turning, he could see his associates were also mystified as to the whereabouts of the youth. Like a forest nymph, he had vaporized into the woods.
No longer trying to stay hidden, Stan Rushed to the rock. He found footprints leading away, but no sign of the agent anywhere. The other men joined him and scouted around before Sorenson decided to split the group up into two search parties, he had been successful locating the agents yesterday this way and decided to do it again. Bill took one group and headed off in one direction while Sorenson, Watts, and Stan went another.
The tracks had been difficult to follow at first, but now were clearly defined in the dirt. Bill was having a hard time figuring this kid out. His trails were easy to follow then he would just disappear; Bill wasn't sure if the young agent was smarter than they gave him credit for or just lucky. If it was luck it was about to run out as Bill saw a small shadow dart between the trees in front of him.
Motioning at his men to spread out, Bill dropped to a knee and tried to spot his target again. Two of his men moved to his left, to flank the agent from behind, all moving silently so as not to alert JD of their presence.
Bill was just setting his pack down when he suddenly saw the kid bolt and take a sliding plunge down a embankment and disappear from his view. Bill's two men also disappeared into the woods running hard after JD.
"Damn!" Bill swore as he threw his pack to the ground, picked up his rifle and followed the shouts of his two men as they continued running through the brush. He had almost caught up to them when he heard a scream of agony rip through the air.
Bill paused for a second, he hadn't heard any gunshots, but he now heard more than one man yell out in pain. Cautiously he made his way towards the sound. Pushing back branches, he caught sight of his two men in a small clearing half buried in a hole up to their thighs, both struggling to get out and hollering in pain.
Bill had to step back and swallow as he felt his breakfast come up his throat. Both of his men had bloodstained sharp sticks penetrating right through their feet and poking out the tops of their boots. Pools of blood were starting to form in the dirt at the bottom of the hole.
Bill grabbed his walkie-talkie from his vest, "Sorenson...I have two men down. They booby trapped a trail...I repeat, they booby trapped their trail. Use caution when trying to apprehend."
A puffing JD sank down beside Vin in the middle of a thicket, "Two down, just seven to go."
"Yeah...it almost doesn't feel fair, them only having seven," Vin said grinning, then grunted as his sore jaw started to throb again, "On second thought...screw fair."
JD started to smile, then he looked at the spare pointed stick Vin held in his hands. How Vin had managed to break each stick off to form such sharp points was a mystery to him. "Man, remind me never to piss you off Vin. You can be darn right nasty when ya want to be!"
"They started it, you and I are just finishing it. Now listen to me JD, you keep your head down and wits about ya, JD. They are going to come at us mad and more cautious now. You set for plan B?"
"Let me at em." Hunched over, JD prepared to break cover and start the second phase of their plan, but Vin's hand yanked him back to the ground.
"No wonder Buck gets so exasperated with you JD! I mean it, you be careful and don't take any unnecessary chances out there." Vin glared at JD, trying to communicate how serious the trouble was that they were in. Scared, hurt, tired, none of it mattered. Set a plan in place and JD would dive in with unbridled devotion and forget about everything else.
"Yes, Chris...I will do exactly what you say, just like Vin always does," JD gave Vin a mock salute. "Kind of the pot calling the kettle black, eh Vin!" JD shook Vin's hand off with a smile and rushed out of the brushes.
"JD...JD! Wait a minute," Vin hissed at JD's fleeing back. "I just knew I shoulda' hogtied Ezra and brought him along instead.
From where he sat camouflaged in the big evergreen, Vin could see in a three hundred and sixty degree circle around him. Patiently he waited. Gone was the anxiety and fear of yesterday, now his whole thought pattern was changed. Today he was in his proficient marksman mode, except instead of his usual high velocity rifle, that he knew as well as he knew himself; he held an untried handmade bow and arrow in his steady hands.
Vin waited with the entirety of all his senses focused beyond his tree and into the forest. Nervous birdcalls and chattering squirrels told him someone was approaching, Vin watched for JD to appear on a pre-arranged path. Vin smiled to himself as he saw JD move undetected through the woods. Maybe all those Daniel Boone and Grizzly Adam shows he liked to watch were starting to pay off; the kid was getting good at sneaking through the wilderness like a shadow. JD flashed Vin a thumbs up as he ran past the tree and headed for cover behind some big boulders.
JD almost made it when another two of Sorenson's men broke through the trees behind Vin on a different path than JD had taken. They had not wanted to be on the same trail as the agent running in front of them in case it was also booby trapped. Cursing, Vin looked to where the men were stopping, and to where he needed them to be in order to take his shot.
One of the hunters already dropped to a knee and was bringing the barrel of his single shot up to his shoulder. Vin turned to see how much distance JD had to travel to reach cover. Too much!
Vin swung his bow around and tried to line up the shooter through all the tree branches, but the man would be able to squeeze the trigger before Vin could get an arrow off.
JD heard the men break into the small clearing sooner than he had expected them too, and then the sound of a bullet being pushed home in a rifle chamber.
"JD, get down!" Vin shouted.
Instinctively JD ducked, just as a bullet whistled by overhead. With a holler, JD threw his hands together over his head and dove for the boulders. Grunting, he landed a belly flop and skidded along on a pile of loose gravel just as another bullet kicked up dirt behind him.
One of the hunters swung his rifle around, trying to center in on Vin's voice. He scanned the thick forest in front of him, but saw no movement.
Vin hunched down low under the cover of dark branches and waited while the man scouted him out. The hunter slowly turned away and rejoined his companion.
Vin pushed the branches aside so he could again see the men, and moved the bow back and forth between the two hunters as they angled closer to the boulders that hid JD. He needed the two men closer together to make the original plan work. Smartly, JD started to crawl to the other side of the boulder, almost exposing himself to one of the hunters, but forcing the two men to move closer together in their attempt to get a visual on him.
The two men moved cautiously and much slower than normal over the ground that surrounded JD's cover. They made darn sure they were stepping on solid ground and not into a pit like their two associates had. One more step and they would have the young agent right in front of them. Both hunters had their rifles up to their shoulders and were looking down the sites when the whoosh of an arrow flew past them and bounced harmlessly against a rock.
One of the hunters swung his gun around in the direction the arrow had been released from and again scanned the trees, while the other kept his pointed at the boulder.
Vin mumbled a long string of obscenities as he fought to get another arrow lined up on his target before they got to JD. The bow he fashioned together was not accurate, nor powerful enough to project his handmade arrows very far. Looking down he saw one of the hunters searching the trees for him and the other making his way around JD's cover. JD was finally forced to move back to the other side. The man searching for Vin just had to turn around and he would see a fully exposed JD pressed against the boulder.
JD anxiously flashed his 'deer caught in the headlights' look up at Vin. The only way Vin could make the shot now was to climb further out onto the limb and hope he hit his target before the hunter spotted him and got off a blast from his rifle .
As quietly and quickly as he could, Vin slithered out along the branch and raised his weapon up. Ignoring the danger below him Vin found his target, drew back on the intertwined vine string, took a soft breath and released an arrow. This time it flew straight and true, hitting it's target dead center and sending it plummeting to the ground.
Seeing Vin in the tree, the hunter squeezed off a shot just as the object connected with the side of his head. Vin swung his body to the left of the branch for protection a split second before the bullet penetrated the wood where he had just been laying. Hanging off the side of the branch with just his arms, he kicked out with a dangling foot and managed to get a leg wrapped back over the limb. The men below started screaming and running in a panic through the forest, with very angry bees assaulting them from the hive that now lay on the ground with an arrow protruding out of it.
Then came the ominous sound of a branch cracking and Vin falling through the tree while still clinging to broken, jagged edged limb.
Vin nearly had his arms ripped out of their sockets as he came to a sudden and painful stop when his branch became tangled with others about fifteen feet from the ground. Vin tried to not make any sudden moves as the branches bounced up and down, bending under his weight and threatened to give way.
"JD?" Vin hissed out, "In need of a little assistance here."
"I'm already on it," JD said from the bottom of the tree as he started to climb up. He worked his way past the area Vin was hanging from and shimmed out onto the branch just above where Vin was.
"God, JD...be careful, would ya!" Vin squeaked out as all the branches started to sway and his limb slipped a few inches.
"I'm being as careful as I can be and still get to you," a huffing JD said as he finally made it out directly above Vin. Reaching down for Vin's hand he felt his branch bowing, so hastily grabbed the outstretched hand and hauled Vin up with a yelp. The broken limb fell the rest of the way to the forest floor, barely making a sound as it landed on the bed of soft pine nettles. Vin and JD quickly wiggled back off the branch before it too had a chance to snap and climbed out of the tree. JD instantly sank to his butt and leaned against the tree trunk, cradling his hand.
"Oh...son of a gun, that hurt," JD ground out through clenched teeth. "Next time you play decoy and I get to hide in the trees."
"You get hit, JD?" Concerned, Vin slid down beside his friend and searched for any injuries.
"Just jammed my thumb when I dove behind the rocks. Damn it, like I don't hurt enough...I really didn't need to add this." JD shook his hand hoping that would take away the pain.
Vin gently took JD's hand and examined it, mumbling what sounded like sympathetic words of comfort, "This might hurt a bit," Vin said before he grabbed JD's thumb with one hand and his wrist with the other and jerked down hard.
JD choked back a screech and slugged Vin in the shoulder with his good fist.
"That smart a bit," Vin said with a note of laughter in his voice.
"Ya think...what the hell ya trying to do to me?" JD groaned, "it already hurt, you don't need to make it worse! And stop holding my hand!" JD yanked his aching hand back and tried to bend his thumb.
"It was dislocated. Welcome back to the human race, you now have a thumb that will work again. It's the only thing that separates us from monkeys ya know," Vin grinned at JD's scowling expression at the same time he ripped his tee shirt sleeve off and wrapped it around JD's hand to immobilize his injured digit, "Come on, we have to get moving, unless they are allergic to bee stings those men won't be out of action for long. You go to our next rendezvous point, I'll see if I can locate Sorenson and issue him an invite to follow me."
"Vin," JD gripped the back of Vin's shirt, "you be careful, I don't like that we keep splitting up. They got too close for comfort that time."
"You just watch out for yourself, I'll be fine." Vin scrambled to his feet, wiped off the loose pine needles from his backside, and after pointing JD in the direction he needed to go, melted into the forest again to find Sorenson.
Vin dropped onto his stomach and slowly pulled the thick foliage back slightly so he could see below him as Sorenson and three of his men winded their way through the small gully. Quietly he regained his feet, and without disturbing a single blade of grass or nearby forest creature, moved past the column of men below at a steady floating walk and silently got out in front. Once he was sure he was well out of their range, he started to leave a trail for them to follow. He left partial footprints, broken branches or flattened grass, but was careful not to make it not to obvious, he wanted Sorenson to think the men he was hunting were just getting tired and careless.
JD leaned back against a rotten log that was surrounded by some sort of prickly bushes and tried to relax, and recoup a little strength. His throbbing thumb digit was blending in with the rest of the pain his body was experiencing, but JD pushed it all to the back of his consciousness. He and Vin would have to worry about healing when they got home; what he could not push back was his grumbling stomach. The sun was directly overhead of him, which meant it had been at least seven hours since he and Vin had wolfed down their berries and roots in the early morning darkness. JD wished he knew what was taking Vin so long to get back, it was a lot easier on his nerves when he was the one rushing through the woods. At least then he didn't have time to think of all the bad things that could happen to him. Vin could be laying out there bleeding, peppered full of buckshot and needing him, or trying to hide while vastly outnumbered as the hunters worked at flushing him out.
The images kept running vividly through his head, he could see them as clear as if he watching them on Chris's big screen TV. JD shook his head to dislodge the pictures; sometimes he wished he did not have such an overactive imagination, it would save him a lot of unnecessary worrying.
He was just contemplating getting up to look for Vin when a hand silently wrapped itself around his mouth from behind.
"Hey kid...how's it hanging?" Vin's slow drawl whispered in his ear.
"Damn it Vin! Would ya stop doing that to a guy! One of these days you are going to have to jump start my heart! I think we should tie a bell on you."
"Sorry JD...didn't mean to spook ya, but they are closing in fast. Sorenson is even better than I thought he was. I should have left a tougher trail for them to follow. He picked this one up too easy, so we have to move quick." Vin reached down to help JD to his feet and then they disappeared further into the woods.
The two men paused and took a deep look down the gully that the footprints disappeared into. Both unconsciously scratched at some of the bees stings that dotted their bodies and remembered what happened last time they had cornered the two agents. This time they decided to wait for their leader and rely on his skill and judgment instead of their own.
Sorenson impatiently followed the tracks of his two men. He had sent them on ahead because Watts was starting to slow down after spending the last two days hiking through the wilderness on rough, unleveled ground. As much as he would like to leave the man with Bill or Stan, he knew he had to stay close to him; Watts was his biggest paying client ever. A few more hunts of this variety and Sorenson would be able to move down to Mexico and retire in a grand style.
Seeing Sorenson walk towards them, his two men climbed to their feet and pointed out the tracks leading down a gully on a worn animal path. Sorenson looked down the narrow path; even from here he could see the dug out pits that probably contained more pointy sticks.
"Well, I'm not following them down any damn path, I'm going up the bank and tracking them from above," Stan said starting to climb the slope away from the two agents footprints with the two bee-stung men hot on his tail.
Sorenson didn't like this, not one little bit. Just like the trail that had led them here, this was too easy. They had nothing to follow and suddenly a trail had appeared out of thin air, it was too convenient. Bill figured they were getting tired and careless, but Sorenson was not buying it. Tanner was way too smart to start making such amateur type mistakes now. He was leading them on this wild goose chase, putting them where he wanted them to be. Sorenson looked down the trail again and deep inside he knew Tanner didn't want them to stay on this path, he wanted them to see the pits and climb around them. Sorenson shouted at his men to get off the slope.
Stan argued with his boss for a few seconds then started to slide down the bank. He headed back over to them when his foot tripped on a vine. Stan stopped to look down at what was around his feet when they heard the whooshing noise and too late realized the slope had been booby trapped. All three men on the slope looked up in time to see the huge log swing down and take them all out at waist level.
"Damn you, Tanner!" Sorenson swore under his breath, as he disgustedly went to check on his moaning men that were now laying in crumpled heaps on the path.
Watts sat on a log and waited; the same log that had bowled Sorenson's men over to be exact. This hunt was not going at all the way it was supposed too. Even Sorenson had finally admitted he had underestimated the two ATF agents severely, and now Watts was told to sit and wait while Sorenson and his group of bruised and itching men tried to find some new signs of the two agents.
Lost in his thoughts, Watts nearly missed the movement up ahead on the ridge. Dropping behind the log before either man saw him, Watts watched Tanner and Dunne climb up the soft sandy slope heading away from him and Sorenson. The two were moving slowly as the sand gave out under their feet, and their shoes slipped back two steps for every one taken foreword.
Raising his rifle to his shoulder, he focused in on Tanner's head in the rounded viewfinder of his scope, then lowered it down to between the detested agent's shoulder blades. He took a deep breath to try slowing his exploding heart rate as he watched the athletic man move fluidly across the slope, and let his twitching finger rest on the trigger. He had never taken a man's life before, and until his son's death would never have thought himself capable of such action. But his son was dead and the man in his sights was best friends with one of the men responsible. Letting his anger take over, he sought a release for the ten years of grief he had been forced to live through.
"This is for you son!" Watts said as he squeezed his finger, but the rifle's sight was off. Watts cursed as he watched both agents threw themselves unharmed flat against the sand and grass of the hillside at the sudden sound of rifle fire. Vin lunged the last few feet up the slope and threw himself over the top, landing on his stomach. Another bullet struck in front of his face, filling his eyes with dry dust.
Enraged, Watts swung his rifle over towards the remaining agent and let go with another blast. Noisy little explosions burst from the sand in front of JD, barely missing him, as he ducked and weaved to avoid the shots. JD heard Vin yelling at him, and saw his hand reach down to help pull him up over the edge, when another crack of the rifle shattered the sky with its roar and it echoed across the mountain. The blow numbed his foot half way up his leg, then the sharp tingle of pain hit him all the way to his thigh. Vin grabbed for his hand as his leg gave out beneath him. He looked up at Vin with pleading eyes as his sweaty palm slipped down from Vin's grasp and he could not stop it. With a startled yell he cart-wheeled down the slope, bouncing and flipping over and over before impacting with a hard thud on the pathway.
Stunned, JD lay frozen with his faced pressed deep against some native wild-grass. Above him somewhere, he could hear Vin hollering some blurred words down at him. JD tried to move as the tone in Vin's voice changed from encouragement to frantic cursing threats as he yelled down at Watts, trying to distract the man away from his friend.
JD struggled to a sitting position and scooted backwards on his rump away from the rapidly approaching man. Watts walked towards JD with his rifle still pressed against his shoulder, but his hands shook with nervousness and his eyes darted around as though he could not figure out exactly who or what to focus on. A rock suddenly was launched through the air, hitting Watts harmlessly on the arm. Watts swung his rifle up at Tanner as JD screamed at Vin to run for it, then he aimed it back at JD without firing a shot.
JD yelped as he fought to regain his feet, but with a grimace sank back down in the dirt again, clutching his bleeding ankle with his fingers.
"If you're going to kill me, at least tell me why first. You owe me at least that much," the young, dark haired agent rasped out, only a slight catch in his voice indicating his fear.
Watts stared down at the disheveled young agent who had dirt smudges mixed with bruises and three day old peach fuzz smattered across his face. His long, black hair was tangled full of pine needles and dry grass. Watts breath caught in his throat, as he stared at the dark hair and slight build that were so similar to Thomas when he was a teenager. Watts figured there had to be at least six hundred officers in the Denver PD; why did this one who reminded him so much of his own son have to be the one to come to the lodge? Watts fought the urge to close his own eyes on the big pair of hazel ones that were staring back up at him. Framed by long sooty lashes, they were scared and hurting, yet boldly defiant. Had his son had that same expression on his youthful face just before that knife had been plunged into his body? Had he too been scared? Had the man who killed his son feel a sense of power or nauseous as he now felt; one knife or one bullet and a life was snuffed out, a soul forever diminished?
Tanner paced back and forth on top of the hill, still yelling down threats of major bodily harm at him. And Dunne, sprawled on the ground in front of him, was trying to repeat his question between his soft groans of pain and insistent shouting at Tanner to leave him and get away.
"Shut up...both of you just shut up!" Watts snarled out bitterly at the blanching young man, while waving the rifle around wildly. Another rock whistled by his ear as Vin was quickly moving closer down the slope with a scavenged handful of rocks and a stout club.
Watts fired a warning shot at Vin's feet to make him back off, while JD continued to scream at his friend to get back up the slope before he got himself shot.
Watts wavered back and forth between the two. One man injured and yet still urging his friend to desert him and the other just as determined to rescue him or die trying. Where did this loyalty to each other come from? Why did these two men have this willingness to face death while attempting to save each other.
He had loved his son...still did, as much as any father on earth could. But as much as he tried to deny it, he knew Thomas had some less than desirable personality traits. He would have pushed his own grandma in front of a moving bus if it had come down to his life or hers.
Oh...he had not always been like that. In his younger years he had been full of fun and harmless mischief, much like these two men in front of him had been the first day at the lodge. His son had been so capable of making the rest of the family laugh, and he had been a star athlete and honor-roll student. Watts had gleamed with pride at his son's accomplishments. Then suddenly he had dropped out of school half way through his final year, made the wrong friends and stopped laughing with the family, instead treating them all with disrespect and contempt. Watts ignored the changes in his son, the stealing and lying, because he was sure this was a phase that he would outgrow and he would become their loving son again. Except he died before he could make the change.
Yet these two agents, who weren't family, were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for each other. Why?
He had watched them play and relax that first day at the lodge. Nothing then indicated the depth of commitment they were showing now. They just appeared to be buddies who would get together for a game of hockey and toss back a few brews, but nothing that could explain to him the tight bond the two agents obviously felt for each other. They weren't even best friends so he could only wonder at the depth of the relationship Tanner had with Chris Larabee or Dunne had with Buck Wilmington.
With an exhausted sigh, he lowered his rifle to the ground. He suddenly felt a hundred years old and very, very tired.
Vin cautiously slid the rest of the way down the bank, never taking his eyes of Watts. Hooking his arm under JD's, he helped pull the lighter man to a standing position.
"You okay, JD?" He asked while watching Watts. JD just groaned and nodded as he put weight on his foot.
"What's going on here mister? We just want to get out of this place and get back home to our friends? We haven't done anything to you, hell I don't even know who you are." Vin pushed for an answer, at the same time looking for a way to escape.
"Just get him out of here," came the tired reply.
"I said get him out of here...go now before I change my mind or Sorenson comes. I don't think I can stop him now...this has gone too far!"
Vin and JD exchanged unsure glances and then with Vin supporting half his weight, helped JD hobble down the path. Both kept glancing over their shoulders expecting to see Watts pick up his rifle and shoot them at any second, but no bullets ripped into them, as the man stood frozen to the spot and watched them disappear into the forest.
Watts was still standing in the same place when Sorenson came bursting out of the woods.
"I heard gunfire, what happened? Did you see them?"
Watts just nodded his head.
"Did you shoot at them?"
Watts again nodded and pointed away from where the two agents had disappeared, "But I missed them. They were on the top of the slope and I missed them. They took off running in that direction. I think it is time to give up. I want to stop. You will get your full fee, but I want to stop the hunt now."
Sorenson's face clouded with hostility. Even in the warm glow of sunlight his face appeared cold. He could see where one of the agents had fallen down the bank and the tracks where the other had made his way down to stand near Watts, so Sorenson knew the man was lying to him. Pumping up his hulking muscles, he towered over Watts and skewered him with a glare. "Are you insane? The only way they will ever get off this mountain is in a body bag, and if you get in my way, you will leave that way as well."
"Don't threaten me Sorenson, you're frothing at the mouth to get your hands on my money. You won't kill me and risk losing ten million dollars."
"Don't count on it, I'm not going back to jail for anyone or anything. Those two have to be killed now; we have gone too far to stop. There is no way in hell I am letting two ATF agents get back to civilization after we spent three days trying to kill them. You going to tell the judge it was just a game and that they didn't understand our true intent and have them believe it...I don't think so!"
"Save it, Watts. I will have Bill take you back to the lodge until we get this done, and then after you pay us I don't want to hear from you ever again." Sorenson speared Watts with one more blistering glare before he picked up Vin and JD's tracks and left in a ground swallowing walk.
"Come on Mr. Watts, lets get you back down to the lodge. A hot meal and soft bed will make you feel better."
Watts jumped as Bill spoke from behind him. Startled, Watts swung around to find the hunter standing at the edge of the brush. From his expression he could tell Bill had overheard the whole conversation and was not happy at the thought of the two agents going free either. Resigned to the fate, Watts picked up his rifle and reluctantly followed Bill back down the path.
With the single pull of a trigger, they had gone from offence back to defense.
Vin stood on the shady side of the hill, in a shallow fast flowing creek, and enjoyed the powerful tugging of it currents on his hot legs. Under his blond, three day old stubble was deeply etched exhaustion. His weary eyes were shielded with heavy eyelids that he had to force to remain open and his body ached with a steady nonstop pulsing. Cupping water in his hands, he splashed his face and neck, and then soaked his hair. Shaking his long blond mane from side to side, water droplets flew about him before the big drops settled onto his once white tee-shirt and saturated his upper body. Feeling only marginally better, he turned around to observe his companion's resting form on the river bank.
JD lay with a hand cradled to his stomach and a foot dangling down the river bank to soak in the cold water.
A mere sliver further over and JD would have had a shattered ankle instead of the nasty furrow and heavily bruised one he had now. Even with just the bruise JD could hardly stand any weight on it, it was swollen and painful. With his body pretty much spent, he had let Vin lay him down uncontested by the water's edge and had not stirred since.
Vin sloshed out of the water and plopped down on the bank beside JD. "You awake kid?" he quietly asked.
Vin grinned, not sure if that was supposed to be a yes or a no. "I've been trying to figure out what to do here, JD. We can walk in circles for weeks before we find our way outta here. Sorenson isn't about to let up on us either. I think our best bet is to backtrack to the lodge and see if we can send for help from there, probably should have done that right away, but I figured Sorenson kept someone back there in case we tried."
"I don't know if I can make it that far Vin, why don't we find a place for me to hide and then you can travel faster alone. I'm just going to slow you down."
"That's bull, JD! After all this I ain't about to leave you now...you'll make it with me even if I have to carry you most of the way. Now stop feeling sorry for yourself and get off your lazy duff, we have miles to cover!" Vin said angrily as he roughly pulled JD up into a sitting position.
JD shoved Vin's hand away, "I am not feeling sorry for myself, I just don't want you getting shot just because I can't move as fast as you can. I'm trying to be realistic, it isn't going to do either of us any good if we both end up dead."
Vin put his hand back on JD's shoulder, pulled him in close, and whispered in the mutinous youth's ear, "JD, we ain't got time to argue about this. Now I know there aren't two mules alive as stubborn as you and I can be, so neither one of us is going to voluntarily back down, but I want you to know something. One, we can both stay here and get shot. Two, I can coldcock ya right now and pack you down this mountain over my shoulder. Or three, you can just get up, saving us both time, pain and aggravation and start walking. Pick which ever route you want to go, but make no mistake about it, we are staying together."
"Fine!" JD said, making it sound like a swear word, as he struggled to his feet, knocking away Vin's offered hand, "But if you end up dead don't you dare blame me."
Madder than a hornet, JD stormed off ahead of Vin, but after a dozen hobbling steps had to stop and grudgedly wait for Vin to slide under his arm and act like a crutch.
"Now that ya came around to seeing things my way, I might as well tell you, you're heading in the wrong direction. The lodge is back over that away," Vin said as he turned them both around and headed northwest.
The going was real slow under the mid afternoon sun. Vin tried hard not to show JD how anxious he was to cover more ground, and JD tried as hard as he could not to slow them down. Neither was successfully at hiding their efforts from the other.
JD had abandoned the sneaker off his right foot when he found his ankle hurt less without the pressure rubbing on it from his hightop's and now carried it in his hand. Trying to keep cooler, both men were stripped down to their sweat-soaked tee shirts, and wrapped their sweaters loosely around their waist's. The forest thinned out slightly, letting the warm rays from the sun hit them. Tired and pushing hard, they didn't concentrate too much on covering their trail, they just tried to keep walking.
Reluctantly, Vin stopped and made them take a forced break after JD had taken to hopping on one foot when it finally became to painful for him to put any weight on his ankle.
"I told you to leave me behind."
"I don't want to hear about it JD, just sit there with your mouth shut and give your ankle a rest. I'm too tired to argue with you every step of the way."
"Sorry man...I'm just so tired and my bloody foot is killing me." JD lowered himself to the ground and let his head fall back onto some soft moss. Even he was insulted by the foul odor emanating from his grubby body and soiled clothes. Using his good hand he tried to push back the dirty, limp hair that hung down across his eyes and clung to the beads of sweat that dotted his forehead.
"JD, I'm going to backtrack a ways and see if anyone's on our trail. I'll be back for you in a few minutes."
A hand was dismissively waved at him, "Whatever." JD didn't even bother opening his eyes, so only knew Vin left when he heard a twig snap and branches being pushed aside.
JD burrowed deeper into the moss and wished he could stay right where he was for ever, but the constant throbbing from his ankle made even laying down unbearable. With a groan, he sat back up and rolled up his pant leg to examine the wound again. The ugly red welt that ran from the back of his heel and across his anklebone was barely visible under all the black and blue bruising that had now spread half way up his calf and around the bottom of his foot.
JD wondered what Vin would think if he returned and found him bawling like a baby, because right this second that's exactly what he felt like doing.
Vin had backtracked less than five minutes when he caught sight of Sorenson and Stan hot on their tracks. Dejectedly, Vin snuck back through the woods towards JD. What was it going to take to shake these guys? He wondered what JD would think if he immerged before him with tears in his eyes, because right now he felt them stinging the back of his eyelids. He was nowhere close to giving up on him or JD, but god he was so tired and his nerves felt as tightly strung as violin strings.
Vin barely slowed his run as he grabbed a protesting JD by the arm and yanked him to his feet. "Sorenson's not five minutes behind us...get your arse moving quick as you can."
JD stopped his complaint before it made it's way out of his mouth and hobbled after Vin as fast as he could, hissing through his teeth each time he stepped on his sore ankle. Vin went ahead and broke trail for JD the best he could. The trees and underbrush had thinned out, but the footing was still uneven and rough to traverse especially for a limping, shoeless JD.
Vin knew Sorenson was a true predator, he lusted for the kill at the end of his hunts and would not settle for anything less than their deaths. Vin had met men like him over the years, mostly trophy hunters who kept pushing the bounds of legal hunting as their need for more excitement and challenge grew. As they ticked the different animals species off their lists, they would expand into more exotic or extinct animals, always upping the risk factor.
He could feel Sorenson behind them, and knew he was close. Vin could feel the hairs on the back of his neck prick up and his nerves start to tingle. Instinctively, he picked up his pace to put more distance between him and the danger. The ground flowed under his feet; rocks and stumps barely registered in his mind as his body easily navigated over them. A man born of the wilderness, he rose to another plane of consciousness and became one with the forest that surrounded him. The world whirled in a blurred image as he ran; his muscles felt stronger and his lungs clearer than ever. He ran and ran. As he pressed forward he could feel the evil behind him dropping back.
Until a panicky voice rang out to him from far behind.
Vin pulled up short.
The tunnel he had been running down suddenly expanded, like a viewfinder opening widely in front of him. The definition of each red and gold leaf again became visible to his eye. He heard the wind softly blow it's steady hum through the trees and felt it ruffle his long, grimy hair. Above him a squawking crow flew overhead and a small vibrant, yellow-breasted meadowlark chirped out in it's own sweet, singsong voice from a tree branch. He felt a trickle of sweat ran down his back and past his jeans waistband, only to be absorbed by the cotton of his boxer shorts. Vin turned to see his friend stumbling along behind him.
JD thought his foot would explode off the end of his leg if he took one more step, but he took one more anyway. And another and another, until he was almost caught up with the waiting Vin. Beads of sweat dripped off his face, and his hazel eyes were almost black from the pain that shone deeply in them.
"You're the one that made me come with you," JD ground out through puffing breaths as he clutched a tree to stay upright. "Could you at least wait for me?"
"Oh hell, JD...I'm sorry. I'm just so used to ya always being right on my tail I lost track of where you were." Vin quickly ducked under JD's arm, feeling more than a little guilty at leaving JD to his own devices. Living in the wilderness was as natural as breathing to Vin, he had forgotten that not everyone had had his upbringing, and how easily he could submerge himself in this world.
Vin knew JD was in agony, but the young man never said anything about it as they struggled to stay ahead of the hunters. He would hiss through his teeth and utter the odd curse, but did his darndest to not slow Vin down.
They eventually joined back up with the small creek and followed it until it drained into a slewy lake. Tad poles and pussy willows completely choked out the beach and filled up almost half of the shallow lake. At the far end of the lake a huge bull moose stood in several feet of water with uneaten weeds hanging from it's mouth, and cautiously watched them approach. A few mallards floated upon the wind rippled lake, their beaks snapping at any insects that flew too close.
Vin was debating if they should somehow cross it or circle around it when he heard the bushes rustling behind them.
Sorenson's dark beady eyes scanned the lake or as he called it, the swamp. He could sense the two agents presence. They were close, hiding somewhere in or around the muddy waters before him. He had them on the run now, and Dunne was hurt and by his tracks they could tell he was getting worse. Like an injured deer...Sorenson had to keep searching for the agents so he could put the hurt one out of his misery. A hunter's number one golden rule; you never left a wounded animal, you finished it off even if you had to track it for days to get the job done. Sorenson doubted it would take days to accomplish the job, in fact it should just be minutes now and the two agents who refused to go down willingly, would be dead.
With an evil little smile Sorenson split his few remaining men up to search the far shoreline. His body tingled; he relished this part of the hunt. Any second now he would look down his scope at his intended target, squeeze his trigger with his index finger and he would feel the bullet leave the barrel of his rifle. The stock of his rifle would kick back against his shoulder and he'd watch a perfectly placed shot rip into his target, tearing apart flesh and muscle, bones will shatter and vital organs will explode. Usually the target would still be alive for a few agonizing minutes; Sorenson hated the target to die outright, that would take away from the pleasure of the kill. The suffering was the part he enjoyed the most. His anticipation ran strong, for hunting these men had surpassed any expectations he had going in. Now he had his first taste of hunting humans he didn't think it would be possible for him to go back to hunting animals ever again.
He kept them running, circling around the lake as fast as they could move. The bull moose watched them rush past, before he also bolted out of the lake and disappeared into the forest.
"Keep quiet, JD. And move it!" Vin pushed JD ahead of him, as he glanced back over his shoulder. He could just make out the green of Sorenson's army fatigues through the trees, as the man scouted the lakeshore.
"Where am I supposed to go?" JD hissed out, the forest spread out before him in an unending sea of trees.
Vin searched the area with his eyes, then grabbed JD's arm and pulled him towards the small creek that exited the lake from the end nearest them. Water splashed up around their knees as they ran down the estuary.
Vin stopped and yanked JD back to his feet when the younger man went down face-first into the cold water. Leaving his hand under JD's elbow, Vin forced him quickly along. Vin hoped Sorenson would have a hard time following their trail, as the mud they kicked up with their feet swiftly cleared away in the fast running creek.
"Vin...wait a minute!" JD begged breathlessly, as Vin tried to drag him out of the water and back on to his feet for the third time.
Vin anxiously peered back behind him, then tugged harder on JD's arm. He sensed Sorenson closing in on them. "Get up...get up!" He couldn't afford any compassion, not now...not if they were going to get out of this alive. He shoved JD roughly between his shoulder blades and got him moving again.
Tension tore at Vin. He needed to find some way to get Sorenson off their backs. JD was as game as they came, but there was no way the kid could keep going this pace on his damaged ankle for much longer. Hell...Vin doubted that he was going to be able to keep it up for much further himself.
Vin pulled a grateful JD to a stop. The water swirling around their legs was picking up its intensity. Hoping up ahead would offer them a safe haven to hide, he motioned for JD to start running again.
Soon the vague sound of faster running water reached their ears, "I hear rapids ahead of us JD, come on lets see if we can put them to some use." Vin said as he left the water. The small creek had widened out and now flowed faster than was safe to walk in. Up ahead of them, rapids were building in strength and size.
Vin helped the hobbling JD across the rocky river's edge till they reached the rapids. The water gushed over huge boulders and drowned out all other noise with its intensity.
"JD, give me your shoe," Vin yelled over the river's roar, and grabbed JD's shoe from his hand. Vin ran part way down the beach and then threw the shoe as far as he could. It landed partially in the water and pumped against the sand.
Vin hurried back to JD and indicated for the younger agent to enter the water.
JD looked up from the rock he had sunk down onto, and stared through pain-glazed eyes at Vin in disbelief, 'God,' JD thought, 'he didn't have to worry about Sorenson...Vin was going to kill him before Sorenson got the chance!'
"JD, hurry up! Just follow me," Vin yelled, walking into the torrential river.
Vin fought his way over in the waist deep water to a boulder and waited for JD to join him. Vin sat with his back to the rock and pointed to a small log jam that was just below them.
Behind them, Sorenson and his men emerged from the woods and were scouting the beach where JD and Vin had left the water.
JD looked at Vin with fearful eyes. Vin just smiled and pulled JD into the middle of the river with him. The water tore at them, but carried them directly to the log jam. Vin quickly directed JD to the middle of the logs, and both men sat huddled under the protective cover of the trees and flowing water.
Sorenson swore under his breath, calling the two agents every nasty name in the book, but it didn't help any. He was very mad, and the two men responsible for his anger had still not been found.
A shout from Stan drew his attention downstream. Stan waved Dunne's running shoe in the air for him to see. "It's that little runt's shoe, they must have floated down the rapids." Stan yelled out, then started to re-organize the search further down the river.
Sorenson stood and scanned the river before him. His instincts told him to ignore the shoe, but maybe this time the evidence had not been planted. Maybe this time they were on the right track after all and the two agents had attempted to swim the churning river. Reluctantly, he followed his men downstream. If they didn't find any other signs of the agents soon, he would be coming right back here.
Vin waited till the men disappeared from view, then fighting the current, he grabbed JD's arm and helped him make his way to the far bank. Vin stumbled out of the glacier-cold water and reached an icy, quivering hand out to JD.
JD clasped it weakly and staggered up the bank, collapsing on the sand by Vin's feet. Vin dropped to the ground beside him and both men just lay there with chattering teeth and shivering bodies.
Overhead, the moonless night started to grew dark and a few stars began to twinkle.
"Lodge?" JD finally managed to sputter out, rising laboriously to his feet.
"Lodge," Vin answered.