Katelyn Connors ran down the slender ribbon of deer trail snaking its way through the grove of cottonwoods. Moonlight pierced their overhead branches, while fireflies drifted through the silver haze in bright emerald flashes below. In the darkness, Kat continued to run, her dark hair trailing over her slender shoulders.
She was slender and athletic, a swimmer and a runner. As such, she could easily outdistance the two men who had abducted her. She had escaped from their car and ran off into the woods, catching them both off guard. For long moments as she ran, she thought she had lost them. But as she stopped to catch her breath, she could hear them coming through the undergrowth beyond the forest of trees where she thought to hide. That they meant to kill her she was certain. Twenty minutes ago, they had come through the door of her studio office. The big, bald black one had placed the muzzle of his pistol to her left temple, offering her a malicious grin.
The other man, a dark-haired white guy, had leered at her. “Open the safe,” he had said in a calm, even voice. “Fetch me the journal.”
At this, the big black man lowered his pistol, bringing it even with her nose. Towering over her, he glared down into her eyes and growled, “Book or bullet, what’s it gonna be?”
The white guy shoved aside a file cabinet, revealing the small wall safe behind it. The black man pushed her toward it. “Open it,” he told her, barely above a whisper. She did, so nervously, she had to start over twice before hitting the correct combination. It clicked loudly on the third try, and the white guy nudged her aside to open the door on the safe. He reached inside, rummaging around. He peered into the safe and cursed. “It ain’t there, Duce?” the black man asked.
Hardly believing his partner had used his name, Duce snapped, “No, Snook, it ain’t!”
He turned to Kat. “The journal?” Duce said. “I want the goddamned journal!” And though he slapped her, Kat denied knowing anything about the journal they were seeking. She continued to deny she knew about it even when they forced her out the door, across the sidewalk, and shoved her into their car. Duce drove, while Snook kept her snug in the front seat between them, his meaty hand wrapped around the back of her neck.
Both men insisted she was playing them.
She stayed consistently dumb, claiming she had no idea what they were after. They drove out into the country, east of Lincoln, into the hills of Nebraska. Duce appeared to know where they were heading. They passed an old missile silo, a lake glistening in the moonlight, and continued on between two tree-lined hills.
When he stopped the car, Kat could see the blue-white light of a yard lamp near a distant riverside cabin. Golden specks of more light came from the windows of the cabin beyond the lamp.
“Snook,” Duce said, tossing him the car keys, “get the rifle out of the trunk. He might be armed with more than a pistol.”
Snook clawed at his door handle with one massive hand. “What we gonna do with her, Duce? She can’t tell us where to find the journal if she be dead.”
Duce opened his own door and climbed out of the car. He walked over to the other side of the country road and proceeded to unzip his jeans. “She don’t talk to us, she’s gonna wish she was dead, dude.”
And that’s when Kat slid out of the seat on the passenger’s side of the car, leaped across the ditch alongside the road, and launched herself up and over the barbed wire fence at the top of a rise. She landed in a field of high corn stalks. She thrashed her way forward, determined to save herself from these two miscreants.
Crack! The sound of the gunshot caused her to gasp in sudden terror, and yet she continued to run, plowing her way through the corn stalks. Crack! The gun was fired a second time and she heard, “Stop, you crazy bastard! She can’t talk if you shoot her!”
Kat ran to the opposite end of the cornfield, only to find her way blocked by a thick grove of trees. Weaving in between their trunks, she discovered a another deer trail and continued on down it, hoping on the far side she would find the cabin she had seen from the road.
Behind her, she heard the thrashing sounds of the two men charging wildly through the corn stalks. In seconds, they would come to the trees. Seconds more, they would be on the deer trail.
She decided to veer off the trail and discovered a much wider track winding its way through the forest of trees, quite possibly a track made by a farmer’s truck. Winded, she staggered against a tree, using it for support. The moon overhead illuminated an opening in the woods before her. She bolted to the edge of the trees, and was comforted by the sight of a wide open pasture with a small herd of horses staring at her, curious and alarmed at the same time.
She was certain they had heard the gunfire. She was thinking that any second they might spook and bolt if she moved toward them at a run. So, she slowed to a walk, fearing to even look behind her to see if the two men had left the trees yet. Two of the horses nickered and wheeled away from her as she stretched out her hands, attempting to touch them. Three more parted before her, two moving off to her left, the other moving to her right. Six more stood frozen before her.
“It’s okay,” she whispered. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to cross your pasture to that cabin over there.” She almost added, “Walk me there? Keep me safe!”
But the horses sensed her fear, and they milled around nervously, closing behind her as she set her sights on the distant barn.
Only then did she look back.
Ronan Catlin awoke quite suddenly in his rocker beside the woodstove. He groggily grabbed at the book he had been reading before falling asleep. Despite his grab for it, the book slid off his lap and made a hollow sound on the hardwood floor of the den.
There on the rug beside the rocker, his grizzled pit bull growled, startled by the book dropping beside him. Already wide awake from hearing the first gunshot, the dog rose to his paws as the second shot came from outside the cabin walls.
Slightly alarmed by the distinct cracks of the gun, Ronan got up from his chair and crossed the room to peer outside the window. “Hush, Ranger,” he said. “I heard it too. Something’s up out there, boy?”
Still a bit sleepy from his late-night studying, Ronan drew back the shade on the den window, thinking to peer outside to see what was up. The light from his chair lamp illuminated the glass of the window. He cursed in alarm as he spotted himself in the reflection: A tall, lean, long-haired man appeared to be peering in at him.
“Sweet Jesus!” he said, letting go of the shade. Shaking his head at his own foolishness, he retraced his steps to his reading chair to turn off the lamp.
As he returned to the window, Ronan retrieved a hair-tie from his jeans pocket and pulling back the wild tangles of his dark hair, he tied his unruly strands into a ponytail. Only then, did he pull the window shade aside to peer outside. This time there was no reflection and he was able to see the moonlit yard, dotted here and there by a windmill, three solar panels, and three small outbuildings that had been there long before he purchased the cabin five years ago.
Instinct finally kicked in then, and Ronan hastily moved away from the window, knowing how stupid it was of him to make himself a target. Barefooted, he slipped over to the light switch on the nearby wall and turned off the overhead light in the room, pitching the den into darkness. Ranger stood there, alert and watching his every move.
Ronan brushed his fingertips across the anxious pit bull’s head as he returned to the window. This time when he looked outside he stood offline with the window, peering from right to left to make certain someone wasn’t out there drawing a bead on him with whatever gun they had fired a few minutes ago. “I know better than that, right, boy?” he whispered, chiding himself from being so sleep-dazed that he’d placed himself in such a vulnerable position. Even as he said this, he thought, What were you thinking, Dumb Ass? They could come for you anytime. You want to make yourself an easy target?
Ronan Catlin had made decisions in his past that might one day have severe consequences. It was why he lived in a secluded cabin in the heartland of Nebraska. He had hoped he’d left the troubles behind, but gunshots in the dark of night, had him wishing he’d changed course somewhere along the path that led him here to these hills above South Bend.
Deciding that going out there in the dark after hearing gunshots was a bad idea, Ronan instead poured himself a full cup of Kenya AA from the coffee maker next to the kitchen stove. Taking a jar of Orange Marmalade from the fridge, he scooped out a teaspoon and dropped the sweet-smelling glob into a small strainer. He then heated two teaspoons of Hazelnut coffee creamer in a small espresso cup, and he poured the combination of coffee and creamer, over the Marmalade in the strainer, allowing it to slowly drain down into his metal coffee pot. He repeated this process three times, taking on a Zen-like calm as he did so, pouring the mixture over the Marmalade, back and forth from metal cup to his coffee mug.
When he finished this familiar process, Ronan stood at the kitchen counter, sipping and savoring the strong coffee with a hint of orange in it. He had taken his third sip when the phone rang. He picked it up on the third ring. “Hello?” he said.
“Are you safe down there, Ronan?” said Colton Lone Wolf, whose cabin was situated at the foot of the bluff half a mile from Jessie ’s riverside home. The big Lakota also lived beside the river, where he often held sweats on the grounds of his cabin. He visited Ronan frequently. Tonight, his voice held an edge to it. “Three separate cars parked in three separate locations out along Bluff Road. If they were friendly folks, they wouldn’t be so coyote sneaky. They are here to do some mischief. Not hard to believe when four-hundred and fifty-mil-lion dollar deal is in the works. I believe Franklin Judson would be desperate enough to silence any threats to his kingdom.”
Wolf lowered the phone on his end. “Say, Mountain? Want to go out and check the woods for bad guys? Ronan has himself a situation that needs sorting out.”
Ronan grinned when he heard Wolf’s massive wolfhound bark in the background. “You stay in where it’s safe,” Wolf said. “I’ll check in with you later.”
Before he could return to the sink and finish his coffee, Ranger let out a low whine and went to the back of the den, sniffing anxiously at the opening there connecting the cabin with the back porch.
“Settle down, boy,” Ronan told the agitated dog. “Cricket’s still in there sleeping. Can’t let him in here. He’s not learned his house manners yet. He’s okay out there . . .”
As he turned on the light, illuminating the closed-in back porch, he froze. “What the hell?” he muttered, his gaze fixed on the open doorway of the dog-trap in the lower portion of the back door. “Damn!” he cursed. “Cricket’s done pulled a Houdini on us! Let’s go find him, Ranger!”
Kat spotted the huge hulking Snook stepping out into the pasture. Behind him, Duce was plodding along in the dark, the cherry of a cigarette glowing in his mouth, the glint of the rifle he carried showing in the moonlight.
“All I see are horses!” Snook hissed. “I don’t much like horses! Got kicked by one when I was a kid, and my Uncle Jayzee got bucked off one and broke his neck.”
Duce plucked the cigarette from between his lips, smoke drifting from his nostrils. “Just wave your arms,” he said. “They’ll move out of our way. She can’t have gone very far.”
Kat crouched down, hoping the herd of horses blocked her from the view of the two men. She peered off to the line of trees to her left that ran for nearly a half-mile to the west, and away from the open pasture. Her eyes went wide when she saw movement there beneath the trees. A dozen gray shapes were running off into the blackness. Coyotes! Kat thought. A pack of coyotes!
And then, the paws of the fleeing creatures hit the dry bracken there in the forested grove, and they made quite a racket tearing off into the night to escape the two men moving through the pasture.
“There she is!” Duce whispered.
“Let’s go!” Snook whispered back.
The two men spooked the horses as they ran for the tree line. Kat dove to the ground, knowing that the horses were scattering and that she would soon be in plain view to her two pursuers. But Duce and Snook were racing for the trees, neither one looking in her direction. She lay sprawled on her stomach, horses racing past her, their hooves barely missing her as she placed her hands over her head. As the last animal passed her, she sprang up and ran to keep up with the herd now running toward a wooden corral situated before a large wooden barn. The horses veered off from the open barn door and galloped off through a second wide meadow.
Kat skidded to a stop and nearly trampled over a small gray form at her feet. In amazement, she looked down at the little pit bull puppy pouncing up on her legs to greet her. “What the hell?” she whispered, then bent to return the pup’s friendly greeting. “Where’d you come from, little guy?”
Without any trace of fear or caution, the pit puppy headbutted her legs, then rolled over, exposing his belly in a show of submission. Kat reached down and ran her fingers over the pup’s soft belly. He whined softly and threw all four paws in the air.
Peering wildly around her to check on the men out here stalking her, Kat’s hand came in contact with the collar she discovered around the pit bull’s small neck. Her fingers traced a slender seam and flicked a zipper running along a three-inch section of the collar at the back of the pup’s neck.
Continuing to pet the puppy’s belly, she unzipped the zipper and two bone-shaped metal licenses spilled out onto the ground beside the pup.
Casting furtive looks all around her, expecting to see her two pursuers at any moment, Kat reached down into the coin pocket of her jeans, removing what appeared to be a flash drive. Looking from right to left, and then directly behind her, she inserted the drive into the license pouch, and using both hands, she zipped it closed.
Not at all liking the fact that she was no longer petting him, the pit bull rolled over and clambered up to all four paws, peering up at her expectantly. “Sorry, little guy,” she said. “But I am doing this for your own good. Sorry to spoil the party.”
Kat gently scooped the pup up into her arms, and carried him over to the barn. He squirmed a bit as she hauled him inside, placing him in the first pen she came to. Scooting him back with one hand, she used the other to swing the gate of the pen closed, latching it at the top. “Sorry,” she offered the pup, peering down at him through the slats of the wooden pen separating them. “So sorry, but you will be safer there, than out here.”
The pup whined as she turned to go. Kat winced as she sprinted outside of the barn. Soft curses came to her lips when she spotted the cherry of a cigarette moving through the blackness of the meadow where the horses had run off to. She then saw the two forms of the men who were after her in the distance.
Kat turned and fled in the opposite direction.
to be continued . . .