Chapter 24 – Goldfish
"I feel like a person living on the brink of a volcano crater."
~ Agnes Smedley
"It won't work, sugar." Daisy tossed her hair back and handed Drake the metal prong cannibalized from the toilet tank. "This last lock is too small. How are we gonna get your ankle free?"
"Let me see." Drake took the tool and examined the end. "No worries. It's an easy enough fix." He began filing the end against the floor in short, quick strokes.
"I need to tell you about Dan."
His movement stopped short and green eyes, glassy from illness, disappeared behind lowered lids, whether in prayer or remorse Daisy couldn't decipher. Perhaps he had assumed the worst. Monroe had no reason to keep Dan alive.
Daisy moved closer, running her hands across the breadth of his shoulders. The corded muscles beneath his shirt felt hard but smooth, like steel covered in warm silk. She passed on the news in the same hopeful manner she imagined Emily had passed it to Flo.
Drake expelled a Gaelic curse. The rasping sounds resumed, faster and louder than before. "He was a decent man," he said. "A good friend to Jenny. I hope this willnae sour her memories of him."
"He might still be alive." Daisy offered, her thumbs working at the tension along his nape. "I'm not giving up hope. There's still a chance, right?"
"Aye, perhaps, but it isnae a good chance." Drake again examined the prong, then took out his frustration on the lock. "I'm sorry for it. We should no' have brought our troubles to the Rafferty's door."
She threaded her fingers through the thick hair, being careful to avoid the tender swelling on the back of his skull. "You didn't pull th' trigger, sugar."
"No, but it doesna make it easier."
The hatch opened with a loud creak and Daisy lunged for the flashlight, clicking it off. Drake found her shoulder and whispered, "If he gets around me, keep your wits. Use the knife."
Daisy's insides did a sick roll and she huddled behind Drake as his body flexed in preparation for battle. He was a formidable opponent, even in his weakened state. She willed her frazzled nerves into silence and waited.
Drake crouched on the balls of his feet, his senses acutely aware of every sound and move. He wrapped the cold chain around his knuckles and pulled the length taut between his hands, reaching deep inside himself for the darkness he needed to fight. Matt would pay for every cut and bruise Daisy had suffered.
A beam of light swept the room and he narrowed his eyes against the glare. Two small figures appeared in the shadows, slowly making their way down the stairs. Drake's body uncoiled with relief.
"Emily!" Daisy scrambled to her feet and ran for the bars.
Drake could tell that Emily hadn't fared well in her captivity. She struggled with each step and held onto her companion for support, her body hunched in a telltale sign of pain. When she finally reached the cell, her gaze was riveted on Daisy and the bruises on her face.
"Oh, sweetheart, you're hurt!" Emily reached through the bars and took her hands. "Everything is gonna be okay. We'll get you out of here. How's Drake?"
"He had it a lot worse than I did." Daisy flicked a glance his direction. "He's better, but a little unsteady on his feet if he gets up too fast."
"I'm fine." Drake argued. He stood and swayed as spots danced in his vision. He leaned heavily on the wall until his head cleared. "There. Right as rain."
"Uh-huh." Emily clicked her tongue. "I've seen newborn colts steadier than you."
"Bah!" Drake grunted. "I've had worse hangovers. A wee bit of pain willnae slow me down, but I cannae say the same for you."
"Oh, hush. I ain't all sugar and spice. We'll manage." Emily stepped aside so the other woman could unlock the cell door.
"Sorry to be late, but I had a run in with Matt." The second woman said. "There was an argument and he killed one of Monroe's men. Prepare yourselves. There's blood all over up the stairs. We have to hurry and get as far away from here as possible before they come back."
Drake's stomach fell. He knew that voice, but the flashlight hid her face in shadows. He gave his head a shake and stared at the woman. He must just be confused, or maybe his fever had returned.
The woman slid the door open and Emily fell into Daisy's embrace. Flo quickly separated them. "Daisy, let me see your wrist, luv."
Drake's heart slammed against his ribs.
"Drake already picked the lock." Daisy said, holding out her arm. "But we couldn't get the last chain off his ankle."
The beam of light dropped to his stocking feet. "Take Emily upstairs while I take care of it." Flo said. "I found his boots and dirk in the corner of Matt's room. There are coats in the hall with hats and gloves. Bundle up tight. I fear it's chilly tonight. We'll be along as soon as I get him free." The woman stepped forward, providing a clear view of her features.
All the breath left Drake's body as his world tilted on its axis. It wasn't real. It couldn't be real, but the voice rang out of the past, making fifteen years seem like a tiny blink in the timeline.
"Hello, sweet boy. I'm going to get you out of here."
It was Emily's rigid stance and refusal to move that first alerted Daisy to a problem. She whipped her head back to Drake and his expression of outright shock. He stared down at Flo as she huddled over his foot, quickly working the stubborn lock preventing his escape.
"Sugar, what's wrong?"
"Lord Almighty, I knew this would be bad." Emily sighed and swept an arm towards Flo. "Daisy, this is Gidget MacFarland, Drake's mother."
Gidget's slip into Scots confirmed the truth. "This isnae how I wanted things to happen," she said. "I have much to explain, I ken."
Daisy was stunned speechless, torn between her gratitude for Gidget's help and her sympathy for Drake. He'd just purged the demons that clung to him after Cynthia's death. His eyes narrowed slightly and took on a look of such bitterness it was frightening. Her heart broke a little. This woman had left him when he was just a boy. Why risk her life to save him now? Something didn't add up.
The manacle clanked to the floor and Gidget stood to face her son. Seeing her petite form next to Drake's bulk of muscle was a moment Daisy would never forget. In the traumatic shock of captivity, she missed the striking resemblance Gidget bore to her daughter. She clicked on her flashlight and moved to the side, innately curious about other similarities.
Gidget's rich green eyes were much like Drake's, soulful and wise. Tears beaded on long, dark lashes and spilled in tiny rivulets along Jenny's elegant cheekbones. She beamed up at her son, the curve of her lips turned up in Jaxon's Prince Charming smile.
"I cannae believe this is real." Gidget whispered. "My son. My beautiful, braw son has grown into such a handsome man." Her breath hitched as she reached up to press a palm against his face. "I'm so happy to see ya."
"Don't touch me!" Drake knocked her arm away and jerked back. "Don't ever touch me!"
His reaction was so violent even Daisy stepped back. Gidget's face crumpled as if she'd been struck. Showing no remorse, Drake grasped Daisy's arm, dragging her out of the cell. She in turn grabbed Emily, who struggled to keep up with his fast pace.
"Wait!" Emily cried. "Drake, slow down!"
He released Daisy's hand to pluck Emily off the ground like a small babe and bolted up the stairs. She yelped at the hasty move and grasped his neck, even though there was no chance he would let her fall. Daisy hurried after them, sparing a quick glance behind her. Gidget was right behind them, her jaw set in a familiar stubborn line.
Things passed in a blur, climbing out of the hole, the horrors in Matt's room, the pictures of his victims on the floor… Seeing how close she'd come to being one of them was the stuff of nightmares. Drake carried Emily into the hall and carefully put her back on her feet before returning to the room for his boots.
Daisy took her arms and whispered urgently, "Emily, what is she doing here?"
"She's a confidential informant for the FBI."
"The FBI! How did this happen? Did you see the look on Drake's face?"
"Sweetheart, I know he's upset, but we can't do anything about it right now. Grab a coat. We have to get out of here."
"Yes ma'am." While pulling on the coat and gloves, Daisy could hear Gidget passionately argue her case in the other room. Her brogue was so thick she could barely make out the words.
"I ken you're angry, but ya cannae possibly hate me as much as I hate m'self! Please, Drake. I want to be wi' m' family! Can ya find it in your heart to give me a second chance?"
"You cannae waltz back into my life and expect me to act like it never happened! You left us! All of us!"
"I'm not asking you to do that! By the Saint's I never meant to stay away, but I was afraid! I had a reason for it, luv. If ya take me to the twins, I'll explain everything, aye?"
"No!" Drake's voice shook the walls. "Stay away from the twins!"
"You cannae keep them from me, Drake! I've been protecting all of you for months!" The frantic edge on Gidget's voice hurt Daisy's ears. "Doesn't that mean anything to ya? You must hear m' side of the story!"
"And then what? Do ya expect us to throw ourselves into your arms? Your actions had consequences! I willnae allow ya to pop in and out of our lives and hurt the twins again! Ya stay away from them!"
"Nay! Ya cannae do that! It isnae fair!"
"Fair? Fair!? Was it fair that ya left three bairns and a husband alone in their grief? Ya willnae see the twins until I say it's fit and proper!"
"Stubborn dolt!" Gidget shrieked. "I willnae be bullied by my own bairn! You're just like your father!" She swept into the hall and then abruptly stopped, twirling around so fast her coat flared out like a bell. "Drake Jacob MacFarland, I am still your mother! You cannae drive me away so easily! Now move your arse!"
Daisy and Emily dodged aside as Gidget snatched the backpack off the floor. Her face was aflame with anger and her pulse beat a visible rhythm in her throat. She stuffed a plastic bag in the side pocket, threw the pack over her shoulder, and rushed down the hall, her rapping boot heels punctuating each step.
Drake exploded into the hall in an adrenaline fed rage. He carried his sheathed dirk in his left hand, inspecting it carefully before slipping it back inside his boot. His chest heaved with each breath as if he barely held onto the last threads of control. Wordlessly, Daisy held out a sheepskin-lined coat. He wouldn't meet her eyes as he shrugged it over his shoulders. It pulled tight across his back, a bit too small for his broad frame.
"Not now. I cannae speak of it." He retrieved the dirk and led the way into the living room. Each step he took was powerful, his every move predatory and feral.
They met Gidget at the front door. "Turn off the lights," she barked. "We'll be sitting ducks if there is a guard outside."
Bile rose in Daisy's throat as she stepped over the pool of blood to turn off the lamp. Drake found the switch on the wall and the living room went dark. They gathered behind Gidget as she held a penlight to the small keypad and punched in several digits. The red light blinked twice with a loud beep.
"Bloody hell!" Gidget said. "The Devil take Monroe and his worthless minions! I cannae watch him kill my children!"
"You're just nervous, sweetheart." Emily put a hand on her shoulder. "Take a deep breath."
Gidget shook out her hands and entered the code again. The green light came on and the locks clacked open. She reached for the doorknob.
"Wait." Drake covered her hand. "I'll go first. Stay here."
Gidget's eyes lowered to where their hands touched. The sadness returned to her face. With vivid reluctance, she pulled her hand from his and stepped away.
Daisy held her breath and watched Drake disappear through the doorway. After days of yearning for Gidget's daily visits, she found herself at a loss for words. While they waited in awkward silence, she focused on the keypad's digital display. Its numbers revealed the time and cast a green shadow across the room. It was almost 9:00PM.
She kept track of the minutes. One…two…five…ten…then fifteen. When she reached twenty, she took a step towards the door and Drake walked back inside. The look on his face did little to ease her mind.
"They're gone," he said. "I found two horses saddled and tied in the trees, but we have a wee problem. Come with me and stay verra quiet. I'll find us a place to hide."
Without further explanation, he lifted Emily into his arms and led them into the night.
The old line shack sat on the high side of a clearing with a spectacular view of Bison Creek. A lantern hung from the canted roof, serving as a homing beacon for the search parties to follow. Enos rode with the last group, straggling in after another miserable day scouring Devil's Gulch.
He secured Tag to the picket line, brushed him down, and stepped out of the trees. A clear night sky spread out above him and he filled his lungs with cold, fresh air. The crisp scent of pine mingled with smoke, an earthy mixture that reminded him of home. Grey wisps curled from the pipe chimney and floated like tiny specters into the heavens. Any other time, Enos would enjoy the serenity of this place, but it just wasn't possible with Monroe's deadline a mere twelve hours away.
Jenny was waiting inside the cabin. She hadn't been sleeping well and was probably exhausted after making the round trip to Bramble Creek. She'd ridden out late this morning with Deputy Michaels, desperate for updated data on the area to aide in their search. Enos was deeply worried about her sleep-deprived condition. He held Travis responsible.
Footsteps approached and he mentally prepared himself for the confrontation. The agent ignored him as he marched out of the trees. Enos snagged the man's elbow. "I'd like a word," he said. "I'd appreciate it if ya' lighten up on th' twins. Their family problems ain't your business."
"I'm making it my business." Travis yanked his arm free with exaggerated effort and pulled himself taller in a clear attempt to intimidate. "Causing tension between them wasn't my intent, but I think it's good that the truth is out. I didn't know Jenny was unaware of Jaxon's reasons for traveling to Inverness last winter. There's nothing wrong with him wanting to find his mother."
"It ain't your business." Enos repeated. "Finding their ma gives Monroe one more target to use against Ian. Jaxon admitted it was the wrong time. I'm askin' you nicely to stay out of it."
"I know what I'm doing." Travis snarled. "They need someone they can look up to. Ian isn't much of a father figure and I want to help with that. I can't change what happened in the past, but I can be there for them in the future."
Enos tilted his head, allowing the disapproval in his face to do the majority of the talking. "They're adults and I don't recall them askin' you to fill their father's shoes. This ain't th' time to open old wounds."
"Look." Travis's voice escalated as he lost the grip on his temper. "All I'm saying is that Jenny could be more supportive! She needs to face her fears!"
"Jenny needs to be able to focus!" Enos snapped, his patience spent. "She's dead on her feet because of you! None of us have had a decent night's sleep since we got here!"
"Don't you dare blame that on me! I'm sorry she's having nightmares, but that isn't my fault! Last night she was screaming Drake's name, not her mother's!"
The cabin door opened and light spilled into the clearing. Luke and Jaxon walked outside, two dark silhouettes that looked rather menacing at the moment.
"I can hear Travis all the way inside." Luke said, closing the door behind him. "I reckon no one taught him about minding his own business."
"There are lots of things Travis wasn't taught." Jaxon's eyes were angry slits in his face. He squared off with Travis and growled, "Just FYI, Jenny never cried for mum in her sleep, not even when we were little. She always wanted our da and after Finn died, it was Drake. I know my sister. She was handling things just fine until you brought up Inverness. The nightmares are your fault."
"She for dang sure doesn't need more worry." Luke crossed his arms over his chest and gave Enos a wary look. "Deputy Michaels told us she was really upset when they left Bramble Creek. Dan's in a coma."
"Ding dang it." Enos dragged his hands down his face. "Is he gonna survive?"
"His chances aren't good." Jaxon said. "Only time will tell. In the meantime we have a job to do." His gaze swept back to Travis. "Adam and Jenny brought the updated satellite photos. We were about to look them over. You're welcome to join us if you can keep your big mouth shut and stay out of my family's personal affairs."
Travis jammed his fists on his hips. "Jaxon, I'm just trying to help you. Your sister needs to deal with this, for your sake. You've told me how close you were to your mother."
"Telling you anything personal was a strategic error." Jaxon's compromising demeanor turned on a dime. "This subject is off limits. If I have to tell you again, you'll be picking your teeth out of the dirt."
"Okay, then. I reckon that settles it." Luke slapped Enos on the back. "You comin' inside?"
"I'm gonna wait for Gus. Tell Jenny I'll be right there, would ya'?"
"You got it buddy roe." Luke and Jaxon walked away. Travis glowered a little longer before following them inside.
Enos knew Travis had a hidden agenda, but he hadn't been able to figure out if it was personal or professional. While he seemed to genuinely care for the twins, there was a selfishness about him that was bound to take priority. His desire to act as a parental figure wasn't new, either. Perhaps he just needed to be needed. Or maybe dabbling in the twins past was a distraction from his own pain. He'd mentioned his fiancé daily, refusing to believe she'd been eliminated by Monroe. Travis clearly missed her and seemed jealous of the intimacy Enos shared with Jenny. Enos would catch the agent watching her, despite her obvious disdain, with a strange look that he couldn't name.
The clink of spurs alerted him to Gus's approach. His godfather's sorrow was visible in the way he carried himself. His bright eyes had turned dull and the animated personality that was always larger than life had deflated, until all that remained was pure grit and determination.
Gus released a tired sigh and tipped his hat back. He kept his gaze riveted to the crescent moon, as if the woman he sought looked back at him with her heart in her eyes.
Helplessness swept through Enos like a cold wind. "Gus, are ya' okay?"
"Nope. Not in the slightest." Gus took a bandana from his back pocket and wiped his face. "This is killin' me, son. If we don't save Emily ya'll might as well put me in the ground. Then again, if saving her means losing th' kids, or you…" He dropped his head, holding the faded blue cloth over his eyes. "This ain't right. I heard what was said about Dan. The whole damn world's gone crazy."
"I'm sorry, Gus." Enos clasped a hand on his shoulder and gave it a firm squeeze. "I won't give up on Emily. She's tough and so is Daisy. With Drake on their side, they got a better chance than most. There's still time. I promised to get her back for ya' and I meant it."
"Aw hell, I know you'll try, son." Gus dabbed his eyes. "Did I hear that we have new satellite images?'
"Yes sir. Th' others are already inside taking a look. C'mon." Enos put an arm around Gus's shoulders and guided him towards the shack. "Let's grab some coffee and get back to work."
When they walked inside, the place looked like a disheveled war room and smelled of fresh coffee. Conditions here were primitive at best. It was little more than four walls and a roof to protect them from the freezing temperatures at night. A wood-burning stove made cooking easier, but the only running water came from a hand pump in the kitchen. It wasn't remotely equipped to handle seven adults. They'd given Jenny the narrow bed against the wall, but sleeping on the floor was like being squeezed into a dented can of sardines. He woke the first night underneath Jenny's bed with Jaxon's feet on his chest.
In the center of the room, a lantern hung from a low hook, casting a halo of glowing light over an old plank table covered with maps and photographs. The men crowded around its surface, comparing each photo with its match from an earlier date.
Enos spotted Jenny at the stove, wearing his flannel shirt for an added layer of warmth, pouring steaming brew from a blue-speckled enamel coffee pot. There was something 'right' about her wearing his clothes, even if the old shirt hung below her knees. It marked him as hers…and vice versa. He wouldn't have it any other way.
Enos hung his duster on a peg and walked up behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and gently rubbing his cheek against hers. Her skin was soft and she smelled like a garden of fresh lavender. "Hey short stuff," he murmured, kissing a spot below her ear. "Mmm...you got to take a shower in town."
"Wish I could say the same for you," she teased, but her voice sounded tense. "Jealous?"
He smiled and pressed his lips to her ear. "Only because I wasn't there. I missed you."
"Missed you, too." Her body relaxed against him. "Even if you do smell like a sweaty horse blanket."
Jenny placed the coffee pot back on the stove and crossed her arms over his to gently stroke his forearms with her fingertips. He heard the uneven rhythm of her breathing and felt her shoulders rise and fall with small shudders as she tried to hold back the tears.
"Hey." Enos turned her around and lifted her chin. His heart sank to see her eyes puffy and red. He wanted to cradle her like a small kitten and protect her from the world. "Aw, hon. Luke told me about Dan. I'm sorry."
"It's awful. I feel responsible, but there's nothing I can do. I hate it." She fidgeted with a button on his shirt. "Barney said his parents arrived Saturday. Olivia keeps asking for me. I should be at the hospital, but I can't bring myself to leave."
"If I can accept that you belong here, Dan would, too." Enos kissed her tears away and pulled her snug against him. "Why don't ya' rest awhile? I'll wake ya' if we find something."
"I can't," she whispered against his chest. "I need to stay busy."
"Enos, come take a look at this." Luke called. "I can't believe how clear these shots are."
Jenny stepped back and handed Enos a cup of coffee. "Cullen knows the right people," she said, once again all business. She painted on a smile and approached the table. "It's a good thing the skies cleared or we'd be stuck with the ones from Friday."
Enos followed and picked up an image. "Looks like th' water levels have gone down quite a bit since last night."
"Who is this Cullen person?" Travis asked.
"Cullen MacRae works for my father." Jenny said. "When I was little he was my bodyguard and later he became my firearms instructor. He's been very good to me over the years." She smiled as if keeping a secret.
"He's been good to all of us." Jaxon agreed. "We can always count on him in a pinch."
Travis bristled at that. Enos narrowed his eyes at the man in warning. He snatched another photo from the stack and ignored them all.
"Hey, this is odd. Take a look at Gold Digger's Peak." Luke handed a photo to Enos. "Jenny? Where's that magnifying glass?"
"Right here." She pulled the glass from her trail bag and passed it to Enos. "Did you find something?"
"Possum on a gumbush, I think so. Gus, what is that?" Enos put the photo down and pointed to the far side of the page. A thick circle of trees sprouted in the center of rock, as if they'd been planted in a wide bowl scooped from the mountainside.
Gus's brow furrowed in concentration as he studied the photo. "That's Jasper's Fishbowl. At least, I think it is. Double check me on that, Adam." Gus slid the image across the table to the Bramble Creek Deputy.
"Yes sir, it is." Adam said. "That's what us locals call it anyway. Everyone else calls it the Bison Creek Caldera."
Enos's heart took a frantic leap. A caldera. A crater formed by an ancient volcanic eruption. It was the perfect hiding place. "How do we get there?"
"From here?" Adam shook his head. "We can't. Not on horseback anyway."
"There is another option though." Gus spun the photo around and pointed to a transverse line on the mountainside. "See these transmission lines? They were just put up a few years ago. Th' phone company and utility services went all out to expand and they maintain a service road that runs within a quarter-mile of the caldera rim."
"Ain't that convenient." Enos said.
"Yep." Luke agreed. "All those power and phone lines to splice into."
"That would take months of planning." Adam said, scratching his head. "I still don't see how that's a feasible spot to hide. It's near impossible to get in and out. The road would get a person close to the rim, but the only way inside is to climb down five hundred feet of unstable cliff. Most of it is a straight rappel."
"But it is possible to get in, right?" Jaxon asked.
"Well, yeah. If you really want to check it out, there's a helipad at the ranger's station. It's within hiking distance of the caldera. We could have a chopper pick us up at Coyote Point and…" Adam's eyebrows jumped.
"Coyote Point." Jenny gave Enos a knowing look. "Where we make the exchange."
"That's no coincidence." Luke took the magnifying glass and passed it to Adam. "Take a closer look at the center of those trees."
"And then look at this." Enos dragged another image across the table and tapped it with his finger. "That square clearing in th' middle wasn't there last week."
Adam lowered the glass. "They're cutting down trees to make a landing sight?"
"They want a fast getaway. So much for our plan B." Jenny moved papers aside and spread out the map. "The drafts off the mountain would make it tricky, but I could land a chopper there if the weather continues to cooperate."
Jaxon sighed, "You could land a toaster in a hurricane, but they'd still hear us coming."
"You can pilot a helicopter?" Luke asked.
"Da was very thorough in our training." Jaxon smirked. "MacFarlands can fly anything, except cars. We'll leave that to the Duke family."
Travis muttered under his breath and turned to Adam. "Call Sheriff Running Wolf. Get more men out here and check the airports for any chartered flights. Then call the FAA. They can restrict air traffic over the caldera."
"Yes sir." Adam retrieved his radio.
"Adam, wait." Enos said. "Would ya' make sure Hunt's men stay out of sight? They need to look like they're hunting for th' bear or this is gonna go bad."
"I'll make sure he understands." Adam stepped outside.
"I still don't get it." Gus drummed his fingers on the table. "They didn't fly Emily and th' kids away from the ranch. Hunt's men tracked them in here on horseback. How did they get up to th' caldera?"
"And then how did they get inside?" Enos was equally perplexed. "They'd have a hard time forcing three unwilling prisoners down a rappel line."
"Emily couldn't do it and Drake would never cooperate." Jaxon said. "If he were unconscious, they'd have two hundred thirty pounds of dead weight on their hands. There must be another way inside."
Luke snapped his fingers. "Ain't it obvious? Gus brought us here through a tunnel. There must be another one."
"And we missed it." Jaxon raked a hand through his hair and smoothed the map flat. "Where did Adam say they lost the trail?"
"They went into Bison Creek here." Luke marked an "X" on the map. "Just outside the entrance to the gulch."
"That means the tunnel is between these two points." Enos took the photo and marked off a section along the bank.
"Unless it's back here." Jenny pointed to a culvert further downstream where the river branched off into a smaller tributary. "There are several box canyons back there and lots of places to hide. We can't risk overlooking anything."
Travis shook his head. "That's a lot of ground to cover."
"Then we split up." Enos said. "Let's get th' horses saddled and pack. Gus, we'll need to bring the spare mounts. That way we don't have to come back for them if we're forced to go to the exchange."
"Ya'll ain't gonna go to that exchange." Gus said, hope brightening his eyes. "We're going to find them and bring them home. Tonight."
Matt dug his heels into his mount and charged through the forest. He didn't care about the darkness, or the danger it posed to his horse. All he wanted was to reach the creek and cut off the only means of escape. His brow beaded with sweat as he moved in time with the horse, putting a healthy distance between his men and the underground bunker.
He'd wasted enough time, lost in a red haze of fury, staring at the ransacked room and open hatch door. The whore was gone and she'd taken his souvenirs. He clenched his fists, pinching the reins in his hands. The voice in his head surfaced again to make its desires known.
Find the bitch, make her beg, make her scream and scream and scream…
"Dammit to hell!" He howled and jabbed his heels into the horse's flanks. The gelding flung his head back in distress and gathered his haunches, making a wild jump into the shallow stream.
Most of the men had already fled the caldera, bound for hidden destinations in hopes of avoiding the death sentence this failure brought down on their heads. Only three had stayed behind to salvage the mission.
The voice whispered: Failure. They don't trust you. Weak. Pathetic. Bad, bad, bad…
The horses charged through the dappled moonlight, kicking up water in shimmering silver beads. The creek bed twisted and turned, constantly moving downhill, until it ended in a shallow pool at the base of the caldera wall. Matt held up a hand to the others and pulled back the reins with brutal force, bringing them all to an ungraceful halt as the animals bumped each other in the close proximity.
He watched the wind flutter the foliage that climbed the granite surface, the leaves hiding the opening beneath a curtain of twisted vines. It appeared undisturbed. Two days ago, this area was beneath fifteen feet of water, submerged by the caldera's run off and the swelling flood of Bison Creek.
Not anymore. No more waiting. Take the sister instead. Make her suffer. Make her scream and bleed. Kill, kill, kill…
Matt's head ached, like a vice squeezing mercilessly against his skull. "Shut up!" His fisted hands pressed against his temples and he leaned over the saddle horn, bellowing at the voice that refused to be silent. "Shut up…shut up…shut up!"
The men gave him equal looks of trepidation. He had to regain control, had to stop the voice, or he'd lose everything. His life. His chance to avenge his brother's death. The pleasure of making Wildcat his next broken toy and sating his perverted lust. Matt grit his teeth, taking deep, hissing breaths until he calmed himself enough to speak.
"Daryl! Guard the tunnel," he said. "Keep yourself hidden. If MacFarland shows up, tranq him and tie him up. Take the women back to the bunker. They're mine. Tate, Boone, you're with me."
The voice approved. Yes! My toys! Mine to make beg! Mine to make scream! Mine, mine, mine…
A surge of arousal spurred Matt onward, but the men were staring at him doubtfully. He dragged a miner's headlamp over his brow and shouted, "What are you waiting for? Let's move!"
Daryl swung out of his saddle and pulled the vines to the side. With a slap of his reins, Matt forced the gelding into the dark opening. The others soon followed. It was a treacherous passage. The floor was caked with silt and the horse's hooves made sucking noises as they followed the twisting flume inside the earth.
He pushed the animal at a relentless pace, down, down, down, until the ground leveled out and a breeze blew across his face. He stopped at the base of a steep slope and inhaled the fresh air. Bison Creek rushed through the Gulch, a quiet roar as it found the path of least resistance. He leaned forward as his horse began to climb, picking it's way carefully around larger rocks to find safe footing. When they reached the top, the earth opened like a gaping mouth, revealing a generous sprinkling of stars.
He turned off the miner's lamp and reined his horse left, riding up a narrow chute toward the riverbed and stopping beneath a massive boulder that hid nature's secret from mankind. An old tree and overgrown bushes assisted the cause, concealing the opening and camouflaging the narrow crevice leading through the mountain.
By midnight, they had concealed their tracks and that of the deserters. Forced to take a slower pace or lose the horses, they rode calmly along a ridge above the shore, stopping when they crossed another trail. Matt jumped down with his flashlight to examine the ground. The tracks were fresh in the wet soil. Three horses had split from the others, heading down a lower trail that lead back into the culvert from which they just emerged.
Monroe warned him the cop would search. That's why he went to such lengths to find the perfect hiding spot. Matt grinned like the Devil himself and climbed back in the saddle. The cop wouldn't leave his girlfriend this close to the deadline, nor would the twins split up. That meant they were trapped between his men and the vertical walls of the gulch.
"They're in the culvert." Matt's pulse quickened as the evil desires begged to be fed. "Give me the tranquilizer gun. We'll just turn the cards around on Monroe's whore. Drake will come back on his own accord. In the end, they'll all be at my mercy."
He took the loaded gun and yanked his horse's head around, taking the lead. He moved swiftly down the trail, listening to the voice chant its psychotic plea.
Have them now. No way out. First take the girl. Make them watch. Make them all watch. Make her beg and beg and beg… Quash the night with her screams. Spill blood, stain the ground, kill them all and take new souvenirs! Kill, kill, kill…
"Yes." Matt hissed under his breath. "Blood will spill. New souvenirs. Kill, kill, kill…"