He was on his way home, a leisurely trip driving back roads in rural Georgia.
A sudden encounter with a young teen interrupted his trip.
He’d just completed a job, and the last thing he needed was a passenger.
Especially a kid as a passenger.
He was 14, and I guess no matter how cocky and self-assured a kid that age is, he sometimes still needs the reassurance and comfort that can be provided by an adult. The strength with which he hugged me back showed that.
He’d had a hard day. Now I could see why he’d fallen asleep when I’d gone on my food run. He’d escaped death and the death of the pet he loved more than anything else in the world, and he’d shot his brother, and he’d run miles through a woods thinking every step might be his last. Now he was in the arms of someone he trusted, at least a little, even if he didn’t know him at all. Quite a day.
We went to bed. I told him we needed to be up early. I wanted to be out of the county before Colt’s brother was on patrol the next morning. Colt was exhausted—it was obvious just looking at him—and he was as happy getting into bed as I was.
I got in on the left side, my normal side of the bed. He got in on the right. He looked at me, and I shook my head. Fitz sighed and lay down on the floor next to him. I think all three of us were asleep in seconds.
I’d set my mental clock for six, and as usual, it worked. When I woke, I sat up and looked around. Colt had moved to the middle of the bed and was breathing deeply, sound asleep. Lying next to him, his head on the pillow next to Colt’s, was Fitz. So much for not being on the bed. He wasn’t asleep. He had his eyes open, looking at me, not moving a muscle. Colt’s arm was draped over him.
I got up, shaking my head. I walked around the bed, patted Fitz, who accepted it, then gently rocked Colt’s shoulder. He seemed to come awake quickly. “I’m taking a shower, and you can wake up while I’m doing so. You’re next; I’ll be about ten minutes.”
He grunted and closed his eyes again. I smiled and walked to the bathroom. Fitz never moved.
We were on the road by 6:20. I had fresh clothes on. Colt was in the same shorts and flip-flops, but had kept my oversized tee shirt on, so he didn’t seem so much the Nature Boy. It looked to me like Colt was planning on sleeping some more. I was planning something different. “Hey, I need you awake. We have two orders of business to attend to. Well, three really, but two that are urgent. One, I’d like to get out of the county as quickly as possible, and you know your way around here, and I don’t, so I need your help with that. Two, I’d like to get something to eat, and you’d know where to do that, too. The second can wait if it has to.”
“What’s the third?” Colt asked, yawning.
“We need to decide what to do with you. I have an idea, but we can talk about it over breakfast.”
That shut Colt up. I watched him close down. He stared out the front windshield, sleep apparently the last thing on his mind now. I could tell he wasn’t anxious to sit down and talk about his situation. Boys tend to stay in the moment rather than think ahead, and this moment he was in seemed pretty much OK with him. The recent past hadn’t been OK, and he couldn’t see where the future would be, either.
I’d driven a couple of hundred yards down the road from the motel, north, away from town. I pulled to the side of the road. “Hey, we’ll figure something out that you’re OK with if that’s at all possible. But for right now, I need you. We want to get out of the county and if possible do so using roads that the deputies don’t patrol. How many cars are out prowling around?”
He seemed to come out of the trance he’d fallen into when he’d remembered the fix he was in. “Eight,” he said. “And all the deputies are hand-picked by my father. One-hundred percent loyal to him. He’ll have told them to find me, and they’ll do their best.”
“OK. That’s a lot of cars, but they have to think there’s a fair chance you got a ride when you came out of the woods yesterday and are already gone. Maybe in that car driving south I lied to your brother about. Or, they may think you stayed in the woods; if so, they have a lot of guys hunting for you. Using dogs, I imagine. The guys patrolling probably won’t all have their heart in it, thinking the chance of finding you pretty slim. But, what do you recommend as far as what roads to take?”
He thought for a moment. “We’re kind of right in the middle of the county. The closest next county over’s about an hour’s drive from here no matter what road we take. If we take side roads, some of them dirt, it’ll take longer, but there’s less chance of meeting a deputy on patrol.”
“What’d you recommend?” I asked. I wanted to keep him involved, and in any case, kids were really good at games like hide and seek and capture the flag. They were crafty, and best of all, they didn’t think like adults did. Whatever plan he could come up with, it was unlikely one of the adults looking for us would think the same way.
He grinned. “We should turn left just up ahead, about a half mile.”
I smiled, but quickly killed it. That last statement was said with him sounding more like he’d been yesterday. More personality. More confidence. Bossier.
We turned onto a narrow road that wasn’t paved or dirt; it was gravel. There were two ruts that more or less ran down the middle without a whole lot of leeway in either side. If we met a car coming the other way, he’d be in the same ruts and we’d both have to move over. It appeared it would be a tight fit; there was maybe just enough room for that.
“How far do we go on this?” I asked.
“Only a few miles. It comes out on a paved road that’ll take us to the next county west. That’s a good place to go because the sheriff there doesn’t like my dad. That would be best for us.”
“OK. Now, I don’t suppose there’s anywhere to get any food somewhere along the way. I’m starving, and you’re probably even hungrier. Maybe the mutt is, too.”
“Don’t call him that!” There was some anger in his voice, and he sat up straighter.
“Hey! I was teasing. He seems to be a great dog. The quietest one I’ve ever met, too. I haven’t heard him bark even once.”
Colt was staring at me with some anger in his eyes. But it started to melt when what I said sank in. “Yeah, I taught him that. I was afraid if he ever woke Dad up, he’d shoot him. Really. That’s how Dad is. A bad temper and no curbs on it. Only thinks of himself. He doesn’t spend much time looking ahead very far, either.”
“How’d you ever teach Fitz not to bark?”
“He’s real smart. I think I could teach him most anything.”
“I can see the bond you two have. But back to the question: any place we can get some food?”
“Yeah, actually. You’d never think so on this road, huh? Doesn’t look like much, but in about a mile we’ll come to where a few houses are close together. There’s a sort of little diner there. It’s only open for breakfast and lunch and only for a couple hours each time then, but they’ll be open when we pass by, serving breakfast.”
“Is it safe? Does anyone know you there?”
“Yeah, but I think we’d be OK. Dad screwed over the owners once. They wouldn’t rat anyone out to him for anything.”
“OK, let’s stop there then. But we need to be out of there quick. Get something to go, an egg sandwich or something. That sound good?”
“Sure. We need something for Fitz, too.”
We drove on without meeting anyone. Colt’s knowledge proved accurate. We’d gone a little more than a mile when several rather dilapidated houses came into sight. Right up against the road there was a building with three cars in front. A tired-looking, hand-painted sign hanging just a bit off-kilter said EATS. I pulled in next to the last car in line.
We cracked the windows and went inside, leaving Fitz in the truck. There were three small tables and a counter with six stools at it. Two men sat at the counter, and there was a man and a woman at one of the tables. The whole place was small and not that clean. It sort of smelled funny. Burnt coffee and Pine-Sol, I decided.
A waitress behind the counter asked what we wanted, and I asked if they could pack food to go.
“Sure thing, hun. Whad’a ya want?”
Before I could order, Colt yanked on my sleeve. “Order for us,” he said, quickly added, “to go,” and turned and left. I looked at him quizzically for a sec, then turned back to the waitress.
“Two bacon and egg sandwiches, eggs fried solid, two sweet rolls if you have them, and how about a plain hamburger on a bun? Large black coffee, large orange juice, and a bottle of water.”
“Sure thing, hun. Just give us a few minutes.”
She told me the price and I paid. I looked around. Everyone had looked up at us when we’d come in. I guess they didn’t see strangers too often. But they were all back to their own business now. The couple at the table were talking together; one of the guys at the counter was talking on his cell phone and the other reading a newspaper.
It only took about five minutes before the waitress was handing me a couple of bags. I thanked her and pushed through the door. Colt was waiting by the truck, looking nervous.
“What’s the matter,” I asked, opening the truck’s door.
“One of the guys in there, he’s from Crocker Corners. He knows me. As soon as he saw me, he pulled out his phone. Maybe he was calling my dad. If Dad spread the word that he’s looking for me…”
I winced. Colt continued, “If my dad called his deputies and any of those guys were anywhere near, they could put a car at both ends of this road, then start down it. There’s no crossroad, no way to go anywhere but stay on this road. We couldn’t get away.”
“In that case,” I said, jumping into the truck, “we’d better hope none of the patrol cars are anywhere near here.”
I handed the bags to Colt and threw gravel as I pulled out of the parking space and then just as quickly stopped. I had no idea which way to go; didn’t know which end of the road was most likely to have a patrol car on it, from which end it would mostly likely appear. I turned to Colt.
“Which way gets us to a crossroad the quickest?”
“Continue on the way we came,” he said, and I turned the wheel to the right and stepped on it.
We were both silent. It was almost impossible to drive on that road and make any speed. It was way too bumpy; it would be far too easy to lose control. I got us up to about 30, and that was way too fast to be safe. At first, there’d been farm fields on both sides of the road, probably owned by farmers who lived in the houses near the restaurant. I couldn’t tell for sure, but on one side of the road it looked like they were growing cotton; on the other side I guessed peanuts. But I wasn’t sure in either case.
Quickly, we ran out of farm fields, and there were trees on both sides again. Trees close to the road, almost to the point of causing claustrophobia. It was like driving through a ceiling-less tunnel. The trees were growing densely enough that there was no way I could drive into them to escape anyone on the road. There were shallow ditches on both sides of the road, too. No, no matter what, we’d have to stay on the road.
I thought about that and about what we could do if a sheriff’s car showed up either in front of us or coming up from behind. If one came head on, we were more or less screwed. About our only chance then would be to abandon the truck on the road and hightail it into the woods. That wasn’t a rosy prospect. The deputy seeing us do that would have a radio, and he could have the area surrounded before we could get very far. Then, they could bring in the dogs and we’d be done for. I could envision how that would go, how the article in the paper would read: The predator who’d kidnapped the sheriff’s son for his own nefarious purposes was spotted with the boy fleeing into Potfree’s Woods early today. He was surrounded, but chose to fight rather than surrender. His bullet-ridden body was brought back for an autopsy. Also killed in the battle were the boy and his dog, both of whom the madman had been using as shields and both of whom the pedophile killed when they broke away from him during the shootout.
I had to hope if a car came, it would be from behind. With a car behind us, I could see where we might have a chance. A slim one, but at least a chance. I thought about it, then turned to Colt.
“How brave are you?” I asked.
He looked back at me, and I saw something harden in his face. “I can do what I need to do,” he answered. “Why?”
So I told him. It took some time, and I was glad to have it. Trying to talk to him about this on the fly never would have worked. I impressed on him, several times, how important the timing and positioning would be, and he’d be the one that needed to do it just right. He nodded, and I was pleased to see he didn’t look cocky any more but did look determined. When I was done, and he’d digested it all, he looked at me and said, “I’m a survivor. I can do this.”
“I hope you can and that you’re right. But, just so you know, I’m a survivor, too.”
“You don’t have a gun, do you?” he asked. “A gun would make it all much easier.”
“I hate guns!” I said.
He gave me a disgusted look. I started to say something, then caught a glimpse of movement in the rearview mirror. “Uh oh,” I muttered.
Colt saw me looking in the mirror and turned around. Back a ways and coming up fast—bouncing like crazy on the road but still holding the road with better shocks than my truck had—was a black-and-white, the roof lights flashing.
“Are there any curves coming up?” I asked, my heart now pounding.
“Yeah. Just ahead.” Colt was already unfastening his seatbelt.
“OK, get ready, and remember the timing.”
That got me another scornful glare.
By my estimation we were about fifteen seconds ahead of the car following us when we went around the curve in the road. As soon as we were out of sight, I jammed on the brakes and slued the truck so it was angled across the road. Then we both jumped out, leaving only Colt’s door hanging open. I was into the trees on my side of the road running back the way we’d come before the car following us came into sight. I hadn’t gone very far before I heard brakes squealing, gravel flying and then a crash. I’d figured there’d be no way he’d be able to get enough traction on the gravel to stop before hitting my truck.
I peeked out through the trees. I was just behind the rear of the sheriff deputy’s car. What I saw was the driver of the car fighting off his airbag, then unfastening his seatbelt. Ahead of him, close to the trees on the far side of the road beyond the ditch, Colt was standing, totally exposed. Fitz was next to him. I heard Colt cry out, looking into the trees he was facing, “Stop. Don’t leave me here! He’ll shoot me! I think I broke my ankle! I can’t run! Come back!”
I saw the deputy, the same man who’d hassled me in the diner the night before—a huge, tall, fat man—reach to his right in the car, and then he was getting out of it with a shotgun in his hand. He slammed the door of the car, then started toward the back of it. I knew what he was going to do: walk around the car and then close in on Colt. What I didn’t know was whether he’d grab him and take him back to the car or simply shoot him. I thought it was 50:50 either way. And obviously, I wasn’t about to let either one happen.
He was only about ten yards away from me, in profile as he walked beside his car. When he reached the back of it and turned to walk behind it, his back was to me. I slipped out from between two trees and as noiselessly as possible started toward him.
That was when Colt saw him and jumped to one side and dived into the trees. The deputy spotted him and raised the shotgun and fired. It all happened in an instant, but it seemed to me Colt had moved ahead of the shot. I was sure the shot had missed him, had gone over him, but still, I was now about as pissed as I’d ever been.
The deputy had been too focused on what was in front of him, as I’d planned; he’d completely ignored what might have been behind him. I jammed my 9 mm Beretta Nano hard into his back, put my right arm around his neck and pressed it against his Adam’s apple and said, “You twitch and I’m going to blow a hole in your spine.” Then I pressed the pistol even harder into him to make my point.
He didn’t move. More’s the pity. His shooting at Colt had riled me to the edge of my self-control.
I hollered out, “You OK?”
“Come here, then. I need you!”
A moment later, Colt was at my side, panting a little. “This your brother?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s him. Bart. Burt’s the one I shot yesterday. Want me to shoot Bart? I wouldn’t mind.”
His voice sounded nasty. I guess he wasn’t any happier about being shot at than I was. Or maybe it was for past injustices.
“Not unless you need to,” I said. “But getting his cuffs and using them would be useful.”
I kept loosening the pressure on Bart’s spine just a tad and then jamming the gun in again, not wanting him to forget that he was a moment from being a cripple for the rest of his life, if he survived. He still wasn’t showing any signs of resisting.
Colt got the cuffs off Bart’s belt and snapped one on Bart’s right wrist. “Where you want the other one locked?” he asked.
“You got the key from him?”
“Then lock him to the door of our truck.” I leaned forward and spoke in Bart’s ear. “You want to survive this in one piece with everything still working, you do just as you’re told. I’d like nothing better than to kill your ass. You might be wise to remember that.”
I told Colt to get Bart’s service piece from his holster, then step away. He did that, and I told Bart to walk to our truck, now up on two wheels, the front of Bart’s car having rammed it into that position. The two vehicles were still jammed into each other.
Colt snapped the empty handcuff on the door handle on the far side of the truck. Then we looked at the sheriff’s cruiser. The front crash bar had taken the brunt of the crash. I stepped inside and found the car started right up.
“We’ll take this one,” I told Colt. “The truck’s kaput. Get my bag and the food from our truck and put Fitz in the back seat. Then there’s one more thing we need to do.”
I got in and backed off from my smashed-up truck, letting it fall back on all four tires. I called out the window to Bart, “Look lively there,” then drove forward to where I was up against the front fender of my truck and pushed. The truck slid forward easily on the gravel. Bart, attached to the other side of the truck, had to dance a bit to stay with it as I pushed it to the side, clearing the road. He squawked, but I ignored it.
Now Bart was on the wrong side of the truck, standing halfway in the ditch, so Colt and I had to unlock him and move him to the other door. Colt did this by tossing Bart the key, then holding Bart’s own weapon pointed at him. His hands weren’t wavering one bit. When that was accomplished, when he was locked in place and Colt had the key again, I had a talk with Bart.
“You realize I’m being kinder than you deserve, don’t you?” The severity in my voice belied the actual words. I could see what Colt had meant about Bart being dumber than sawdust. He’d barely said anything since we captured him. But he was glaring at us, frustrated as all get out. Madder than hell. And meaner, too. His eyes were mean, even in the situation he was in. And I saw no intelligence there at all. But, I had to get through to him, dumb or not.
“I’m going to let you talk on your radio. But do not think you’re going to be clever. You and I both know you’re not clever. What you are is still alive and still able to get through this in one piece. That’s because I’ve allowed you that favor and because you did what I told you to. Now you’re going to be given another chance at staying alive. If now you think it’s time to get smart, your kind of dumb-smart, your brains are going to be spread all over the road and we’ll leave here with your dead body hanging off this door handle. You got that?”
He didn’t. I could see he had no idea what I was talking about. So I explained. “You’re going to check in with your dispatcher. You’re going to tell him that call he got from the restaurant back there turned out to be a false alarm. It was a guy and a kid but not Colt. Then you’re going to tell the dispatcher you’re going back to the restaurant and you’ll be off the air awhile because you’re getting breakfast.
“Doing this is where you need to be very careful, very aware that your life is on the line. Think about letting the dispatcher know we’ve got your ass or anything at all is wrong and you’ll end up dead. You know that Colt here has heard these dispatch calls all his life. He’ll know if anything at all is phony about what you say. He hears anything at all fishy, he’ll nod at me, and I’ll finish you. Here and now.
“I’ll be happy to do it, too.”
I brought up Bart’s cruiser and had Colt handle the mic. He stretched it through the patrol car’s window and held it in front of Bart’s face, and Bart, being stupid but not wanting to die from the Beretta I had pressed hard against his temple, told the dispatcher just what I’d told him to. Colt killed the radio. We both joined Fitz in the car and drove off.
We were both silent, reliving what had just happened. “I thought you hated guns,” Colt said eventually.
“I do,” I said. “Doesn’t mean I don’t have one.”
He looked at me appraisingly. I glanced back, then said, “Speaking of which…” and held out my hand. He frowned but then laid Bart’s piece, which he’d stuffed into the waistband at the back of his shorts, in my palm.
“I might have a need for that, you know,” he said, pouting.
“If you do, I’ll give it back. Let’s hope you don’t.”
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