Clint glanced over to where Beatrice sat in the passengers seat with her head thrown back against the headrest and her eyes closed. He only hoped that she was resting and not simply running worst-case scenarios over in her mind. She had grown so very quiet after he had called the station and informed them of the latest development with the flowers and the chilling note attached. He knew that she was aware that everything possible was being done to protect Buck and Gage in his hospital room. He also knew that her knowing that could not ease the fear and worry that gnawed at her heart. Clint knew all too well what a terrifying and hopeless feeling that was. There were still nights when he relived the horror of receiving the phone call that informed him that Sarah, Eve and Chris had been in a car accident.
With those memories replaying in his mind, he actually jumped along with Beatrice when his cell phone began to ring. Thinking it was the station calling to inform him that they had met up with Buck at the party and he was in protective custody, Clint answered quickly, "Larabee."
After jumping at the ringing of the cell phone, Beatrice watched Clint intently, hoping for good news. His face was impassive and his eyes cold and intent as he listened in absolute silence to the other person on the line. She felt a chill pass over her at that. He would have reassured her immediately if he were being told that the police were with Buck now. This was something else entirely and Beatrice felt as if her entire world that centered around Buck was about to be shattered.
"Whats happening, Clint?" she demanded, but he did not reply, would not even look at her. A sob broke loose from her as she knew in her heart now that whatever news Clint was receiving would be something that she did not want to hear. She flinched as Clint barked, "Chris did what?" in agitation and disbelief.
He listened again for a few seconds before turning to Beatrice. "Its Josiah. The police have just arrived at the party. Hes talking to them now."
"Wheres Buck?" She could barely force the words out from her dry throat.
His eyes finally met hers and while he was trying to mask it, Beatrice could see the worry in them and her blood went cold. She did not want to hear the words that Clint was about to say to her, but neither could she not. "The girl that he was meeting at the party says she saw him get into a van with someone dressed in a mask with cloak and then drive off. She and Buck were about to head over to a haunted house so she couldnt understand why he would leave her so she went to ask the others. When she told Chris he knew that Buck would not do something like that so he told Josiah to call the cops and then he and a couple of the boys took the mustang to see if they could catch sight of the van that the girl described."
Beatrice shook her head against his words wanting to deny them, deny that her son could possibly be taken from her forever.
Already traveling far faster than the posted limit and with the cell phone in one hand, Clint did not dare take his other hand from the steering wheel. So he could not reach over to Beatrice and physically reassure her. Instead he channeled it into his voice and eyes. "Listen to me, Beatrice, nothing is going to happen to Buck." He glanced at her as she remained silent. "Do you hear me, Beatrice? Nothing is going to happen to Buck. Theyre going to find him. The police were already responding to our warning when they got Josiahs phone call. So they know that this is not just a case of a teenager going off on his own. They are going to throw all the manpower and resources that they can into finding Buck. Josiah is talking to a couple of patrolmen right now and then Im going to talk to them. Were going to find Buck and youre going to have him safe and with you tonight."
Tears spilled down Beatrices cheeks unchecked as she looked away from Clint, out the passenger side window. She knew his words were what he believed and what she wanted to believe, but they still felt empty. Everything would feel empty and hollow until she could hold her son in her arms again, feel the reassuring presence of his strong heartbeat as she hugged him close.
+ + + + + + +
Buck gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles whitened as he concentrated on driving the van. He kept his eyes ahead on the road but his mind was consumed with fear as he desperately tried to understand what was happening to him and why. Several minutes had passed since he was bundled into the van and ordered to drive. He had asked his captor twice what he wanted and each time he had been told to shut up and keep driving. The man remained masked and he kept his weapon lowered but the barrel was still pointed menacingly toward him.
They pulled up at a set of traffic lights and Buck gave serious contemplation to opening the door and running for it or ramming the car in front in a bid to take the man by surprise and flee. The latter option he dismissed immediately when a little girl dressed as Little Red Riding Hood turned around in the back seat of the vehicle in front of him and waved excitedly. He smiled faintly back and when her vehicle moved, Buck took his foot off the brake pedal and eased on the accelerator. They drove down through the inner town; past shops and office buildings.
"Where are we going?" Buck asked after several more minutes
"Can you just tell me whats going on?" the junior pushed gently.
"No," the man hissed. "Keep driving!"
Buck did as he was instructed while trying urgently to think of ways to escape his abductor.
"Left up here," the man commanded and Buck knew he meant at the intersection but impulsively he turned left sharply sending the van up into a narrow alley. He braked heavily and fumbled for the door.
"Dont move," the man screeched and Buck obeyed as the gun was leveled at his head.
"Im not moving," Buck yelled back raising his hands. His heartbeat raced and he could hear it thumping loudly in his ears. The rest of him was numb with terror.
The man heaved in breaths of air while Buck held his. The gun shook slightly and as Buck released his breath, the numbness melted to be replaced by icy dread. A simple prayer to God to save him repeated over and over in his mind as the seconds ticked by as if in slow motion. Suddenly, both of their attention was drawn to a door opening at the back of a building they had pulled up next to. The man lowered his gun hiding it in the darkness of the cabin of the van. Two men exited and walked down the flight of steps and into the alley. One of them looked towards the van but it was barely a glance. Less than thirty seconds later they had both disappeared further up the alley.
"Reverse the van... slowly," the man ordered and Buck nodded.
As Buck eased the van back into the minimal traffic the man shifted twice in his seat. Buck turned left and as they gained speed the man seemed to relax just a little. More minutes passed and Buck used the time to think through a plan of action. Had his absence been noticed and could he expect help? Eventually Libby would try to find him and realize he had gone. However, he would have traveled too much distance in the time it would take her to raise the alarm. No, he was alone. If he was going to get out of this he had to find an opportunity to escape. He glanced over to the man once more. His state of relaxation had changed to fidgety movements. The man now kept rubbing his face through the mask and Buck realized he was sweating. Nervous. The man was nervous. Inconceivably his fear rose. Nervous men reacted irrationally.
As they passed through another intersection Buck guessed they were heading for the interstate and his stomach churned at the possibilities of where he could take him once they reached the highway. He reasoned he could only wait until they stopped somewhere and then hopefully he could overcome him. Buck glanced sideways again. He guessed the mans height at no more than 58" and his build was slight so he further guessed around 160 pounds. He had put down guys on the football field who were bigger and much stronger, he just needed to get that gun away from him.
"Stop! Stop! Pull over!" the man demanded as he sat up rigid in his seat.
Buck complied and looked ahead. A police roadblock had traffic stopped ahead at one of the main entrances to the highway. The man swore bitterly and beat his fist against the vans dashboard.
"Turn around," he barked at Buck. "Go back!"
"Alright, alright," Buck soothed as he waited and then crossed two lanes and did an illegal U-turn.
After following further directions, they reached another roadblock and once again they turned around. Buck dared to hope the roadblocks were about the man, even while he countered his own hope immediately. It was too soon. There had to be something else happening and it was coincidental. But perhaps he could use that to his advantage. If it were possible. The man began to mutter incoherently for several seconds until he shook himself and looked back over to Buck.
"At the next intersection, turn right."
"Where are we going now?" Buck tried again.
"Shut up!" the man yelled back at him. "Just shut up and drive."
"Look mister, the cops are everywhere. Why dont you just let me go alright?" Bucked urged.
"Be quiet! I need to think!" the man insisted, his voice shaking on the last word.
"Then think about letting me go," Buck replied assertively. "I havent seen your face. I cant tell anyone what you look like," he added convincingly.
"No!" the man bellowed in manic anger. "Montana has to be free. We must be together!"
Buck stared at him in shock before forcing his eyes back on the road and swallowing heavily. Everything fell into place with a sickening ease for the junior. Montana. His mother. The man wanted his mother. Immediately he realized his mothers unusual behavior over the past weeks had nothing to do with his father wanting to see him. It was about this man. She had been protecting him. His mind flashed back to Gage at the hospital and to how she panicked about his whereabouts earlier that evening. Gages accident was no accident.
As the man directed him through backstreets, Bucks heart swelled with pride and awe for the extraordinary depth of love his mother bestowed upon him without reservation or fear. Her fierce protectiveness enveloped him restoring his faith and will; all the while wishing she had told him even as he intuitively knew why she hadnt. As they left the backstreets and suburbs behind, a steely resolve began to build within him. He would never let this man anywhere near his mother.
+ + + + + + +
As he sat behind Chris in the Mustang, Ezra kept his eyes peeled for the dark blue van that Libby had described. But it had been several long moments since they had left the party and reality was beginning to set in with the southerner. But he held his tongue, not wanting to voice the doubts about what they could accomplish any more than the others did. Ezra snuck a glance over to his right where J.D. sat beside him. The freshmans face was nearly pressed against the glass, the Harry Potter glasses abandoned on the car seat next to him. Ezra could feel the desperation coming off the younger boy. He could feel it because it was an echo of his own feelings.
More often than not, Buck was a thorn in the side of the southerner. The football player was big, loud, boisterous, and knew absolutely nothing about subtlety. Ezra could not count the number of harmless cons that Buck had ruined for him simply by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. And yet the sophomore was still unsure if Buck did it intentionally or not. But the most frustrating thing about the junior was that Ezra found it impossible to hold a grudge against him. He could be infuriated with him one minute and then laughing uproariously with him the next. The southerner had no idea how Buck managed that but was extremely grateful that he had a friend like him. And he had no intention of losing him now. So he kept his eyes scanning the roads on his side of the car for any sign of the van that was trying to take his friend away.
The ringing of the cell phone he had taken from Libby had Ezra scrambling to remove it from the interior pocket of the trench coat. He answered it quickly before realizing that it could be Libbys parents or friends phoning her and he would have to try and explain why he had the phone. Fortunately it was Josiah. Without a greeting the senior simply directed, "Ezra, let me talk to Chris."
"Its Josiah," he said as he leaned forward and handed the phone over to Chris. Before he dropped back into his seat to continue his watch, Ezra glanced over at Vin who sat in the front passenger seat. The Texan met his eyes and offered Ezra a nod of encouragement. They were all doing what they could, what they all felt compelled to do. The southerner nodded back but the tone in Josiahs voice did not give him much hope that he was calling to offer good news.
"Whats going on, Josiah?" the blond asked as soon as he got the phone to his ear. He listened intently for several long moments as his roommate filled him in on all the details.
After he had explained about Beatrices stalker and how it was believed he was responsible for Gages hit and run and now Bucks abduction, Josiah said, "Chris, the cops want you to come back here. They are setting up roadblock on IN-11. Theyre gonna cut this guy off from taking Buck too far. Let them do their job."
"Theyre gonna make him desperate, Josiah. You know that as well as I do," Chris snapped. Ezra winced at those words as he could see J.D. visibly cringe and then seem to huddle deeper into the robes of his costume. Vin turned around in his seat and also saw the fear etched in the younger boys wide eyes and then shook his head at Chris. But the senior ignored him. His sole focus was to find Buck. "Just tell me where all they are setting up the roadblocks."
Back at the party that had ended abruptly as the police arrived and began questioning everyone, Josiah heaved a sigh. He had known that Chris would not give up his search so easily. He had said as much both to the officer in charge and to Clint when both of them had told him to get Chris to return. Clint still thought his parental authority extended that far and the police officer simply did not know how much the son was like the father who was his coworker. And Josiah had to admit that Chris tenacity had saved them all once before and just might now save Buck. So with only a little reluctance he relayed the information that he had overhead about the radius of the search for Buck and the locations of roadblocks.
Again Chris listened, trying to visualize the locations of the roadblocks and their relation to where he and the others were and where he thought the stalker would take Buck. He made Josiah repeat the information just to make sure that he had it all correct. "Alright, Josiah. Thanks. And just tell everyone that well be coming back." He disconnected the line before he had to hear Josiah tell him that he was not going to lie for him.
The senior returned his full attention to the road ahead of him, regaining his bearings on exactly where he was and where he thought he should be. With a soft toss he threw the phone behind him to Ezra who caught it easily. "Hold on to that, Ezra, we might need it again."
"Whats happening, Chris?" J.D. needed to know, as they all did.
Chris did not answer right away, but at Vins simple prodding of calling his name, the senior began to explain. "Bucks moms been getting these letters from a guy who claims to be in love with her, infatuated with her. The cops have reason to believe that he is responsible for the hit and run against her boyfriend, that his intent was to kill him. Now they think that he is after Buck because he wants Beatrice all to himself."
"You mean, he wants to kill Buck?" J.D.s innocent voice was filled with incredulousness. It was simply impossible for him to consider anyone wanting to hurt Buck. He was just too great of a guy, the best person J.D. had ever known.
"Im afraid so, J.D.," Chris answered remorsefully. He hated being the one to have to break this news to the freshman, but he was not about to hide anything from any of them. Once again the senior found himself in the position of being a leader, of asking others to trust in him and possibly follow him into danger. And once again they had all responded without questioning him. But the responsibility still weighed heavily on him and he wanted them to be as informed as possible, even though he knew that information could very well scare them. "But were not going to let that happen, are we?"
J.D. shook his head. "No, were not, Chris," the determination was fierce even in his young voice. And with that the freshman returned to looking out his window, his eyes constantly scanning for the van that held his friend.
"So whats your plan?" Vin asked.
Chris hesitated again before answering. This time, though, his reason was simply because he did not have a clear-cut plan in his head. Finally he began explaining to Vin where all the roadblocks were being set up and where they were in relation to them. He knew that Vin did not have as good a grasp on the area as he did, since the sophomore had grown up in Texas not in this Indiana town as Chris had. But Vin had a keen eye and mind for details so Chris wanted to get his input.
Ezra could hear the two boys up front discussing where they were and where they thought that this guy would take Buck. Uneasiness continued to grow in the southerner, not because of what they were doing but because he had no control over it. He knew that he had no hope in helping Chris decide where they should look next, but he wanted to be doing more than simply staring out the window and searching for a van. But until they found it, there was little else that any of them could do.
+ + + + + + +
Buck kept well under the speed limit as the dark road lit up in front of him. However, the man never seemed to notice, or if he did, he didnt care. Buck worried about that and more especially about the remoteness of the terrain that now surrounded them. The road was a back route to the interstate and at first Buck decided thats what the man intended. He still wanted to get to the interstate but avoid the police. However Buck was also well aware that along this route there were many forested areas and he could not discount the possibility thats where the man intended to take him.
His mind was constantly thinking of ways to buy time, escape or devise a ploy to overcome the man. Buck had remained silent since the revelation about his mother. The same could not be said for the man although none of his rantings or mutterings seemed directed at him and as the miles sped by, Buck became surely convinced the man was mentally unstable.
"Slow down," the man spoke again, this time directly to him. Buck obeyed however the tightness in his gut accelerated.
"Turn right here."
Buck slowly turned down the side road and traveled less than 100 feet when the man ordered again. "Pull over here." Buck brought the van to a slow stop. The headlights illuminated a picnic ground and signs that showed maps of the hiking trails that began from the area into the thickly forested terrain.
"Turn the van off. Throw me the keys." Slowly Buck complied and the headlights went out throwing them into darkness and a deathly still quiet. The man then rummaged for something under the seat finally withdrawing a flashlight, turning it on. Buck squinted as the light was pointed at his face.
"Dont move," the man ordered as he quickly got out of the van and keeping the weapon trained on Buck moved around to the drivers door.
Buck froze not wanting to move. This obviously was the end of the road and he didnt want to know what happened next. A tightness constricted his chest and he felt like he couldnt breathe. He tried to gulp in air. The door opened and the gun was brandished closer to him.
"Get out now!"
He nodded slowly and forcing his legs to cooperate as he swung around and carefully exited the van. The man stepped back and once again Buck recognized nervous movements before he had to look away as the flashlight was shone into his face again. The man herded him to where the main path to the hiking trails started. Buck stopped and turned around.
"Keep moving," the man ordered.
"No," he replied quietly.
"I can help you," Buck told him.
"Help me?" the man replied his head shaking in confusion before he stepped gingerly closer to the junior. "How can you help me?" he sneered.
"You want my mother dont you?"
The man sucked in a startled breath but recovered quickly. "We belong together," he declared fervently.
"I know her better than anyone else," Buck replied. "I can help you," he repeated after a pause.
The mans reaction was swift and demented. "I know everything about her," he screamed as once again the weapon was brought up to Bucks head. "I know youre in the way."
Buck held his breath and inwardly prepared himself to strike back before the man pulled the trigger. However, the man suddenly stepped back again and Buck resumed breathing.
"Start walking," the man commanded and Buck moved toward the path. His first idea didnt buy much time but he did discover that telling the man what he didnt want to hear sent him into an irrational rage. It was dangerous but perhaps it was the only way to distract him enough to overpower him
Less than two hundred feet later they came to a small creek and the path divided into two trails. The man stopped him and they faced each other. Buck looked around at the forest that surrounded them. Perfect to hide a body he realized with a sharp fear but then his strong will to survive kicked in as rage replaced his fear.
The man began to fidget again as the minutes dragged by. He started the conversations with himself again and Buck knew instinctively that the mans nerve was wavering. Killing someone in cold blood as they stood before you was very different to planting your foot on an accelerator and letting the car do your dirty work. He decided to play a dangerous hunch.
"Take your mask off" Buck ordered.
"Im in charge here. You dont tell me what to do," the man warned fiercely.
"You scared?" Buck taunted. "Youre not even going to face me?" he sneered.
"Yeah! How could my mother resist a man like you?"
"She belongs with me!" he screeched.
"Shell never belong to you," Buck declared fervently.
"You lie," the man bellowed. "She knows. She feels it too. I can tell."
"You dont get it do you? You poor sick bastard," Buck sneered as the man became more agitated. He readied himself to act.
"Get what?" the man asked impatiently.
"If she loses me there is no Montana Fontaine. You kill me, you kill her!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris had no idea of how familiar this guy would be with the roadways, but from what Libby had said, Buck was driving and he knew the roads probably better than Chris did. And while the senior hoped that Buck would do what he could to impede whoever was holding him, he did not want him doing anything to endanger himself. Chris decided that if they came upon a roadblock, this guy would want Buck to get him to the interstate by back roads, which would give Buck more of an advantage. Now Chris only had to hope that he knew his oldest friend as well as he believed and would be able to guess what back roads they would take.
But after having to double back a couple of times, Chris began to doubt himself. He considered calling his father, but then remembered that Bucks mom was with Clint. And thinking of her and how afraid she must be, Chris decided that he could not give up. He would drive around until they came and got him and the others or he found his friend. Buck had saved him from his inner demons the least he could do was continue trying to save Buck from the outside forces that were trying to hurt him.
It was then that Vin suddenly called out, "I see it!" And his sighting was quickly confirmed by J.D. "You just passed it, Chris!"
"Are you sure?" Chris asked as he slowed the Mustang and prepared to make a U-turn.
Vin nodded, "There was a van parked on the side of the road. Its too dark to be exactly sure but it has to be it."
Chris could practically hear Vin simply willing it to be true. And he knew that he, J.D., and Ezra were echoing those sentiments. They had to find Buck. There was just no other alternative. And they had to find him alive and well. What they would do once they did that, Chris did not have a clue, but they would think of something.
As Chris turned down the side street that Vin and J.D. said they saw the van on, Ezra crowded onto J.D.s side of the car so that he could get a look at the van. And there it was, exactly as Libby had described. "Dont slow down, Chris," the southerner instructed. "Pass it up first so we can see if they are inside."
Chris nodded, but part of him simply could not do as Ezra instructed. It was not natural. "Well sit back down on your side, so its not obvious that were looking at them."
Reluctantly, Ezra did so, but he still tried to see out J.D.s window. "Theres no one inside," Vin stated.
"How do you know they arent in the back of the van?" Ezra asked.
"Only one way to find out," Chris said as he again slowed the mustang to make a U-turn.
He pulled the mustang over on the side of the road across from the van. But before he brought the car to a complete stop, he knew he had to make something clear. "Ezra, I want you and J.D. to stay in the car and call 911 and let them know that weve found the van and where we are. Vin and I are going to see if we can find Buck."
"But I want to go with you," J.D. protested, even as Ezra also opened his mouth to protest.
Chris shook his head. "You will stay with the car and wait for the cops. Do you hear me?" His tone made it clear that there would be no argument. Ezra and J.D. exchanged looks and then grudgingly nodded.
Even as Ezra was dialing the emergency number on the cell phone, Vin and Chris exited the car and began to jog across the street. Chris actually began to wish that either he or Vin had a real gun in their holsters. As it was, he had no idea what he hoped to accomplish here. Josiah had told him that the police considered Bucks abductor to be armed and dangerous and Chris knew that he had to be. Buck would have put up some kind of struggle otherwise. And he could tell by the cautious way that Vin approached the van that the Texan was equally aware of that fact.
Vin circled to the front of the van while Chris moved to the back, both boys instinctively working together. When they met again on the other side of the van they both moved back to the rear doors of the old model van. Each took a window and peered inside, but found only emptiness inside. They both then began searching around the van for any kind of sign of where Buck had been taken. Almost at the same time they saw a small path that led into the forested area. Vin hefted the flashlight that he had taken from the Mustangs glove box and silently questioned if Chris wanted to follow the path. Chris knew it probably was not the smartest thing they could do, but there was absolutely no way he could sit back and wait. So he took the flashlight from Vin and began to lead the way. He kept the light close to their feet, wanting to conceal their presence as much as possible but not wanting them to lose their way or injure themselves.
As he followed Chris, Vin asked, "Do you think its wise to leave Ezra and J.D. in the car?"
"They better stay put," Chris growled back.
Behind him, Vin shook his head. He could not tell Chris that Ezra and J.D. were getting too comfortable plotting together without having to explain what he knew about their plot to get everyone to dress up for Halloween. The Texan still did not know what was all involved there and he knew Chris would not be subtle in finding the answer. So he could only hope that for once Ezra and J.D. would be sensible and do as Chris told them. Of course, Vin knew that it was hard to expect them to do that when he and Chris were not doing the sensible thing themselves and waiting for the cops. But whatever play Chris Larabee was going to make, Vin knew he had to be there to back him up. He only hoped that they would be in time to help Buck.
+ + + + + + +
J.D. fidgeted in the car as he listened to Ezra explain the situation to the police dispatcher. He had watched as Vin and Chris moved from the back of the van to the side away from him. And then he had watched a very faint trail of light move off into the forested area and he could only guess that the two of them had found a trail or were looking for one that would lead them to Buck. The freshman looked back at Ezra as the southerner ended the phone conversation then returned the cell phone to the pocket of his trench coat. J.D. had been wishing that he could be out there with Chris and Vin, but that sentiment quickly changed when Ezra opened the door of the mustang and began to step outside.
"What are you doing?" the freshman yelped.
The sophomore paused with one foot out the door and regarded J.D. as if the younger boy had taken leave of his senses. "I am getting out of the car," he drawled.
"But Chris said for us to stay in the car!"
Ezra shook his head. "No, he said for us to stay in the car and call 911. I have completed that phone call, so now I am exiting the vehicle."
J.D. shook his head. "But then he told us to stay with the car and wait for the cops."
The southerner paused in the act of closing the car door behind him and leaned back into the mustang. "He asked if we heard him when he told us to stay with the car and wait for the cops. I agreed that I had heard him, not that I would do as he said. However, if you would like to sit here and wait for a police response, be my guest. I am going to see if there is something I can do to help Buck." With that he shut the door on the freshmen and then proceeded to cross the street and silently count the five seconds that he knew it would take for J.D. to burst out of the car and join him.
"But we dont have a flashlight," J.D. pointed out as he followed Ezra around to the other side of the van.
The sophomore sighed as that was one point that he could not dispute. And he doubted that either Buck or the owner of the van carried around a spare. As his eyes fell on the van, inspiration struck Ezra. Walking back around to the drivers side of the van and being careful to use the two fingers that were actually gloved, he pulled open the door and reached inside and turned on the headlights.
"Were not going that way," J.D. pointed out as the beams illuminated the road, "we want to follow them." With that he turned back to the forest edge. This time though, he could see a little further and could make out the nature trail of gravelly small rocks.
"I know where we want to go, we just needed to find a starting point," Ezra pointed out. Then with a flourish he removed the foot long staff that Josiah had made for him and with a flick and spin of his wrist telescoped it out to its full length. "Well have to go slow and youll have to stay close, but I believe this will help us stay on the path of the straight and narrow."
J.D. rolled his eyes but doubted that Ezra could see the gesture. "Ezra, you couldnt stay on the path of the straight and narrow if it had rails and you had wheels."
"Well why would I want to?" the southerner asked. "That sounds far too confining, and you know how I hate small spaces. Its all about freedom."
Suddenly both boys thoughts returned to just how dire the situation was for one of their closest friends. It was not just Bucks freedom that was at stake, but his very life as well. J.D. walked over to where Ezra now stood on the trail and placed his hand on the others boys arm, below his shoulder so that he could be guided by him, even as Ezra was guided by the staff that he brandished before him to feel out the gravel path.
"But, Ezra," J.D. questioned, "what if the trail branches out?"
The southerner sighed. "Then we will have a 50/50 chance of picking the right branch. And Ill always take those odds over sitting back in the car and doing nothing."
J.D.s hand tightened ever so slightly on Ezras arm. "Yeah, me too, Ez. Me, too."
+ + + + + + +
Vin heard the voices first and pulled Chris to a stop. The senior immediately shut off the flashlight, not wanting to risk giving themselves away if they were so close. And with their own light doused they could both now see the beam of another flashlight only yards away from where they were. Then they heard the unmistakable sound of Bucks voice. "You scared? Youre not even going to face me?"
Chris recognized easily that Buck was taunting his abductor, trying to force his hand. The junior was probably desperate, thinking himself on his own and at the mercy of a madman. Taking a step toward them, Chris felt Vins hand on his arm. The Texan was not restraining him, but simply reminding him that he was also there, ready to do whatever he could to help. Silently they both crept forward, listening to the game that Buck was playing with his captor and hoping that they would be in a position to help when the man acted.
They used the trees and underbrush as cover and finally were able to get a good look at Buck and his captor. The teenager had several inches and pounds on the man in the Scream mask and cloak, but the gun in the mans grasp gave him the upper hand. They were facing each other, standing on the trail close to the wooden bridge that crossed a small stream. Chris attention focused on how close he thought he could get to Buck, but the trees and underbrush thinned out a few feet from where the junior stood. There was simply no way that he or Vin could get close enough to pull their friend to safety before the man was able to get at least one or two shots off.
Chris winced as the stalker screeched that Beatrice belonged with him. Buck was pushing him hard and he would reach his breaking point soon. Deciding that he had too little options, Chris went with the only plan he saw open to him that had the best chance of working. It was not the safest plan as it actually placed not only Buck in the line of fire, but Vin as well. But as Chris had learned during their recent fishing trip, the Texan was far more adept at moving near silently through the wild terrain. Quickly Chris whispered his plan to Vin and got a nod of approval from the Texan. And as Vin circled around, Chris moved until he was parallel to where Buck stood.
The senior waited tense and afraid that this desperate plan might fail. Shaking his head, he did not allow himself to think such negative thoughts. Instead he concentrated on waiting on Vin. There could not be a signal between them. He simply had to wait and be ready to act as soon as Vin did. Chris again studied the positions of both Buck and the cloaked man. The kidnapper held the flashlight in his left hand and the gun in his right, closer to Chris. The senior focused his attention fully on that hand and the gun it held. That gun was Chris goal. Whatever it took, he had to get it away from the man before he could use it on either of his friends. Chris waited. He trusted in Vin to know the right moment to act, to not rush and move too soon or wait too late. Vin would know the perfect time, simply because he had to.
"You kill me, you kill her!" Chris heard Buck declare, his voice thick with accusation.
"No!" the gunman sobbed. "Youre the one killing her. Stealing her life. The life shes supposed to share with me! WITH ME!" he screamed. Chris saw it then, the waver in the mans stance, in the hand that was holding the gun. And he knew that Vin would see it as well. So the senior launched himself even before Vin acted, he simply trusted that the Texan would be there, would be the distraction he needed.
And indeed he was. Stealthily Vin had managed to move through the thick trees until he stood directly across from the man holding Buck. And then, like Chris, he was forced to wait until he believed the time was right to act. He gathered himself, steadied his breathing and waited. He knew this was a weak plan, but like Chris it was the only option that he could see. So when he saw the man waver and heard the desperation in his voice, he knew it was time to act. He aimed the flashlight as best he could into the masked mans eyes and turned it on, hoping to blind and disorient him even as he yelled in a deep voice, "Freeze! Police!"
Instinctively Jake threw his left hand up to block the bright light shining suddenly in his eyes. And that distraction was all that Buck needed. The football player slammed into the smaller man forcing the heavy flashlight to slam against the stalkers head, stunning the man. Buck moved to press his advantage and get the gun away from the man but was then staggered himself when Chris hit into him. The senior had not counted on Buck stepping forward and pushing the man with the gun back, so he misjudged his target. The two teenagers got tangled and fell to the ground in a heap.
Disoriented and overwhelmed with sudden fear, Jake scrambled backward, his head throbbing from the flashlight blow. This was not what he had planned and he suddenly was lost, his control was gone along with his resolve. And while he still held the gun in his hand, its power was forgotten as his only thought was to get away. Turning, he ran headlong back down the path he had brought Buck, the beam of the flashlight bouncing as he ran, wanting only to get back to the van and freedom.
Buck lay on the ground for a moment, savoring the fact that he no longer had a gun pointed at him. It took a minute for it to sink in that Chris was there, that Chris had acted to save him. The senior was struggling to get back to his feet, when Buck grabbed him and looked him up and down. He could not find the words to express how he felt, but looking into his friends green eyes, Buck knew that there was not a need. Chris knew and understood. And then Vin joined them, the sophomore giving the two old friends their space and privacy. But Buck climbed to his feet and pulled Chris up with him and over to Vin. The taller boy looked at both and said, "Thank you!" His voice was thick with the fear that he had been fighting to contain since the moment the man had walked up to him at the party. Impulsively he clutched both boys to him. Neither struggled against the gesture, in fact, both clapped him on the back. Letting him know that they understood as best they could how he felt and returned the feeling.
The moment was then shattered by a gunshot and then by the sound of police sirens approaching. Chris and Vin exchanged looks and both felt dread seize hold of their guts as they thought of the other two boys that they had left in the car. Without a word, they began racing back up the trail, back up toward the road with Buck right behind them. None of the boys were prepared for the sight that greeted them.
Ezra and J.D. were sitting atop the sprawled out form of Jake Ballinger. J.D. sat on the mans legs at his calves, holding his ankles and struggling to hold him still. Ezra sat on the mans back, leaning over him and holding his arms out on either side of his body. The gun lay on the gravel path just out of reach of Jakes hands where he had dropped it. As Buck rushed to help control the man and Chris moved to kick the gun further away from him, Vin took in the scene. The bo staff that Josiah had created for Ezras Gambit costume lay on the ground, broken near Jakes feet. With a shake of his head Vin could only imagine that somehow Ezra and J.D. had been making their way toward them and heard the abductor running back toward them and managed to trip him. And somehow in his fall, the gun must have discharged. Vin shook his head again in wonder. Fortune had surely shined on them this night.
Chris grabbed Jakes right arm and pinned it to the ground as Ezra rolled and pinned his left arm to the ground. The man grunted as he lay face down on the path now with the four teenagers holding him securely. But after that, he made no sound as they could all see and hear the progress of the cops towards them.
Chris looked over at Ezra and asked, "What part of stay in the car did you not understand?"
J.D. sighed and shook his head as he realized that Chris was about to get into the same debate with Ezra that he had. The only difference was that Chris would not give in. So trying to side step all of that he said, "Youve gotta get more precise, Chris."
Ezra grinned. "Yes, indeed. Good language skills are extremely important. I do hope you take that into consideration when you are filling out your college applications."
Vin chuckled as he moved past the boys to direct the cops over to them. "Chris aint going to college. Hes joining the Army."
The southerner eyed Chris. "Well that explains so very much."
J.D. and Buck both laughed, enjoying the chance to laugh with their friends once again. The freshman looked over at Buck and suddenly the humor left his eyes to be replaced with true concern, "Are you alright?"
Buck nodded wanting to reassure the younger boy and unable to voice just how incredibly tired he suddenly was. "Thanks, J.D."
"But I didnt do anything," the freshman started to protest.
"You came," Buck stated quietly and J.D. grew silent as he could see how much it meant to the junior to have such loyal friends. And J.D. was extremely proud to be counted as one.
"Of course I did."
Their mini reunion was interrupted as Vin returned with three grimfaced policemen. Two of them took up the positions that Ezra and Chris held and then handcuffed the mans hands behind his back. They waved J.D. and Buck off his legs and then pulled him to his feet. The third police officer strode over to Buck as he had been told that the abducted boy was dressed as Elvis Presley.
"Im Officer Dayton. You alright?" he asked as he eyed Buck intently, looking for any signs of trauma.
The teenager nodded, "Yes, sir."
The cop kept his gaze on Buck as the two others began to lead the handcuffed and still masked man away. The boys gaze, as were those of his four friends, was drawn to the defeated man. Pity flashed in the teenagers eyes before he simply looked completely away from the man. His friends watched the man for a bit longer before moving to stand beside Buck and offer him the support of their presence. "Lets go and sit down so you can tell us what happened," Dayton said as he motioned for Buck and the others to follow him.
They walked in silence back down the trail until they reached the road and could see the cops load the would be abductor into his police car. Two other officers passed them on their way to gather evidence back at the sight. Officer Dayton led the boys over to a picnic table and told them to have a seat. Buck slid gratefully onto the bench seat and finally allowed himself to relax. Chris sat down on one side of him and J.D. on the other. Ezra and Vin moved around the table to sit across from the other two boys and Dayton left them alone for a moment.
The cop decided that they needed a few moments to themselves. He was not sure what all had happened that night, but he had the feeling that the boys were just realizing what they had been through. They were an odd sight, the five boys sitting at the table. Two cowboys, an Elvis, Harry Potter, and then Dayton was not sure who the fifth one was supposed to be. But before he could contemplate it further, his attention was drawn back to the road and a raised voice that he was familiar with. He saw Chris also look over and knew that the son recognized the voice of Clint Larabee. Chris and Dayton exchanged a look as they both knew that things were about to get even more interesting.
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