In Memory of Ed Wooton
For the Love - 38. Vengeance
The fatal shot still ringing in my ears, I lay in the dirt, waiting for a bullet of my own, a bullet I no longer wished to avoid.
No bullet came to end the ache in my heart, so I looked up, in time to see the sheriff's body falling next to Steve's, what remained of his head hitting the dirt beside Steve's feet.
Other feet intruded on my shock, feet pounding the earth behind me as footsteps approached. A pair of tennis shoes stopped by my head, and I stared at them trying to make sense of it all. "You okay?" a voice called down, and I twisted my body sideways to look up.
I thought I might be hallucinating. I couldn't think of any other explanation, until I remembered where I'd heard that voice in the tunnel before, as Eric reached down to help me up off the ground, slinging the still-smoking SKS over his shoulder.
Stumbling to my feet, I stared at him in shock, as the incomprehensible became the only thing that fit. As if reading my mind, Eric replied, "Yeah, I shot him."
Steve was alive! It was the sheriff who'd been shot... My face lit up with elation, until Eric said, "I don't know if I got him before he pulled the trigger, or if he spasmed off a round when he was hit."
I turned, dashing the remaining feet to Steve's side, dreading what I'd find. Falling to my knees beside him, I saw that he was covered with blood and gore, all over the right side of his upper body. What I didn't see was a hole in his head. Noticing the shallow rise and fall of his chest, I sighed with relief, feeling my own heart beginning to beat again.
Eric kneeled beside Steve, a smile growing on his face. "He's alive; the fresh blood is the sheriff's. He looks like he's had a whack on the head, but maybe he'll be okay."
Stooping over the sheriff's body, Eric rifled through his pockets, fishing out a set of keys. Moving behind me, Eric fiddled with my handcuffs for a moment, until at last the bite of the steel bracelets fell free of my flesh, and I could move my arms again.
Eric scooped up the Makarov and took the sheriff's revolver before kneeling at my side, staying clear as I moved sideways to shield Steve's head from the sun. Steve lay on his side, his breathing steady, his head wound appearing to be superficial, and I hoped he was just stunned. Deciding to leave him be for a moment, I looked up at Eric and asked the pressing question, "Why?"
Shrugging, "I guess I deserve that," Eric replied, his eyes falling. "Look Chris, you and I have never met, not really. The Eric you knew was on meth and coke, and when I'm on that stuff, I get pretty crazy. I've been clean for a while, ever since you blew up the sheriff's house and he blamed me. Let's just say I've had time to do a lot of thinking, and I realized that Steve tried to treat me like family before I screwed that all up, but Thaddeus and the sheriff were just interested in what I could do for them."
As if to make his point, Eric handed me the Makarov, with the slightest of smiles. With a soft nod back towards the mine, he continued, "We don't have much time. There were five; I got one in the tunnel, you got another at the entrance, and I got the sheriff. That leaves two. I've been sneaking around here ever since you guys chased me in the tunnel; I did some eavesdropping, so I know what's up. Veronica's chained up in the building furthest from the mine. Sheriff Buchanan and my dad... uh, I guess he's just Steve's dad now… They are a level down in the mine, chained up. I don't think they're hurt, but I couldn't get close enough to be sure."
Stunned by what I was hearing and more so by who I was hearing it from, I stared at the slight hump on Eric's healed nose, wondering if he was up to something, yet again. "Where are Dex and Chad, and the two remaining gunmen?" I asked.
Nodding back towards the mineshaft, Eric answered, "I don't know for sure, I was in the tunnel when you guys got caught, I never saw 'em. From what I could hear, I think they're in the one nearest the mineshaft; that's sorta the headquarters, or it was the last few times I've been here. If we take out those two goons, it's over."
Still having enormous doubts, I pulled back the Makarov's slide to make sure it was still loaded. Confirming that it was, I asked, "What's going on here, Eric? You just shot your uncle, why?"
Reaching out his fingers to touch Steve's hair, Eric replied, "I'm sorry I tried to kill you guys, I really am. I sure ain't no saint at the best of times, but I was majorly strung out that day. Anyway, I kept getting in deeper and deeper. The sheriff kept pressing me to do stuff, and the more I did, the easier it got, and the drugs made it easier yet, because they made me like the stuff I was doing. After his house blew up, the sheriff and I had words so I went to stay with Thaddeus. I didn't have anywhere else to go; then when you guys chased me, I took Thaddeus' car and came here. Because we'd had words, I decided to do a little eavesdropping before making my presence known. Damn good thing I did; the sheriff bought off Jacobs with my money and my share of the business, and was planning to have me take the fall for some of the stuff we did. After that, I just hid out and snuck around; they never knew I was here."
Eric glanced at the mine buildings, before adding, "We don't have much time. Those two goons will get curious soon. If you got a cell, you better call the state police and see when they can get here."
With a sigh I replied, "I've got a cell, but it won't work; we kinda took out the cell tower on our way in."
"We're on our own then," replied Eric with a wistful smile, "We'll take 'em down ourselves. Look, Chris, I just saved your life and Steve's, plus I just handed you a loaded gun. We've gotta trust each other."
With a slight shake of my head, I searched his face, seeking any sign of deception. I saw none, but what I saw amazed me; the corner of his mouth twitching up, just like Steve's did when amused, as he added, "Look at it this way, what other options do you have but to trust me? I can be a rat sometimes, I know that, but we've got people to save and Steve's in no condition to help take out those goons. Veronica can't help; she was hurt pretty bad... she's been raped. I couldn't stop it. Chris, I have a plan to end all this. If you don't trust me, what are you gonna do?"
After several long moments, as Steve began to stir, I nodded, "Tell me more. I don't have a lot of choices, so okay. What do we do?"
A soft smile growing on his face, Eric replied, "Easy. Those two goons know me; I've been out here before. I'll just stroll on in like I'm supposed to be there, saying the sheriff sent me to get one of 'em. That'll get one out the door, where you can take him out with the SKS, and I'll get the drop on the one inside, problem solved." Eric's eyes became hard for a moment, "Here's the deal, Chris, on the level: I've got to go start a new life somewhere and I need money to do it. There's a big briefcase full of cash chained up in there, and I need it. There's no way I can turn myself in; they'd probably try me as an adult and stick me in a cage for years. I couldn't deal with being locked up, so I gotta go. I could easily have just trotted over there after taking out the sheriff and told them he was dead. They'd have split to investigate, no risk to me. I've got Thaddeus' Caddy stashed about a mile north of here, so I could be gone with the money before they knew it. I'll put my life on the line to help you take out those goons, but I want your word; that briefcase is mine, and you won't try to stop me from leaving. I also need to be out of here before you release Dad and Sheriff Buchanan. Deal?"
He'd just volunteered something true; we'd seen Thaddeus' Caddy the previous day, right where Eric said it was, and there was no way Eric could know that.
Meeting his eyes, I nodded, sealing the bargain.
Steve's eyes fluttered open, as I heard a soft moan. Leaning over him I whispered, "Easy, just lie still, you've been knocked in the head, but I think you'll be okay."
Steve lay on his side, with me kneeling behind him, shielding his face from the lowering sun. With apparent difficulty, Steve turned his head to look up at me, his half-open eyes tracked in on mine, as I settled my arm atop his.
After a few seconds, he croaked, "What happened? Last thing I remember, I was going around the end of the building."
Caressing his face with my hand, I replied, "Things went bad. You got hit in the head with a board. There were five guys including the sheriff, but it's down to two now. The sheriff brought you out here to kill you, but you're going to be okay."
"Where's the sheriff now?' asked Steve, concern and hate playing across his face.
Smiling, I replied, "Dead at your feet."
Steve groaned as he rose up a little to look. Catching sight of what remained of the sheriff's head, he sagged back down. "Ugh. Glad I haven't eaten. Where is everyone?"
"Your Dad and Sheriff Buchanan are in the mineshaft. Veronica's in one of the buildings and two of the gunmen have Chad and Dex in another."
Eyeing the Makarov in my hands, Steve replied, "Give me a minute, then we'll finish this."
He began to get up, only to collapse back on the ground, muttering "Dizzy..."
Placing my hand on his shoulder, I told him, "Whoa. You just stay put. We'll handle this, you're hurt."
Rolling his head to look at me, Steve asked, "Who's we?"
Wondering how Steve would take the news, I turned my head to nod at Eric. Rolling over on his back, he looked at Eric, Steve's expression freezing in place.
"Relax," I said, "I think he's on our side this time. He just saved both our lives when he creamed one guard, set me free, then killed the sheriff."
"Hi, bro," Eric added with a bemused expression, "Chris saved you too; without him killing the other guard and dashing out here like a madman, I'd have never made it in time to take the shot before the sheriff ventilated your head." The corner of his mouth twitched up as he added, "I shot the sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy; Chris had already killed him."
Staring blankly at Eric, Steve remained still for several moments before turning his head towards me, a confused look on his face, as he asked again, "He's on our side?"
Smiling, I nodded, as Steve took one more look at Eric before asking, "Just how hard did I get hit in the head?"
Taking Steve's hand in mine, I replied with a smile, "You're okay, or I've lost it too. You just stay here; we've got to go save the others."
Steve nodded, deep concern playing across his blood-streaked face as I stood up. I gave him one last re-assuring smile before turning to walk away with Eric.
Handing me the SKS, Eric tucked the sheriff's revolver into his waistband at the small of his back, untucking his shirt to cover it. "Why did you tell Steve I killed the tunnel guard?" I asked.
Giving me a puzzled look, Eric replied, "He looked dead to me, his eyes open and glazed over."
Strangely, it didn't bother me. Perhaps it would later, but it wasn't at that point, not at all. Glancing at Eric, I suddenly understood how he could kill the sheriff and not show any emotion. "What about the one in the tunnel? Is he dead?" I asked.
Eric, glancing towards the mouth of the mineshaft, shrugged. "Not sure. He's got a fractured skull at least. I don't think he's going anywhere."
As we approached the ramshackle old building, I crouched at the ready behind the closest cover, a large mesquite bush, with Eric whispering, "Shoot the second a goon comes out. Don't take any chances; they've likely got orders to kill Dex and Chad if there's trouble."
After wishing Eric luck, I watched as he walked alone towards the building. Centering my sights on the door, I held my breath as Eric opened it before strolling in. Long seconds passed as I kept my sights on the target, but no sound, no sign of movement came from within. Two rapid shots rattled through the air, breaking the silence, echoing from the building. My heart racing, I wondered what had gone wrong.
A moment later, a third shot followed, prompting me to run towards the door, SKS at the ready. I heard Eric's voice call out, "Chris, everything's okay. I had the chance to get 'em both and I took it."
Dex's voice followed, "Chris, I don't know about the rest of it, but Eric just shot the two men holding us, and is unshackling Chad now."
I heard Chad holler, "Chris, I'm coming out. Don't shoot."
Chad's welcome and familiar profile filled the doorway, as I lowered the SKS. Chad trotted over to me, a shotgun in his hands, to ask, "Eric's on our side?"
Giving him a shrug, I said, "Yeah, I think so."
Dex came out of the building next, also armed with a shotgun, with Eric following, a large metal briefcase tucked under his arm.
Chad got right to the point, "Where's Veronica?"
Eric pointed at the furthest building, "That building and she's alone. Those two were the last of 'em. One should live, he's just gutshot, but the other one's dead. All the sheriff's guys are either down or dead."
Chad was already running towards the building, so we followed at a trot. When we arrived, Chad was busy ungagging Veronica. Eric, keys at the ready, stooping to unlock the cuffs and chains that held her to a roof support, made quick work of her restraints. I looked at her as she collapsed into Chad's arms, and heard him murmur, "It's over honey, it's all over."
Veronica, bruised and battered, her clothing ripped in a few places, stared at Eric, telling me, "He snuck in here, right before I was... before I was…" The color drained from Chad's face with realization of what she was trying to say. Veronica hugged him tighter as she added, "Eric tried to pick the lock to free me, but he didn't have time. He barely made it out."
Giving everyone a quick rundown on the happenings so far, I followed them as they filed out of the building. The sun was fast fading from the sky, so I announced, "We've got to get Sheriff Buchanan and Steve's Dad. They're deep in the mine, and the lights are out. We need a flashlight."
Eric spoke up as he checked the lock on the metal briefcase;"Look to your left as you enter the shaft; there should be a couple of 'em there." Turning to me, he added, "Remember our deal; I gotta go. I'm not going in there with you."
Dex turned for the building where he'd been held, saying, "I'll look after the wounded one, make sure he doesn't bleed to death. It would be good if we had one alive, as a witness against Jacobs.
Eric turned towards the pit, calling back to me, "Chris, come with me for a minute. I'll sort out the keys after I've found the ones I need, then give you the sheriff's set. You'll need his 4X4 or one of the other vehicles to get out of here. They won't all fit in your Jeep. Let's go see Steve."
Promising Chad and Veronica that I'd be back in a minute, I followed Eric, asking "What about reinforcements showing up from Piedmont?"
Shaking his head, Eric answered, "There's the mechanics at the scrap yard, but that's it. The sheriff's crew was the two deputies we took out, plus the two goons in the building. That's it, aside from Jacobs. It's over."
Rounding the last of the mesquite bushes, we returned to Steve. We found him sitting up against a rock, a dozen feet from the sheriff's body. He'd pulled off his bloodstained shirt and was busy cleaning the sheriff's remains from the side of his face. Seeing us approach, he looked up. Noticing him tense a little at the sight of Eric, I said, "It's over. Eric got 'em both. We're just about to go into the mine to get your dad and Sheriff Buchanan."
Steve nodded, "I still can't stand too well."
"You might have a concussion," I said, touching the bump on his head, "We'll get you to a hospital as soon as we're out of here."
Eric laid the briefcase on the ground, fumbling through numerous keys as he worked the locks. With a snap, he opened the tabs, raising the lid to stare inside. Looking over his shoulder, I saw stack after stack of hundred-dollar bills.
Closing the lid, Eric took the key to the briefcase off the ring, tossing me the rest, plus a few other key rings too. "You'll find keys to the 4X4, the pickups too probably, and maybe the truck. You should also find keys to whatever they used to lock up Dad and the sheriff."
Turning to Steve, Eric said, "I'm sorry, for all the shit I did. I know that don't cut it, and maybe Chris can fill you in on some of my reasons, but I can't stay; they'd throw me in prison. I need to start a new life, with a new name, somewhere far away. I gotta leave now, so I guess this is goodbye, bro."
Steve, the confusion evident on his face, glanced at me, and I nodded to indicate I thought Eric was on the level. Turning to his brother, Steve asked, "You going to be okay?"
With a small smile, Eric replied, "I'll be fine, thanks man. I've got Thaddeus' Caddy stashed a mile from here, and about a quarter-mil in the case to start a new life. I've got to go, I need to get to the car soon; I'm not sure if I can find it in the dark and the sun's nearly down."
Hesitating for a moment, Steve reached up, tapping fists with his brother as Eric walked by. As he entered the brush, Eric turned one last time to wave, before hiking off into the desert.
Leaving Steve the Makarov, I said, "Stay put, I'll get your dad and Sheriff Buchanan, and we can all get the hell out of here."
Spinning on my heel, with my own task to complete, I joined up with Chad and Veronica, both of them holding shotguns, Veronica leaning on Chad for support. Approaching the mineshaft, I saw the body of the guard, and could see why Eric thought he was dead; he sure looked dead to me. His nose was nearly gone; apparently I'd kicked it up into his skull.
Veronica staggered a little in spite of her hold on Chad's shoulder, so as we reached the mouth of the shaft, I suggested, "You should wait here."
Her eyes announcing clearly that she would do no such thing, she said, "Trade guns with me. That one has a shoulder sling; it'll be easier for me to carry."
Grabbing up two torches, tossing one to Chad, we clicked them on as we entered the darkness. In the gloom, the old support timbers and the rough-cut rock looked even more menacing. Passing the post I'd been bound to, I shuddered with a thought of what so easily might have been. The sudden cold chill of the air had nothing to do with the Goosebumps rising on my arms and neck, as I whispered, frantic, "He's not here... The guard Eric beaned with a rock; he was laying right here, and he's gone."
Pulling at my arm, Veronica asked, "Did he have a gun?"
"I don't think so," I whispered.
Veronica nodded, "Let's just press on. We can deal with him if need be."
Walking three abreast to help Veronica, we continued down the sloping tunnel, flashlights probing the darkness. A soft thump from up ahead causing us to pause, Veronica unslinging the SKS, as Chad and I held shotguns at the ready.
From out of the gloom ahead he walked, a look of rage on his face, our flashlights glittering off the knife in his hand. "You," he hissed at me from thirty feet away, coming to a stop, his knife held at the ready.
"That's him, that's the one who..." Veronica mumbled, in a shaken voice.
My shotgun, along with Chad's, zeroed in with lethal intent. I lined up, applying pressure to the trigger, as Veronica's hand pushed my shotgun down, while she used the barrel of the SKS to shove Chad's gun off target. Her voice, calm and reasonable, told us both, "No, not that way. I don't want you guys killing him." Shocked, Chad and I lowered our guns slightly, as Veronica continued in a clam, level voice, "He's mine."
Snapping the SKS up on target, Veronica blew her rapist directly to hell.
Her first shot shattering his head, Veronica pumped three rounds in his chest as he fell backwards. Slinging the SKS back on her shoulder, she stood a little straighter, her voice recovering some of its old edge as she said, "That's a score I had to settle myself."
Negotiating a few rockfalls, proceeding into the mine another hundred yards, we found a large vertical shaft. Our flashlight beams would not reach the bottom, nor did I hear any sound from a pebble I tossed in. The only remaining way down the wide, square cut shaft was a wooden ladder built into one corner. Climbing down to the next level with both caution and trepidation, I began to call out.
We soon heard a distant answering voice, and a quick run down a tunnel brought us to Mr. Williams and Sheriff Buchanan. Finding them largely unhurt, we soon had their chains and cuffs off, as Sheriff Buchanan began swearing up a blue streak, regarding just what he'd do when he got his hands on the Piedmont Sheriff.
Choosing our words with care as we climbed out of that mine, we filled them in on the sheriff's demise and other happenings. The daylight at the mine's entrance was a welcome sight, though even the sunset's red glow was enough to send Mr. Williams and the sheriff blinking from the glare. They hung back, near the entrance, waiting for their eyes to adjust, as my own eyes noted movement through the mesquite bushes in the direction of the pit.
Running forward, I met Steve as he shuffled onto the dirt trail leading to the mine. He was weaving a little, and as he leaned on my shoulder, my arm hugging him tight, reveling in the welcome feel of his bare skin, I told him the good news. We stood there for a long moment, basking in the setting sun, as I glanced down into the brush. Lying in the dirt, half-overgrown, was a faded, hand-painted sign, proclaiming the name of the mine: The Blackbird.
The ochre-red sun touched the far horizon, and we both turned to look. In the far distance, crossing the path of the setting sun, we saw a plume of dust from a vehicle heading away at high speed. Obscuring the last shimmering sliver of the dimming red disk, the Cadillac's profile became apparent for an instant. "Eric," Steve said, with a touch of regret in his voice.
"Think he'll be okay?" I asked.
We watched for a few more moments, as the plume of Eric's dust faded into the sunset. Chuckling as we turned to walk back to the others, Steve replied, "He'll do just fine; of that, I have no doubt at all."
There were a lot of hugs when we joined the others; even Dex came out to join us, proclaiming that the sole surviving gunman would probably live. Sheriff Buchanan began organizing for our return trip to Lonesome Valley, saying he'd follow my Jeep in the 4x4. Sheriff Buchanan, chomping at the bit, couldn't have been more eager to get back to lonesome Valley, to deal personally with the traitorous Officer Jacobs.
Interrupting our plans came the faint staccato thrumming of an approaching helicopter, all of us looking up, as the chopper cleared the mountains to the south, descending in our direction. Squinting against the gathering darkness, Mr. Williams announced, "It's got DPS markings, that's the state police."
Dex chuckled, "Betty's doing, it has to be. I didn't think she'd just sit by the phone; she must have burned up the lines trying to get us some help."
Settling heavily into a hover, churning up a huge pall of dust, the big chopper came down on the darkening dirt road, armed officers leaping out into the dusk as soon as the skids hit the ground. With a wave of his Stetson, Sheriff Buchanan strode out to meet them, the rest of us following in his wake, arm in arm, as we took our leave of the old Blackbird Mine.
Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent. The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"
Many thanks to Conner for editing, support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions on this chapter.
Many thanks also to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions (and for thinking up a title!).
Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading and advice, and for putting up with me.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.
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