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Ark Page 5

by David Wood

  Carter silenced Nathan with a glance before holstering his pistol and approaching Bones with cautious steps.

  “I'm going to search you, boy. You try anything funny, I promise you'll be dead in the time it takes these fellows to pull the trigger. You understand me?”

  “Do you mind if I asked what I’m supposed to have done? I checked in with the local ranger and told him I was doing some sightseeing. That’s not illegal, is it?”

  “How about you just shut your mouth until I’m ready to tell you what happens next?”

  Bones nodded. He had no doubt he could kill Carter, and perhaps a second man, but seven was far too many to take on single-handed, not to mention unarmed. Even if Maddock were to show up right now, he had no weapon, and thus would be able to do little, if anything, to help. Bones' best hope was to remain alive and hope Maddock would return, realize what was going on and, come up with one of his patented plans. He waited impatiently while Carter patted him down and relieved him of his watch, wallet, keys, and camera.

  “Tell me, boy. What are you looking for up here?”

  “Nothing. Just taking pictures. Check my camera.”

  “What did your ancestor lose up here?” Carter asked sharply.

  Had Bones not received extensive training in how to deal with interrogation, that question might have drawn a reaction, but he kept up his confused facade. “I don’t get it.”

  “You told Eddings you had an ancestor who fought here. Did he lose something?”

  “Only his freedom. He was captured and taken to Andersonville.”

  “So he was a Yankee!” Nathan exclaimed.

  Bones shrugged. “Look, this place was a turning point in my great granduncle’s life. I just wanted to see it. I don’t think I’m trespassing or anything, but if you want me to leave, I will.”

  “You’re going to leave, all right, but not the way you think,” Nathan said.

  “Shut up, Nathan,” Carter said. “Here's how this is going to work.” He stepped back as he spoke, pocketing Bones' possessions before drawing his pistol again. “You are going to run thataway.” He nodded in the direction of the forest. “In five minutes, Kevin here is going to fire his rifle.” One of the late arrivals, a moon-faced young man with a wispy mustache and his cheek bulging from what must have been a plum-sized wad of chewing tobacco, nodded. “That'll let you know we're coming for you. We want to make it all sportsmanlike, you know.” Carter grinned.

  “What the hell are you talking about?” Bones kept his voice level, but his insides were ice. The man couldn’t be serious.

  “Just a little game we like to play. It’s much more entertaining than deer hunting, and sometimes more challenging.”

  “Is this a joke?”

  Carter shook his head.

  “In that case, if you want to give me a sporting chance, shouldn’t I get a rifle too?”

  Carter glanced at his wristwatch. “You should get moving. You've already wasted ten seconds.”

  “And you ain't got that many left to live. Run boy!” Nathan fired off a shot near Bones' feet.

  Still unable to believe what was happening, Bones dashed toward the forest, wondering all the while how he was going to get out of this alive.

  Chapter 9

  Maddock shone his light around the cavern. It was very much like what he had pictured in his mind: a wedge-shaped passageway leading back into the darkness. He slipped out of his mask, tank, and fins, and began to explore. The walls grew narrower the deeper he went. It was far from the tightest space he had ever been in, but he was well aware of the need for caution. It would be all too easy to get stuck in a place like this if one was not careful, and he had no one to pull him free should he get stuck.

  The unyielding stone of the cave was virtually without feature, save the occasional fissure, each of which he inspected with care. The walls closed tighter around him with every step and soon he was forced to turn sideways in order to keep moving. He wondered if Esau Bonebrake had been a skinnier man than himself. If so, Maddock might not be able to penetrate deep enough into the cramped passage to find the hiding place.

  There you go again, Maddock. Borrowing trouble.

  Finally, the way grew too narrow for him to proceed. He shone his light up and down the walls of unrelenting gray stone. Nothing. He did not want to risk getting stuck, but what if it the hiding place was only a bit farther away? Perhaps just beyond his reach. He couldn’t go back and tell Bones he had failed unless he was certain the thing was not here. He had to try. He bent his knees, lowering his torso down to where the way wasn’t so tight, gaining himself bit of space. He squeezed forward one small step, then another. The cold stone pressed into his chest and shoulder blades. Much more of this and he would no longer be able to breathe, much less move.

  And then he saw it.

  Just a few feet ahead, something darker than the natural rock was wedged inside a head-high crack in the wall. He could not switch his flashlight to his right hand, so he stuck it in his mouth, holding it with his teeth, and reached out. His outstretched fingers met smooth stone. He was tantalizingly close—only an inch, to go if that. He took two shallow breaths, forced all the air from his lungs, relaxing as he exhaled, and slipped deeper down the passageway. Stretching… reaching… until his hand closed around the object and he slid it free.

  It was a triangle, almost like a dull spear point about the size of his palm. It was carved from some sort of shiny black stone he did not immediately recognize and was surprisingly heavy. A meteorite, perhaps? He and Bones would give it a closer examination once he got it out into daylight. But first, he had to get out of this cave.

  The tight walls were constricting his chest, making breathing almost impossible. He was conditioned to holding his breath for extended periods of time, but his body was beginning to complain about the lack of oxygen. His lungs burned, craving more air.

  He tried to move back toward the entrance, but could not. He was stuck.

  Someone with less experience caving might have panicked in this situation and inadvertently gasped for breath. Maddock remained calm, adjusted his position, and relaxed. With a supreme effort of will, he coaxed the last remnants of air from his lungs, and pushed.

  He did not budge an inch.

  I should have skipped breakfast this morning.

  He continued to lean in his intended direction, careful not to push too hard and perhaps wedge himself too tightly to escape. Spots danced in front of his eyes, and his lungs now screamed for air. He felt along the wall with his right hand and found an inch-wide crack into which he was able to work his index and middle fingers. He was unable to bend his elbow in these tight quarters, but he flexed his fingers, pulling with all the strength he had in his hand. Fire coursed down his arm, and his legs trembled.

  After all my close calls, I'm going to die stuck in a freaking tunnel. All for a freaking rock. Thanks, Bones.

  And then he moved. It was only a centimeter, if that, but he had definitely moved. His fingers flexed, his chest slid along the cold stone. He moved an inch…then another…and another.

  And then he was free.

  With agonizing slowness he continued to move forward, resisting the urge to take more than tiny sips of air and thus risk getting himself stuck again. It was only a matter of seconds, but it felt like a week before he could breathe freely again, filling his lungs deeply. It was better than a kiss. Well, almost.

  No longer fearing for his life, he allowed himself a moment to take a closer look at what he had found.

  Upon closer inspection, the spear point theory was a definite possibility, though the edge wasn’t as sharp as one made of flint. He turned the black triangle over in his hands. If it wasn’t a meteorite, it was crafted of some other unearthly stone. A few years ago, that would have seemed unlikely to him, but recent events had opened his mind to such possibilities. It seemed too substantial for mere stone, yet the substance was not quite metal. What was more, a virtual field guide to the fauna of
the eastern United States was etched all across its surface: bears, cougars, wolves, coyotes, birds of prey, snakes, stags, alligators, even bison, and what looked like a woolly mammoth. He couldn't see anything especially mysterious about it, but it was a fine piece, and Bones would be stoked that they had solved the old family mystery.

  Of course, he would have to mess with Bones’ head first. Maddock would tell him that, upon finding the cave, he’d discovered signs that it was no longer a secret location. Rednecks had found the place first and trashed it, leaving behind Bud Light cans, Marlboro butts, and Copenhagen tins. One of them must have found the treasure first, Bones. Sorry about that. I guess we’ll never know what it was. Grinning at the thought of his friend’s reaction, he stashed the stone in his mesh dive bag and donned his dive gear.

  He had just put the regulator between his teeth and slid beneath the surface of the icy lake when he heard a muffled crack like a gunshot. He paused, straining to make out further sounds above the subdued rush of the waterfall, but he could hear nothing else. He was sure it had been a gunshot. Water was an excellent conductor of sound and Maddock had been under fire more times than he could count.

  An icy ball formed in the pit of his stomach. He and Bones had stashed their side arms in the car in order to avoid raising unnecessary suspicion should the ranger pay them a visit. What reason would Bones have to retrieve his Glock, much less fire it? Certain he was not going to like what he found outside, Maddock drew his dive knife and began to swim.

  He exited the cavern and surfaced beneath the waterfall. Careful to avoid notice until he knew what was going on, he pushed back his mask and inched out until he could see through the hazy mist kicked up by the churning water.

  Seven armed men stood off to the side of the lake, pointing at something in the distance and laughing. Down on the far end, where the dirt road opened onto the battlefield, two pickup trucks had his and Bones’ vehicle blocked in. Something serious was going on, but what?

  He weighed his options. He could swim to the far end of the lake, try to slip out unnoticed, and retrieve their weapons from the car. Problem was, Bones had the keys and Maddock had no idea if they had left the vehicle unlocked. If these men intended to do them harm, and he had a strong feeling they did, there was no way Maddock could sneak to the car, break a window, retrieve his Walther, and take out seven armed men before at least one of them got him. But he couldn't take out that many armed men with only a knife. In any case, he supposed he ought to make completely certain that these men intended him and Bones harm before he mapped out a battle plan. Of course, all signs pointed to that conclusion.

  He would have to get closer in order to hear what they were saying, and he’d have to do it without being spotted. It was easily done—he'd had plenty such training, but in those cases he’d always been outfitted in something less conspicuous than a blue neoprene suit. He dove down deep, staying as close as he dared to the lake bed as he approached his target. Finally, he surfaced in silence among the thick reeds at the water's edge.

  “Has it been five minutes yet?” a young man asked, tapping his booted foot on the soft earth.

  “Hold your horses. It's almost time.” The speaker looked like an older, more sober version of the young man. “I want you to stay close to me. This one looks like he might actually give us a challenge.” The young man started to object, but the older man talked over him. “This is not deer hunting. A man, even an unarmed one, is an infinitely more dangerous quarry. That’s what makes this the greatest sport in the world, and the true test of a man.”

  Maddock tensed. Was he serious? The pieces fell into place quickly. Bones was alive, unarmed, and in the woods somewhere in the direction in which the men were staring. And these men intended to kill him. The only positive of which Maddock could think was that these yokels didn't seem to know Bones was not alone. What Maddock could do about it remained to be seen.

  “I reckon it’s been long enough.” One of the men checked his watch. “Yep. That'll do.” He turned to another of his party. “Bevel, it's your turn to guard the vehicles.”

  “Aww! C'mon Carter.” Bevel took off his camouflage NASCAR number three hat and fanned his face. “The kid’s the new one in the group. Let him take the first shift.”

  Carter shook his head. “No. He at least deserves a chance to draw first blood. If we haven't made the kill in an hour, you'll rotate in. Same as always.”

  Bevel cursed and spat on the ground.

  “Don’t get your shorts in a bunch,” Carter said. “If this one’s as resourceful as he looks, it’ll be a long hunt. You’ll get your shot at him.”

  “If you get to him first, remember I want one of his ears for my collection.”

  Maddock’s stomach twisted and he fought the urge to spring. This was as sick a collection of not-quite-humans as he’d ever come across.

  The others fanned out, leaving Bevel alone. This was Maddock's chance. He slithered forward like a cottonmouth in the mud, careful not to make a sound. He was grateful for the rush of the waterfall that helped to mask any sound he might make.

  Bevel watched the men go, muttered a curse, and then sat down on a stone near the water's edge. He laid his rifle across his lap and fished into his shirt pocket for a cigarette and a lighter. Maddock tensed. At the instant the man's hands were fully occupied, his attention focused on lighting his smoke, Maddock pounced.

  He covered the space between them in less than a second. By the time Bevel realized someone else was there, Maddock had his gloved hand clamped firmly over the man's mouth, the keen blade of his knife pressing down hard on his exposed throat.

  “You make a single loud sound or try to fight me, and I open your throat,” he whispered. “Don’t doubt me. I’ve killed better men than you. Blink once if you understand.” Bevel blinked one time, and rolled his wide eyes back, trying to catch a glimpse of Maddock. “I'm going to uncover your mouth so you can answer my questions. If you, move, cry out, or even talk too loudly, I'll gag you, cut your Achilles tendons so you can’t run, and kill you as painfully as possible.” Privately, Maddock doubted he could bring himself to torture someone, but Bevel didn’t know that. “Blink once if you understand me.” The man blinked, still trying to see who held him from behind, and Maddock removed his hand. “Are you hunting my friend?”


  Maddock pressed the knife harder against the man's neck.

  “Yes. Don't cut me. Please.” Bevel’s voice was a desperate whisper and his entire body trembled.

  “Why are you doing this?”

  “It's j-jist what we do. All we got around here are deer, maybe a bear or a mountain lion sometimes. It ain't no challenge. People are more fun.”

  “You've done this before?” Maddock's stomach clenched and it was all he could do not to open the idiot's throat right then. “How many times?”

  “A bunch. It’s sort of a… tradition in these parts for generations. Nowadays the ranger is the point man. He lets Carter know when someone’s going to be up here and he tells us. When we get the word, we drop everything and come quick.”

  Maddock couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “That’s the only reason? Some sick hillbilly tradition?”

  Bevel’s eyes narrowed at that, but he seemed to lack the courage to retort. “Carter’s got a special interest in this place. He always asks them questions before he hunts them. It’s like he thinks one of them has information he needs.”

  “What sorts of questions?”

  Bevel considered this. “He always wants to know if they’re looking for something. I think somebody wants Carter to find something up here but he can’t. He’s been all around with a metal detector.”

  That was interesting. Was this related to the search for Esau’s treasure? That was a subject for another time. “Are you telling me the police haven't investigated all these missing people?”

  Bevel barked a short laugh. “Nothing to investigate. Eddings drives up here, takes a look around, and tell
s the authorities a story. They always chalk it up to lost hikers, careless folk killed by animals, or bad falls.”

  “No one's ever gotten away to tell what the hell you're doing up here?”

  “Not a one. We always get ‘em.” Bevel man smirked, unapologetic in the face of death. “They’ll get you too if you try anything.”

  Maddock's blood ran hot. “You've never hunted a SEAL before, have you?”

  “A seal? We ain't got no seals around here. Maybe some otters. What do you think this is, California?”

  “A Navy SEAL, you idiot. My friend was one, and so was I. You have no idea what you've gotten yourself into.”

  If Bevel had been pale before, his face went snow white at this new piece of information.

  Maddock’s thoughts raced. Should he just kill the man now? No. He would tie him up with his own shoelaces, gag him with his socks, and stow him in the back of the truck. Then he would take the rifle and go after Bones.

  “I'm going to remove this knife from your throat. When I do, I want you to very slowly get face-down on the ground. No noise, no sudden movements. You get me?”

  “I hear you.”

  Maddock released his grip on Bevel but kept his knife at the ready. He moved around in front of Bevel and prompted him to get down on the ground. Bevel complied, sinking to his knees.

  And that was when he made a fatal mistake.

  Bevel lurched to one side, rolling over and coming up with a .22 caliber pistol. Maddock was on him before he could pull the trigger, pinning his gun hand to the ground and burying his knife in Bevel’s heart. Just to be safe, he covered Bevel's mouth and nose, and waited for him to expire. It was a grisly kill, but one Maddock had tried to avoid. When he was sure the man was dead, Maddock relieved him of his pistol and his ammunition belt, which held spare bullets both for the hunting rifle and the pistol.

  He dragged Bevel's body into the reeds and hastily covered it over with mud and debris. When the next man came to take his turn at guard duty, hopefully that person would assume Bevel had grown impatient and joined the hunt early, and therefore not grow suspicious. Maddock and Bones were going to need every advantage they could get.


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