Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Man Cave, Chapter 4

- Chapter 4

LC Cooper

Copyright LC Cooper, © 2012
Published by LC Cooper at Smashwords

Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

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Chapter 4

I awoke to the sensation of water vapor splashing my face. The pain in my head was so severe, I welcomed blacking out again just to get away from it.
"Wake up!" a familiar voice screamed. "Adam, wake up now!" It was Eric's voice. Alarms went off in my head and consciousness shoved past the pain in my cracked skull. I instantly felt the back of my neck. Thickening blood and a large knot met my hand.
"Eric?" I muttered. "Sammy …"
"I know, I know. Look, you've got to stand up and shake off the fog. We've got to get out of here."
"We gotta be careful, Eric. Sammy's dangerous. There's something horribly wrong about this place."
"Shut up and listen. As we pulled away from the docks, I saw Sammy walk out of the pilot house. I didn't know what he was up to because I thought he'd have to steer the boat. Then, it dawned on me that something this big probably had auto-pilot. Curious, I followed Sammy as he went down the stairs. I saw him bash you in the back of the head with an oar."
"I saw …" I began to interject, interrupting him, but Eric was determined to continue.
"I heard him shout that you weren't supposed to see something, and then he wacked you. It scared the crap out of me, so while Sammy was bending down to throw you over his shoulder, I snuck upstairs and hid behind a door."
"Then, Sammy's still somewhere on the yacht? But we're in the pilot house," I muttered, still very confused.
"Just as Sammy tossed you into a lounge chair, I raced over and bent down, crashing into his side with all I had in me. Well, it was a hard enough hit that Sammy stumbled and fell against the rail. His body kept going, and he flipped over the back of the boat."
"He's in the lake?" I asked, slightly relieved. "How'd we get up here?"
"I wasn't sure if Sammy had been able to grab onto anything before falling overboard, but I knew I had to get us to safety. That meant I had to get us back to shore so we could call the cops or get my pickup and get out of here."
He shivered as he recalled the next scene. "After helping you up here into the pilot house, I locked the door and fumbled with the controls until I found the button to disengage the autopilot. I then whipped the yacht around to return to the docks." He paused before whispering his next comment. "I saw Sammy deliberately swimming toward the shore. He actually sped up and toward us as we approached him. For a moment, I thought we would run him over or that he'd be able to grab onto the side and climb aboard. His determination scared the crap out of me."
"Where, where is he, Eric?" I asked while nervously scanning the deck for Sammy's lurking form.
"Still swimming for shore, from what I could tell. We should be at the docks any minute. Will you be okay to leap off this thing?"
"Yeah, I guess. Why?"
"We're not taking the time to be polite and dock this yacht. I'm running it aground to save us time. We'll have to leap, but should get enough of a head start that when Sammy returns, we'll be long gone."
"I think he's killing people," I stammered.
"The way he smacked you with that oar, I wouldn't be surprised. He seemed too accurate, as if he's done it many, many times before."
"I don't doubt it," I said while rubbing the back of my aching head and neck. I pointed to the approaching docks and shoreline. "Remember those guys who were fishing on the banks as we pulled away from the docks."
"I didn't pay any attention to them, but I do remember seeing some out there already and thinking they were nuts. Why?"
"They're dead, Eric."
"Huh?" Eric said, looking at me wide-eyed. "All of them? How do you know?"
"One of those guys is missing his face. I saw it through the binoculars I found downstairs. And if that's the case, there's no way the other guys standing around him would have been just hanging out. Besides, none of the other guys even so much as blinked or moved a muscle. It's a scene, like a diorama. Hey, like …"
"… the dogs playing cards," Eric said softly while breathing out slowly. He shook off the fog and muttered, "We have to warn the others. Also, one of them must have a usable mobile phone so we can call the cops if Sammy disabled the phone at the registration desk."
"Good thinking," I said, fighting off a wave of unconsciousness that pulsed when I lightly pressed on the place where the oar hit me.
"Sammy's insane. He probably murdered those guys."
"Even if he didn’t," I added, "I'm certain there are laws against making displays out of dead people."
"There are those traveling shows where the bodies of dead people have been injected … with …"
"Plastination," we said in unison as we remembered what Sammy had called the process. Eric added, "Do you remember a couple of years ago, you and I went to the Natural History Museum and saw that display of those dead folks?"
"Yeah, of course – it creeped me out so bad, I had nightmares for weeks about it. But it wasn't until just this moment when I put two and two together. I didn't realize it was the same process Sammy was talking about."
"I didn't catch on either until you told me about the dead guys at the shore. Speaking of which, there they are."
We were racing toward the dock. Eric cut the engine as we had enough momentum to get high up on land before the yacht would crash to a halt. I pointed to the line of fishermen, telling Eric that they're still in the same position as when we left. Then, I pointed to the third guy, the one in the suit. We were close enough to them, and it was bright enough now that Eric could clearly see that the guy's face was gone. Instead of dwelling on it, however, we braced for impact as the yacht began crunching along, carving its way into the shallows.
"Sammy's going to be pissed when he sees what we did to his precious yacht," I snickered, wishing I could see the look on his face the moment he discovers his new toy's been grounded. I smiled, which, because of the lump's tightness, caused me to wince. It was worth it though. This was the first time I had sincerely smiled since checking in to Manton.
"With you and I on the run, I tend to believe that Sammy won't be thinking much about his yacht, but instead, he'll be focused on finding and silencing us," Eric said just before the yacht pitched upward and then slammed down hard as its keel shattered under the weight of the yacht.
Eric and I were tossed around the pilot house like ragdolls, but after the yacht's final lurch forward, we sprang out and onto the deck. Seconds later, we were running up the embankment toward our cabin. From there, we agreed to make a run for the registration cabin and the parking lot.
"Let's grab our gear and get out of here," I panted as we ran.
Eric fumbled for his key, shoved it into the lock, and hurled the door open. I grabbed my suitcase and crammed everything within reach. Eric did the same, but also rummaged through the kitchenette, fumbling for sharp knives and anything else that could be used as a weapon.
"Everything's plastic and Styrofoam!" Eric yelled. "Sammy planned for this," he said in disbelief. "There isn't one sharp anything in this kitchen."
While ripping open drawers and cabinets in the living room, I looked out the window toward the lake. I saw Sammy swimming toward land. Strong and steady strides brought him ever closer as I watched. I shook off this latest round of shock and yelled, "He's still in the water, but almost here. Let's go, Eric!"
We flung open the door and raced toward the parking lot and the safety of Eric's truck. As we approached it, Eric looked at me in horror and hollered, "He's got my keys! Sammy's got my keys in the box in the vault."
"Where's your spare? You have a spare somewhere," I screeched in panic. I pictured that Sammy was probably making his way through the shallows and would be on land in any moment. "Think, Eric, think; where is it? Where did you hide it?" I frantically flailed along the frame and wheel wells, hoping to find the spare key.
After groping around beneath the driver's side of his pickup, Eric leapt up and screamed, "I can't find it!" He paced for a moment, confused, before barking, "Hurry, toss your bag into the truck bed. We need to get to someone here who's got a working phone."
"Now I see why Sammy collects his guests' things at check in," I spat.
Eric whimpered, "Folks check out, but they can never leave," citing the famous line from the Eagles' hit song, "Hotel California." Eric was becoming incoherent, seemingly slipping into shock.
"Hey, Eric!" I yelled, "Snap out of it, buddy. The only way we're going to get out of here alive is if we get to a phone before Sammy finds us."
Thankfully, Eric emerged from the fog when I shook his arm hard, tugging it forward and toward the other cabins.
We heard voices in the first cabin, but no matter how hard we pounded and yelled, no one answered the door. Unwilling to wait around, we did the same to three other cabins before bursting into one of Manton's pool halls.
"Man, are we glad to see you guys," I shouted above the din. Eric and I froze in our tracks. There was all this racket – happy noises and the sounds of clinking glasses and music playing, but the dozen guys shooting pool or drinking at the bar weren't moving.
"Oh, no," I stammered.
"Are they statues?" Eric asked, as if his brain was unable to process what was happening to us.
"I've got a terrible feeling about this, Eric." I quietly walked up to the closest figure standing at the bar and poked him in the arm with my finger. "Hey, buddy," I meekly asked, "do you have a phone?" He didn't flinch. Reluctantly, I followed with, "Are you alive?" already knowing the answer.
"Oh gross," said Eric as he fought off the urge to vomit. Expecting to see that Sammy had burst in, instead Eric was bent over and looking down at the ground, but he was pointing ahead of him. I followed the direction his finger was pointing – at a guy playing pool. His back toward us, the guy was bent over the table as if he were stretching to make a corner shot. However, as I looked him over, I saw he wasn't wearing pants, shorts, or even underwear. He had on a shirt, but from the waist down, he was naked.
I gasped and started to say something to Eric, but then I saw the doorknob on the bar's front door slowly turn. So did Eric. He managed to duck behind the other half of the set of doors just as Sammy flung open the first door and screamed, "There you are, you mother f…" But before he could finish his curse, Eric smashed a barstool into Sammy's face, knocking the big man onto his back. Out cold, he could do nothing to stop Eric and me as we jumped through the open doorway and over his prone body.
"What now?" I pleaded. "There's no point in checking any of the other buildings. I bet they're also filled with dead guys."
"Yeah, you're probably right. We need to break into the reception area and try to get our stuff back. Hopefully, Sammy left the vault open."
Try as we might, we could not bash in the front door. We both took several turns throwing our bodies into it and kicking it, but Sammy must have seen this kind of thing coming because the frame stood rigid and unyielding. We ran around the building, shaking every window, but all were barred and sealed shut. Finally, we found a back door, and thankfully, it was unlocked.
After closing the door behind us, we scrambled around the back room, searching for a light switch. I thought Eric had found it when the lights suddenly flicked on. But it wasn't Eric standing by the light switch – it was Sammy.
"Well, well, well, good to see you boys again," chuckled Sammy. "Now, you understand why I gather up all my guests' keys and such. Can't let any of you get away now, can I?" he again chuckled, this time as he raised his shotgun to his shoulder, pointing it right at my chest. "Any more crap out of you two and prissy pants, here, becomes Swiss cheese. Got it!" he roared.
"You wouldn't want to damage one of your new statues that way, would you?" offered Eric. I thought he was nuts, but then realized he was trying to buy us time.
The look on Sammy's face showed that he was actually weighing the consequences. He then said, "It won't work, Eric my boy. For me, it doesn't matter if they're full of holes or not. The plastination process takes care of everything. The output is a nice, shiny figure for one of my displays.
He pointed the shotgun at Eric's abdomen and said, "I'm gonna blast you to bits. I thought I had you fooled, then you turned on me. First, shoving me off my yacht and then bashing me in the face at the bar." Sammy clicked back the hammer on his shotgun and took aim.
Eric and I looked at each other. The blood drained from Eric's face as he realized he was about to die.
"Sammy," I blurted out, "I'm the one you should be pissed at. I doubted you from the beginning. You didn't fool me at all. I saw right through your good-old-boy routine and called you on it."
The shotgun swiveled back toward me. I gulped hard and flinched. Eric slumped, having temporarily avoided death.
"Isn't this touching?" Sammy mockingly snorted. "Are you two lovers or something? I mean, the way you two are sticking up for each other is, well, simply adorable." He grinned as he pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped the blood off his forehead.
Tired of his bullying and realizing we were dead no matter what we did, I boldly asked, "What happens to us now, Sammy?"
"I'm not so sure what to do," he admitted. "I mean, I know what the end result will be, but in the meantime, I'm just so damn furious with you two, I'm trying to come up with an absolutely horrible way for you two to die."
Eric and I looked again at each other. I must have appeared as pale and nauseous as Eric did because of the sorrowful look on his face. It was the end, and we both knew it.
Sammy paused to glance out the window. I suspected he frowned because he saw the depression in the ground where we beached his yacht. He shook his head slowly and said, "I simply can't believe you destroyed my brand new Carver yacht. It cost me over half-a-million dollars, you idiots. And to think I was planning on having you guys displayed on it. Now, I don't know where to put you." Sammy moved away from the window and toward us. He growled, "One thing's for sure, no matter where you get put, I'm going to make you suffer like hell until you get there. Now, get moving." He waved the shotgun at the back door, the one we came through. We did as instructed. If there was any hope of escape, Eric and I realized we had to go along with Sammy until an opportunity arose.
Eric went through the doorway first. Sammy jabbed me hard in the back with the nose of his shotgun. "How's your head feeling there, Adam?" he sarcastically asked, noticing the purplish welt and caked blood on the back of my head.
I chose not to answer. I was betting that if perturbed, Sammy might react emotionally and not think. Getting him riled up might work to our advantage.
"I can't believe you two squirts got this far," he growled. "I've been up against bigger and stronger dudes than you turds, and none of them have ever made it into the reception area."
"We should have run you over," I smugly spat, "when we had the chance on the lake."
Sammy responded by shoving the muzzle of his shotgun against the sore on the back of my head. I nearly blacked out as I tumbled to the ground in agony.
"See, you're just a loudmouth punk. Look how easy it was to drop you. You might want to keep your mouth shut from here on out. I can't promise I'm willing to keep you alive much longer. I may be pissed at Eric, thinking we were getting along and all, but you … I hated you from the moment I met you. I'm just itching for an opportunity to mash you into pulp." He stopped talking, but then added, "Say, that could be fun. What's say we head to the trash compactor? I could shove you, Adam, into it. Listening to you beg and scream could be loads of fun as Eric and I watch you get crushed into a blob of trash-infused jelly."
"And ruin one of your statues," I offered, again trying to buy us time.
"Hmm…, good point. I haven't been getting many guests this year, enough to fill the current list of displays. I do have a couple of exhibits still needing figures. Good thinking, Adam. I'll have to come up with another way to finish you off." He smiled, enjoying watching me squirm when he asked how I felt about being tied to a post and run through with a sword. "I'm thinking after tying you to a tree, I'll chop off your pecker. Then, while you're bleeding to death, I'll slice off your hands. Then, if still alive, the last thing you'll see is me gouging out your eyeballs with my Bowie knife. How's that sound? Personally, I think it'll make for a fun afternoon."
"So, there it is, Eric!" I happily exclaimed as I pointed to the wreckage of Sammy's yacht. It was laying on its side, keel split open and crushed, on a gravel road about one-hundred yards from the shore and boat ramp.
"Shhh," Eric pleaded in a whispered voice, "you're only making things worse for us."
"How can it get any worse? You heard how he's planning to kill me," I retorted. "I'm devoting my last few minutes to pissing him off."
"Shut up, you two," Sammy barked. As the three of us passed the wreckage of his yacht, Sammy affirmed his plan for my murder. "Yep, especially for destroying my brand-new yacht, I think dismembering you is exactly what I'll do with you. But to make it a gift that keeps on giving, I'll videotape the whole thing. That way, on dark and lonely winter nights, I'll pop in the disk of your death and laugh and laugh for hours. Sounds like a load of fun, doesn't it, little Adam."
I was so sick to my stomach from the pain in my head and the feeling of hopelessness that I wished I could have ended it right then. However, it got more gruesome.
"Eric, Eric, Eric," continued Sammy. "I thought we were going to be friends, in that way you saw my friend bent over the pool table." Eric instinctively snarled in disgust at the thought. "Oh, come on, there Eric my boy. You certainly knew I was taking a liking to you," Sammy chuckled.
"I was only pretending to befriend you so I could learn exactly what Adam and I were up against. I would never be your friend."
"Suit yourself, Eric. For knocking me off my yacht and leaving me for dead, trashing my prized yacht, and then busting a barstool across my face, you're death will be extremely painful and torturous."
Again, Eric's face paled at Sammy's threat. Before Eric could reply, Sammy pulled open a door Eric and I had passed, motioning for us to back up and enter the building. "Let's take another tour, boys. At the end of it, I'll have a new souvenir. Hey, Eric, since you seemed so fascinated last night as we talked, about the plastination process, I want you to get an up-close and personal look at it."
Eric understood exactly what Sammy meant, but I was clueless, having left the cabin before Sammy and Eric got into the details of the plastination process.
An icy blast and chemical stench hit me in the face when I entered the warehouse. The dimly-lit cavern housed four large caldrons of churning liquid. Frosty wisps rose from these and wrapped around our bodies as we stood on the overhead catwalk. Pulling up the rear, Sammy used the muzzle of his shotgun to prod us along. Eric sneezed a violent fit. The place reeked of chemicals, and Eric was allergic to most that were man-made.
"This is where it all begins, chums – the plastination process, that is. First, the body is drained of all its fluids and fats in these large vats of super-cooled acetone."
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a blob floating within one of the churning vats. I pointed to it and sarcastically said, "One of your victims, right? It's the guy we heard screaming yesterday, isn't it?"
Eric mumbled, "I can't believe I bought his story of it being an owl or bobcat. How stupid can I be?"
I didn't have the heart to say, "stupid enough to bring us here, go along with unloading our keys and wallets, and trusting a knife-wielding egomaniac." Instead, I shrugged it off, finding a little comfort in knowing that Eric was indeed on my side. If we were going to survive, we needed to work together without any foot-dragging. Sammy's next comment sealed the deal. Eric's twitching was a sign that he was moments from reacting.
"What do you think, Eric, my old buddy?" Sammy cocked the hammer on his shotgun. "Climb over the rail and sit there. I am so looking forward to pushing you off. It'll be paybacks for your shoving me off my yacht. Hmmm, I am so excited at the thought of hearing your screams as you freeze to death while all your blood and lipids drain out of you."
Eric and I exchanged glances, and then Eric did as instructed and climbed onto the rail. Before sitting down on its edge, however, he kept his left foot hooked around a support beam on the inside of the catwalk's railing.
"No, no, that won't do, but nice try, Eric. How damn dumb do you think I …"
During those moments when Eric was climbing with Sammy intently watching, I had slid between Eric's back and Sammy's shotgun. When Sammy moved forward, agitated when Eric hooked his leg, I gave Sammy's shotgun a hard shove out over the cavern's opening. Sammy fired both rounds of shells into the air, and then Eric grabbed the shotgun and jerked it out of Sammy's grasp. Sammy was off balance as a result of his forward momentum, my shove, and Eric's yanking the shotgun away. With Sammy's shotgun in his hands, Eric smashed the butt of the shotgun into Sammy's face at the same time that I Kicked him in his gut. Gasping for air, Sammy flailed and clawed, desperate to grab Eric and bring him down with him. Eric scooted away, and Sammy fell down toward the closest vat of acetone.
Looking through the catwalk's grated flooring, Eric and I watched Sammy struggle to stay alive. I can't say I got any enjoyment out of it, but after seeing the desperation on his face and listening to his raw screams, I was morbidly fascinated with getting revenge. Pain and anger rippled through me as I thought that could have been Eric or me, and not Sammy, facing death. Almost immediately, though, I thanked God that I wasn't on the receiving end of this horrific torture.
Straddling the rim of the immense copper vat, Sammy had wrapped his right hand around an adjoining metal pipe while he swung his right leg through the air as he attempted to stabilize his body. His center of gravity shifted, though, which caused his left hand to plunge into the super-cooled cauldron of acetone. During the seconds his hand was submerged, we heard crackling, popping, and hissing, not unlike, but much angrier and louder, than the sound antifungal spray makes when it hits a patch of athlete's foot. Instead of sighing in relief, however, Sammy howled from what must have been excruciating pain, for the acetone immediately went to work drawing blood, water, other fluids, and fatty lipids out of his left hand. Feathered streams of crimson and yellow mixed with the opaque whiteness of the acetone. Sammy's agony became worse as the acetone crept up past his wrist and only because of gravity, stopped its march halfway along his forearm. Even though he was in pain, Sammy managed to right himself and free his hand from the acetone bath. His reprieve was momentary, however, because when he failed to grasp the vat's rim with the damaged hand, his left foot slipped and splashed into the acetone. Unable to recover, his left foot dove even deeper than his hand did. Clawing futily, the left hand did nothing more than slap at the exposed interior of the vat. The crackling and hissing was much louder this time because everything below the knee was submerged. More dense and larger than his hand and forearm, the leg was rapidly consumed by the hungry acetone. It gleefully hissed and bubbled. The resultant stench rose above the battle, dispersing as a thin, cold haze.
Sammy's screams and howls of pain and rage matched those that we heard the day before. I cringed and looked briefly at the poor guy floating beneath the surface of that other vat.
Above Sammy's screams, I yelled, "Serves you right, you bastard!" I was shocked when I realized I was enjoying watching Sammy writhe and struggle to survive. I shook my head, astonished that he had the strength and determination. Although in great pain, Sammy's precise movements told me that this battle was not over. I think a weaker person would have given up and dropped into the acetone bath.
A tug at my sleeve reminded me that I wasn't watching a movie where the hero saves himself from certain death. This was the survival instinct of a deranged serial killer. Sammy no longer screamed, a fact that gave me the shivers. Near death, the guy was beyond the pain – he was focused on destroying Eric and me. As such, I abandoned my plan of climbing down the catwalk to shove Sammy into the vat. Besides, with the look on his face, if I got anywhere close to him, Sammy would likely find the strength and agility to lunge for me. I was too afraid to take the chance.
Eric pushed me from behind. "Get running. He's pulling himself out. He's going to survive this and then come after us." Eric was interrupted by a coughing fit, brought on by a thick wisp of the acetone mist. There couldn't have been a worse time for his allergies to kick in. His lungs seized up and his body weakened, doubling him over at the waist. I've seen him fall over while playing the left-field position during a baseball game, but this was worse, much worse.
"Get out of here," Eric rasped. "I can hold Sammy off to buy you time to get into my truck."
"I'm not going anywhere without you, pal."
With Eric's left arm hefted across my shoulders, we hobbled along the catwalk and burst out of the building and into gorgeous sunshine. My first deep breath purge the acetone's fumes from my lungs, which didn't cause me a problem, but Eric's allergies seemed worse, as if the acetone's fumes wrecked him more than he admitted. Eric was coughing and wheezing for a good two minutes as I dragged him toward the parking lot.
Eric finally got his lungs to settle down, but the lack of oxygen weakened him so much that he couldn't keep up the pace. He croaked, "I remember where the spare key is. I'm not able to run, so you go on ahead and find the key, open the doors, and get the engine started. I should be there by then."
Afraid of leaving Eric behind, I protested, but he insisted. What further urged me on was that Sammy's earlier screams and howls had changed from those of pain to vows of revenge. Apparently, he managed to climb out of the vat. No matter what damage had occurred to him, there was no doubt he was now  bent on destroying us.
Without arguing any longer, I ran along the paths leading to the parking lot and to Eric's pickup truck. I covered my ears with my hands, unwilling to listen to the ghoulish sounds of men laughing and carrying on – these were, after all, recordings. I shuddered when I passed each cabin and building. Instinctively glancing into each window I passed. "So many dead men and such a waste," I sighed. I made eye contact with one of the figures, which caused me to jerk backwards, and I stumbled into the street. I realized I got caught up in the travesty surrounding me and, distracted, had slowed my pace. I darted back onto the sidewalk and remained focused on the approaching parking lot. I kept my ears covered. Pressing my hands tight against my head also prevented further glances of the morbid scenes inside the discos, pool halls, bars, and cabins. I sprinted the moment my feet hit the asphalt of the parking lot.
My heart pounded and my brain raced when I couldn't find the truck's spare key, which Eric said he'd taped to the gas tank. Frantically, my hands patted and scraped along every exposed surface of the gas tank without luck. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves, telling myself to relax and go over it again. I had been searching for an exact duplicate of the key, which had a rubber cover around the head of the key. This is when I realized a hidden spare would likely be flat and virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding metals. Wedged between the steel frame and gas tank was a battered chunk of electrician's tape. Relieved, I tore the tape away from the frame and pried the goo-coated key from its cocoon. I crawled from beneath the truck and jiggled the key in the driver's side door lock. The tape residue didn't allow the key to slide freely, and the door remained locked. I scrambled to the passenger's side and tried its lock. I grinned as the lock gave way. I flung open the door, unlocked and pushed open the driver's-side door, and shoved the key into the ignition in the steering column.
The engine roared to life, which is when I saw Eric rounding the corner of the reception building. I honked the horn frantically for Eric to hurry up, for not so far off in the distance, I saw what appeared to be Sammy crawling on the ground. He seemed to be dragging his left leg as he crawled on his right knee and elbow. He held the left hand up in the air. I supposed the damage caused by the freezing acetone crippled his hand and leg, which was a blessing for us.
Eric didn't have any trouble interpreting the meaning of my horn-honking, and although he struggled, he found the energy to trot to his pickup's door.
"Let's go!" I nearly shouted, pointing to the prone figure of Sammy, determined and desperate to get to us. Eric wasted no time discussing options. He jammed the gearshift into reverse. The tires squealed their response.
Relieved that we escaped, but still scared to death, I kept a nervous watch via the truck's side mirror. Then, my stomach clinched into a knot and I sat rigidly upright. "He's, he's on an ATV!" I hollered, pointing off and behind my right shoulder.
"I see him," stammered Eric. He pounded the steering wheel, realizing that Sammy was cutting through the field on our right and would attempt to head us off.
"The guy's ingenious," I sighed when I realized that Sammy designed the road and approach to Manton in a way that forced our pickup to remain on the road. Concrete and steel barriers lined the entire length of both sides of the road. So, if anyone were to escape, they'd be stuck on this long and winding trap. This design burned fuel and kept speed down, which gave Sammy all the time he needed to catch up with us at the approaching crossroad. A hard-right turn awaited us, one that would cause us to slow to almost a halt. Eric and I hissed, "shit!" when we understood we were sitting ducks.
"Bang!" and a tire exploded. It's tread thudded and beat its wheel well until the rubber flew apart.
"It's just the tread. The sidewalls are intact," Eric shouted above the flapping roar. "Got tired of fixing flats, so I bought tires with reinforced sidewalls."
Another bang was followed by the sound of the remaining two tires detonating. Sammy's sets of tire-shredding spikes efficiently cleaved through the tread of the truck's four tires, but the tactic proved ineffective at stopping our escape.
"Finally, something's working in our favor," Eric hollered.
"But, Sammy's still gaining on us," I shouted, nodding to our right.
It was true. While we were forced to drive along the two sides of what was effectively a right triangle, Sammy drove his ATV along the triangle's hypotenuse, and thus, had the shortest distance to travel. Once we got to the crossroad, Sammy was almost to the road we had to turn onto. Instead of blocking our escape with his ATV, however, obviously knowing we'd run him over, Sammy sat on the shoulder and waited. I watched in horror as he raised a rifle to his shoulder. It was pointed straight at me.
"Eric," I loudly whimpered, "he's got a bead on me. What do we do?"
"I'm gonna kill the son of a …"
"Bang!" The bullet shattered the windshield and glass shards flew in all directions. I was cut and bleeding, but not shot. The bullet missed me and passed through the rear window. I instinctively ducked behind the dashboard, but remained painfully aware my door would be the closest to Sammy as we approached.
"Get into the well," Eric shouted as he lurched the truck's steering wheel, aiming right at Sammy.
I had to look. Instead of backing up his ATV or leaping off it, Sammy coolly cocked the rifle and aimed it at Eric's head. But just as he seemed about to pull the trigger, he lurched as if the pain in his left hand and foot caused a spasm. Before Eric sideswiped the ATV with his truck, I saw Sammy's left arm tremble and drop the rifle to the ground.
"Yes!" exclaimed Eric as he braced for the impact. The bumper's blow spun and flipped the ATV, sending Sammy sprawling into a roadside ditch. The wrecked ATV tumbled down the hill, followed by a spray of dirt and grass, and came to rest in the mud of a small pond. We were relieved to see that Sammy did not rise up from the ditch.
We didn't stop to investigate, but instead, even though the truck was rattling apart from the wear that four blown-out tires was causing, continued as fast as the truck would go.
"Although we got away," Eric hollered above the tires' roar, "we're not safe yet." He tapped the plastic lens that covered the fuel gage. "It's almost on empty."
"It shouldn't be a problem. We can stop at the little gas station we saw after turning onto this road. I'll bet they'll have a phone that we can use to call the cops."
"With a guy like Sammy running Manton, don't you think the local police will be in his back pocket? He told us he suspected the sheriff …"
"There is no sheriff, Eric! Sammy is the law in Manton. Besides, the only cops in Manton probably belong to one of Sammy's dioramas."
"True, but how do you know that the guys at the gas station can be trusted?"
I hadn't considered this likelihood. What if the guys who work at the gas station also worked for Sammy? They could ambush us as we pulled in for gas. I shared these thoughts with Eric, and he admitted he had the same concerns.
Sammy was nowhere behind us, so we relaxed as we racked up the miles between us and Manton. Although the shredded tires rattled our insides and gave us headaches, we didn't dare stop for a breather. We were determined to press on – as long as Eric's pickup didn't rattle apart or we ran out of gas.
Fears of running out of gas grew, though, the further away we got. When we were finally able to see the corner gas station off in the distance, we realized we had no means for paying for the fuel. Because Sammy had our wallets, he also had our credit cards, cash, and everything else of value. I glanced at the indent in my left ring finger and cursed the divorce that stole my final bargaining chip from me.
Eric still had his though, and he agreed to trade it for gas if necessary. Eric hoped that the gas-station's employees would be sympathetic, allow us to use the phone, and let us drive off with a few gallons of gas.
We coasted to the station on not much more than fumes, a couple of gallons, tops. Eric cut off the engine and put the transmission in neutral to conserve every last drop of gas. He only applied the brakes once his truck was parallel to the gas pump.
I was relieved that the same guys we saw here on the way into Manton were sitting around a table in the bay, playing chess. The station's attendant was, once again, resting against the front-door's frame. He seemed engrossed in the magazine he was reading.
I yelled, "Do you have a phone I could use? We need to call the police. A crazy man is trying to kill us."
There was no response, so I started to yell again when the light bulb came on. I turned, wild-eyed, to Eric, trembling. He also realized the men in the gas station were dead. They, too, were statues in one of Sammy's sick displays.
I leapt out of the cab and yelled to Eric, "Find a way to fill your truck up. I'm going to search the place for a phone, food, money, and anything else we can use."
"Fine, but get in and out quickly. You don't know if Sammy is watching us on hidden cameras or if the place is rigged with booby traps. Grab crowbars, knives, and see if they have some tires that fit my truck. While the truck's filling up with gas, I'll throw the spare on the rear axle to give us some better traction and stability."
I waved my acknowledgement and slid past the figure at the station's front door. I avoided eye contact as if I were doing something wrong or that the guy might come alive. I just didn't want to see his face either way. I rapidly rummaged through drawers, cabinets, and shelves, but it was all empty or full of trash. The coolers had been turned off for years, as was obvious from the reeking stench of mildew when I threw open one of the doors. The ice machine was off and empty. I darted into the service bay, past the dead guys sitting at the table, and tore open every drawer. I was glad to find a crowbar, a hammer, a saw, a dusty box of light bulbs, and some rope. A quick scan of the racks of tires convinced me to get back to the pickup truck. Every one of the tires on display were slashed beyond repair. I grabbed two of them, however, trotted over to Eric's pickup, and then threw the random pile into the pickup's bed.
"Why the heck do we need two slashed tires?" Eric asked as he rummaged through the pile.
"To set on fire, they'll make a great smoke signal," I replied.
"… which would work against us if Sammy sees the smoke."
"It may be a chance we have to take. Look, Eric," I spat, "Sammy removed or destroyed anything useful in there. I grabbed what I could, hoping these things will be useful to us. Never mind all this, how much gas were you able to pump."
"Oh, I forgot to check. I got busy changing out the spare tire for one of the blown-out ones."
"Never mind," I sighed while flipping the gas pump's lever up and down. "Eric, the pump's dead. From the gage, not even a drop was pumped. Nothing came out."
I shook my head, resigned to the reality that we were now in survival mode. No one knew where we were, we had no money or means of communicating with the rest of the world, and an insane serial killer was tracking us. It would be up to Eric and me if we lived or became two figurines in another of Sammy's displays.
Eric looked at the dead pump, at me, and then down the road leading to Manton. He grimaced and said in a low voice, "Get in. The dust in the distance isn't smoke. I'm pretty certain it's dust that Sammy's truck is kicking up off the road. We may not get far on the few gallons we have left, but we have a good fifteen-minute's head start. At the worst, if we can't find help before my truck runs out of gas, we'll ditch the truck down a side road or in some bushes – somewhere that'll make it hard for Sammy to find us."
We jumped into the cab, Eric started the engine, and we limped away from the wretched gas station.
Eric was right. The ride was a little more smooth after he put the spare tire on. At least we could talk without having to scream as loudly above the shearing and thudding sounds of the three remaining destroyed tires.
"It's a new game," I said with a sigh. "Maybe this is revenge for all the animals we hunted over the years. The hunters have become the hunted."
"Lose the negative attitude, Adam. It won't help us stay alive. We need to remain focused on surviving this. We must get out of here and tell the world what a monster Sammy is and what has happened to all those guys in Manton." At first I thought he was kidding, but his face was extremely serious when he said, "There is no doubt in my mind that God has kept us alive this long for a reason. Remember all the other guys we saw? They're all dead. Why did God allow us to live? I absolutely believe we were spared in order to put an end to this horror."
"Great – I'll buy that as our end goal, but we have to stay alive, somehow avoid Sammy, and get back to civilization."
"Yep, our journey will begin in a few minutes. Did you feel extra bucking from the truck? It's starting to choke on the lack of gas. I suspect she's only got a few more miles in her before we'll have to bail. Gather up whatever you can and get yourself ready to make a run for it."
"Sammy's gonna be loaded down with fuel, food, camping gear, and weapons. He's planned and prepared for an escape like this," I pointed out, "while we have nothing but the junk in the back."
Eric and I glanced over our shoulders at the pathetic heap and sighed, mentally comparing our meager souvenirs to Sammy's overwhelming superiority.
I envisioned the freak racing toward us in a monster 4x4, fully equipped with a stocked gun rack, and a truck bed loaded down with bedding, a tent, and boxes of freeze-dried foods and water.
"Water," I mumbled. "Where are we going to find drinkable water? We don't have a way to sterilize any water we do find, let alone have anything we can use to carry water with us."
"Think about it. If Sammy is that prepared for an escape, he's probably poisoned every pond and puddle. We'll have to find water from other sources. We won't be able to trust the obvious."
I raised an eyebrow in admiration. I'm usually the one who dives into the details. It was good to see Eric thinking clearly once again. The shocky effects of Sammy's torturous threats, received as brainwashing, were almost gone out of both of us. We seemed determined that we, and not Sammy, would determine our destiny.
"Well, here we go," Eric said with a grimace.
I, too, noticed that his truck was slowing and lurching as it drank every last drop of gasoline. I rapidly scanned for a break in the roadside shrubbery or a dirt road to turn onto.
"Don't focus on the obvious, Adam," Eric urged. "Look for a dense patch of tall brush that's not butted up against any trees. If we smack into a tree, it'll all be over. By the time we'd recover and clear the truck, Sammy would probably be here. We've got to find a place where we can ditch my truck and it can remain hidden. The better its hidden, the greater distance we can put between us and Sammy."
"Up ahead on the left …"
"The left?" Eric asked. "Are you … ah, I see it! And you're right, Adam, the opposite side of the road is perfect. I bet Sammy will be concentrating on searching the right side of the road since we're driving on it."
Being careful not to leave tread marks on the asphalt, Eric gently aimed his pickup toward a slight opening between two batches of saplings, and then slowed down.
I hung my head out my window and looked behind us as we left the road. Relieved, I said, "We're not leaving any prints on the ground or in the grass. It all looks pretty dry – no mud."
"Great, now turn around and brace yourself."
Eric gently swerved the truck to miss a large tree and pushed deeper into the thicket. A few hundred feet further and the truck lurched to a stop. Having done its best, Eric put the gearshift into park and lightly patted the dashboard. "Thanks, dear friend."
I watched quietly as Eric slid the rosary off the rear-view mirror and tucked it into his shirt pocket. He yanked the acrylic picture frame off its velcro perch, slid both photos of his family out of the sleeves and gave each a kiss before slipping them into his jeans' back pocket.
Once again, Eric's personal effects reminded me I had nothing to live for. I suddenly felt very alone and sad.
"When we get home," Eric began, "I'm going to be a better husband and father."
"Sure, easy for you to say, Eric. I've got no one waiting for me. Assuming we survive this nightmare, I'll return to living in your basement alone. I won't have a wife and kids to squeeze."
"Bullcrap, Adam. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and help me hide the truck." As we hurried out of the cab, he continued with, "You have a lot to live for. Don't let that s.o.b. Sammy get into your head. Let's take this one step at a time. Before you know it, if we play our cards right, we'll be back in civilization, and all this will become a fading memory."
"Okay, fine – good advice. Look, while you're covering up the truck, I'm going back up the path to cover the opening near the road."
"Yeah, that's probably best. Just keep your head down and your eyes peeled. It wouldn't surprise me if Sammy estimated our gas reserves and calculated how much further ahead of him we are. That means he may start slowing down near here and begin an extensive search for signs of us. So, if you see him, drop to the ground or duck behind a tree. Don't you dare get curious and sneak a look."
He knew me well. I made a mental note to do as he instructed. Curiosity was a weakness of mine that could get us killed. I remembered blowing really good hiding places when playing hide-and-seek as a kid. It never failed that I'd peer out and get found. Apparently, Eric remembered those days as well.
"If you see him, immediately stop what you're doing and get back here. We need to take advantage of the remaining daylight. I suspect Sammy has infrared and night-vision goggles. He'll have the advantage at night."
"Where did you learn all this stuff?" I asked. "We rarely used survival skills and certainly didn't talk much about it whenever we've gone camping."
"Honestly, I learned most everything from Tanner when he and I went camping during my trips into the country for the utility board. I didn't tell you because you never acted interested, let alone listened, so why bother bringing it up," he said with a shrug. "Besides, I suppose I never thought we'd ever actually need to put any of it to use."
Ignoring his ill-timed jab at my ignorance, I said, "Well, try to remember as much of the tips and tricks as you can. We'll need all the help we can get." I brushed the dirt and grass off my hands and strode back toward the road. As I approached it, I crouched to make myself less visible and less of a target. I saw no sign of Sammy, so I furiously tugged and strained to pull the vines and brush across the hole we created with Eric's truck.
Contrary to Eric's bitter claim, during all of my years camping with him, we did learn quite a number of helpful survival tricks. Back then, on more than one occasion, Eric and I successfully disguised our hidden gear and food from other campers and hunters, protecting it all until we returned from our hike or whatever we were doing then. Also, there were several times when we forgot to bring fishing tackle and had to make our own from bones, shells, feathers, and even crafted fishing twine from vines. Once, our matches got soaked during a rainstorm. The Next day, however, we had a roaring fire and cooked up a mess of trout, thanks to knowing how to use the glasses I wore to concentrate sunlight onto kindling.
That was then, and this was now: Survival meant ensuring the fullness and variety of growth, within five minutes, covered the majority of the hole. I never stopped to admire my handiwork, but kept on track and didn't get lost in thought. I filled in gaps with handfuls of twigs, leaves, and small branches. Then, I walked around the front and gave the covering a critical once-over. As I completed making final adjustments, I saw distant dust rising off the road.
I grimaced and slowly crept into the woods and away from the road. "I hope he doesn't see me," I thought as I scurried toward where Eric was putting the final touches on concealing his truck. I trotted faster when I remembered that Eric said Sammy might be using infrared imaging to scan the roadside. If so, he might be able to see signs of residual heat emanating from the patched opening. Worse yet, he might be able to see beyond all the brush and locate us right away. As I approached the truck, I whispered my concerns to Eric.
"Duck down behind the truck," Eric hissed as he dove to get beneath it as well. I understood and complied without question.
We instinctively pressed our bodies deeper into the forest's floor when we heard the sounds of a large vehicle approach and then roar by.
Both of us realized that if Sammy was using detection equipment, the truck's steel and aluminum would not betray our location because our body heat wouldn't be visible.
"He's not slowing down yet," I said with a sigh of relief.
Eric said nothing in reply, rightfully deciding to hold his tongue until the truck's sounds were far off in the distance. Finally, he let out his held breath and whispered, "We can't stick around here. Eventually, Sammy will find the truck. With us without having any food and water, he'll know to search the easiest path, understanding that we are desperate and won't take the time or expend the energy to cover our tracks."
"So then all he'll have to do is follow our tracks and we're goners," I grumbled.
Eric ignored me and smiled, saying, "He doesn't have radar."
Derailed, I replied with a "huh?" – not catching on to his point.
"Radar would have found the truck. I'm betting he's pounding his good hand on his steering wheel for not having it."
"I get what you're saying. Without radar helping him pinpoint the location of your truck, he'll be looking for a needle in a haystack."
"Exactly – if he doesn't have a good starting point, we might have quite a head start on him before he ever finds our trail."
"The way he flew by here, he must think we're further along."
"Yeah, but that's good and bad. If he returns and starts looking for us back here, that's good because we'll be ahead of him. However, if he's sweeping the area ahead of us, we'll be walking right toward him."
"So, instead of being happy he raced by us, we're now praying he turns around and begins looking around here."
"Yep, and think of it like this, Adam, He knows he only has to search a few dozen yards off the road to find my truck. He'll realize that, running out of gas, we wouldn't have used our remaining fuel by engaging the four-wheel drive."
"Which means he'll know we didn't drive far into the woods."
"Right," Eric said and then swatted a mosquito. "What concerns me is that he's still not returned, and our only way out will be to sneak past him."
"What might work for us is that he'll probably set up a pretty comfortable camp for himself. We should see and hear him long before he'd see us."
"Good point, except for one thing. This guy wants revenge and is driven by insanity. What seems likely to you and me probably won't be the case. I bet you're right, that he does have enough supplies to outlast us, but he's not working with a brain that's firing on all cylinders. On top of that, he's nursing a severely damaged hand and leg."
"It'll be similar to the time we came across that black bear that had an arrow sticking out of its shoulder."
"I think so," Eric sighed, but then paused before saying, "One glaring difference is that we didn't have to walk far to find a ranger to capture the wounded bear. Out here, we have no idea who the good guys are, if there are any."
We kept the sun behind us as we carefully made our way through the forest. My nerves twitched with each snapped twig or startled bird.
"Birds might be the death of us," Eric grumbled. "All it takes is one startled bird to tip off Sammy, and it's game over."
"Sneaking around like we're having to do isn't helping us in that respect. It's actually kind of ironic. We try to remain quiet, but by doing so, we may end up revealing our location thanks to Mother Nature's early-warning system."
"This is when we have to believe that God is on our side."
"I'll go along with that," I said, but the words rang empty in my heart. I thought of the many times my prayers to reunite my family went unanswered. A bitter scowl spread across my face, which Eric noticed.
"Pull it together, buddy," Eric warned. "Stay focused or we're dead meat."
"Yeah, yeah," I mumbled, glad that Eric recognized my funk and helped me re-focus.
An unexpected sound completely snapped me out of my funk. My pulse soared as I feared it was the sound of Sammy noisily gulping from a water bottle. "Crap, Eric, he's found us," I hissed.
Eric didn't say a word. He stood still and wasn't moving a muscle. He slowly raised his right arm and pointed to a nearby ridge.
I, too, pointed, but to a path that would take us away from the noise. As we crept along, we realized the sound continued. Perhaps against our better judgment, but after rationalizing the sound couldn't be coming from Sammy, we snuck back to where we first heard the sound, and then slinked up the hill. Peering over it, we realized we were looking down into a beautiful pool of crystal-blue bubbling water.
A quick scan of the area and I shot down the embankment before Eric could loudly hiss, "Stop!" He frantically pointed to the water's edge and then waved for me to return
"But, it's water," I mouthed, with my arms spread out in that questioning posture. Then, reality sunk in. Along the banks of the pool were the remains of several animals and birds. "Poisoned," I snarled, and then trudged back up the hill. "Some poor shmuck must have made it this far to give Sammy the idea to poison the water."
Although Eric said nothing further at this instant, as if on cue, he lifted the remnants of a tattered backpack. "It seems at least one did. I wonder if the guy was here before or after the water was poisoned."
"One thing's for certain," I said, summing up the situation, "he didn’t make it out of here alive or Sammy would be rotting in prison today instead of tracking us down."
After rummaging through the ruined bag, but not finding anything useful, Eric hid it beneath a pile of leaves and debris.
"Why bother covering it up?" I asked.
"Sammy's been here, which means he's familiar with this area, and might check to see if we came this way. We don't need him finding the backpack laying around. It'd be a clear signal that we'd been here."
"You'd think he'd clear out the dead animals. They were the tip-off that the water was poisoned."
"Sammy may be careless, confident that no one's made it this far in years; or more than likely, he's been too busy murdering and plastinating guys to keep up with the grounds."
I didn't care for Eric's icy comment and scrunched up my face.
"We must think like him or better than him if we're to survive, Adam." Eric looked up at the sun. It was beginning its descent behind the mountain range. "We're not getting as far along as I'd hoped," he said.
"Yeah, I was thinking we need to stop and find or make a shelter before it gets dark." In the back of my mind, I, too, wished we had put more distance between us and the road, but Eric and I were experienced enough to know that you must find shelter an hour or so before sunset or you'll be sleeping out in the open. This was certainly not a time when either of us wanted to take any risks.
As we stumbled along, searching for a cave or large indentation, I said, "I've been looking for anything we could eat, but it appears we'll go hungry tonight."
"I'm not surprised," Eric huffed as we fought our way through a thicket of thorny vines. "It's as if Sammy built Manton in the most inhospitable piece of land he could find. Not only is he capable of keeping its location remote and secret this way, but if anyone escapes, it's unlikely they'll find enough food to survive the ordeal. I'm willing to bet that Sammy picked up a few guys who were starving to death."
"I've heard of bounty hunters and trackers who purposely make camp in the middle of a search area, then cook up some amazing-smelling food. Escapees, mad from hunger, crawl back into captivity in the hopes of getting some of the food."
"Then, we'd better steel ourselves, my friend," Eric said, patting my shoulder. "We can't allow hunger to dull our senses or cloud our judgment."
"Easier said than done," I said as I rubbed my aching stomach. We hadn't eaten at all that day. We woke up only minutes before leaving to go fishing. Both of us assumed we'd eat on Sammy's yacht. Since then, we were on the run, never having found anything to eat or drink.
I noticed a hollow beneath a tree's roots off to our left. I nudged Eric's arm to get his attention and pointed. "Let's see if it's large enough for both of us to fit beneath." As we walked toward it, I looked up and followed the tree's trunk line. "It's swaying, but it looks healthy enough that the roots are probably well anchored."
Eric agreed. After giving the tree a few shoves to determine its sturdiness and stability, we took turns crawling into the opening beneath the exposed roots. Thankfully, we saw no signs that humans had ever been in this spot, which indicated that it was likely Sammy had never been here either.
As dusk approached, clouds gathered due to the decrease in temperature near the mountains. We were grateful for our shelter, though it made us anxious as the big tree swayed and groaned as a result of the weight of the rain and the strong winds. The ensuing cloudburst, which provided us with plenty of fresh water to drink, was a mixed blessing. Our footprints and lingering scents were washed away, but we faced new challenges. Mud and lingering collecting pools of rainwater would make finding dry shelter more difficult. They would also slow our progress, slipping and sliding on what used to be dry and compact soil. Then, there was the problem of new footprints. In mud, these would be deeper and very visible for quite a while, thus making it easier to track us.
Frustration seemed to be setting in, challenging rationality. "We could take our chances and walk along the road for a while," Eric suggested.
I thought he was nuts. "We'd be in plain sight! How much easier could we make it for Sammy to find us?" I exclaimed. Then it dawned on me. Eric was a genius, and he knew I realized his plan when a grin spread across my face.
Instead of continuing to head due east, we decided to meander back and forth across the road. The intervals and duration would vary, and on a number of crossings, we decided to remain in the brush on the same side of the road we exited onto. Once our muddy footprints faded, Sammy wouldn't be able to tell where and when we exited the road. We prayed this technique would not only slow him, but frustrate him to the point of giving up our pursuit.
Our euphoria was short lived. It was only two days later when, as we cleared a thicket of scrub pines and approached the road, we saw a patch of dirt kick up ahead of us, which was followed by the distinctive crack of a rifle shot. Running for all we were worth, we dashed back into the brush as we heard the whine of Sammy's truck tires on the asphalt. It took him a few seconds to get to where we had left the brush for the road, but because of our muddy footprints, he didn't have to waste time searching for our re-entry point.
Above the noise of our crashing and thrashing to get deeper into the forest, we heard the clanking sounds associated with a trailer being unloaded. The roar of another, yet smaller, engine starting told us that Sammy was coming after us atop an ATV.
"It's over," I spat as I huffed and wheezed. "After all we've endured, I can't believe he's this close to us. Been nice knowing you, Eric."
"Shut up and push on," Eric demanded, ignoring my frustrated whining. "This area is so unstable and rocky, it shouldn't be difficult to find a path that will stall his ATV."
"Then what?" I asked. "So, he has to get off his ATV and chase after …" I let the words die on my tongue. Of course! I kept forgetting that the left half of Sammy's body was effectively useless, frozen and probably rotting from acetone burns. With this revelation, my anger and frustration melted, having been replaced by vigor and my determination to survive.
As expected, the ATV screamed to life, and we heard it crash into the not-so-distant brush behind us. Although deciding to do so left us temporarily exposed, Eric and I scrambled up a rock outcropping and landed atop a plateau. What greeted us startled the life out of me.
Apparently, this wasn't the first time Sammy had cornered a victim on this rocky hillside. The human skull was bleached, having been stripped of all its meat and gore months or years before. It stared blankly at us. I swear I could almost see the pain of the poor guy's last minutes within the hollows of his eye sockets.
We shook off feelings of fear and dread as we were momentarily distracted from our flight. "Well," I noted, "here lies one who almost got away."
Eric, now crouched atop the plateau, gingerly tugged at the faded and encrusted remains of a shirt. It crackled and shattered in response. He let the fragment he held slip to the ground. "This guy's been up here a while," Eric muttered while rummaging through the remains with the toe of his shoe. "Besides a few bones and the remnants of a shirt, there's nothing left of the guy." Eric picked up the skull and bounced it in his hands like a basketball.
"Are you sick? Show some respect and put that down, would you!" I exclaimed. "It's not a soccer ball, for Pete's sake, it was a guy's head!"
"Sorry," Eric mumbled as he reversed his attitude and courteously set the skull where we found it. "I'm freaking out inside, I guess, knowing that we're stuck up here waiting for a killer." Instead of helping me devise our escape, Eric settled down next to the skull and the other remains.
"What are you doing?" I hissed, frantically searching for signs of Sammy approaching.
"It's odd that Sammy didn't come after his body once the poor slob was dead." Eric paused as if to recreate the guy's last moments. "Which means he was probably dying and made it this far before losing the strength to continue. This may be a good sign for us."
"How can a dead guy be a good thing for us?" I impatiently demanded to know.
"Sammy wants bodies to fill his dioramas. It doesn't make sense that he'd leave a body after tracking it. So, we can assume Sammy didn't know the guy was up here when he died."
I finally understood why Eric sat down to study the partial skeleton. "Yeah, but let's say Sammy doesn't know for certain, but suspects we're on this plateau. With a messed up hand and foot, he certainly can't climb up here to finish us off, but he can wait us out. Sieges and blockades are effective."
"Sure, I know, but he's only one person, and a badly damaged one at that. I'm guessing he hopped onto his ATV without much more than a gun. I think we need to wait up here until we hear him leave to get supplies. Surely, he'll want to set up camp below us and wait us out."
"Which is why I vote that we leave now instead of waiting. What if Sammy did bring his gear?"
"The jerk's running on adrenaline and emotion. I doubt he'll waste precious minutes loading up saddle bags. Once he does realize we're probably up here, it'll get nasty. Don't be surprised if he begins yelling and screaming all kinds of evil threats about us and what he plans to do to us."
"I get it. We plug our ears and bide our time. Before long, he'll try to sneak off to retrieve his camping gear and supplies."
"Right, and that's when we slip down the backside off this rock. Did you see the stream?"
"Yeah, it's running north to south, which will help us make for a quicker escape and cover our tracks."
"We're on the same page, then. Once Sammy leaves, we'll sneak down to the stream and wade down the middle of it to cover our footprints or any scrapes we might put on the rock surfaces."
"Now, the challenge is for us to remain absolutely quiet the entire time he's here. We need to keep him guessing – unsure if we're really up here or not. If we get into an argument or discussion of some kind with him, it'll only help him keep tabs on us. Then, after calling up to us and not getting an answer, he'd know we slipped away."
Eric and I dropped onto our stomachs as the ATV crashed and crunched its way into the natural clearing beneath our protective, rocky plateau.
"I know you're up there!" Sammy screamed. "Get down here right now before I toss a stick of dynamite up there and blow you two to pieces."
A moment's panic seized us and we felt the urge to yell, but squeezed each other's hands, which had a calming effect. This was the first of what would be many of Sammy's taunts. We listened to some of his rants and plugged our ears with our fingers during his most vile monologues, but we never replied, never made a sound.
Our silence either confused or concerned him. Perhaps he thought we weren't hiding atop this plateau. He might be thinking we already disappeared into the stream. Whatever the rationale, Sammy screamed a final vile comment before starting his ATV and driving off. We listened to see if he was circling the plateau, if he was off to follow the stream, or if he was returning to his truck for supplies. Seemingly frustrated, confused, and out of control, Sammy, atop his ATV, wandered around aimlessly near the stream, then back to our rocky hiding place, then in circles in the woods, and finally, off he raced toward his truck.
"Thank God," Eric said with a sigh.
"Let's go," I whispered.
The ATV was still lurching and rambling its way back to Sammy's truck when we took our first steps in the creek's icy water. The shock nearly convinced me to take my chances and straddle the shoreline, but Eric forced me to remain in the stream. It never became comfortable, but my feet and legs did get numb, which actually helped relieve the pain and shock.
With the water streaming along rapidly behind us, we made excellent time by not having to fight against a current. Within fifteen minutes, we could no longer see the top of the rocky outcropping or its surroundings. We strained to hear the metallic edginess of the ATV, but its sound diminished the further away we were.
"I wonder if Sammy gave up," I mused.
"I believe he intends on tracking us, like we used to do to game when we went camping. Remember, the other reason he won't give up is that he can't afford to have us reach civilization. Then, he's bent on revenge for his messed up hand and foot.".
My grin dropped and I returned to searching frantically for signs of the maniac.
Eric added, "Think about it. He saw us leave the road near the plateau. I bet he's having to go slower than he wants because of the damage to his left hand and leg. I have a feeling he's almost ready to return to set up camp and a siege line around the rocks. All I can say is that I think we made the right decision and beat it out of there."
Changing the subject, I rhetorically asked, "Do you ever wonder how many guys got this far, if any?" Maybe I was grasping for a sense of pride from within this perverse nightmare. Whatever the motivator, I was ecstatic we had slipped away from Sammy once again. I didn't care for the fact that he almost caught us, though.
I shuddered to think how different the outcome would have been had Sammy's bullet found its mark as we headed out of the brush to cross the highway. The bullet landed closest to Eric. If he had been shot, I wouldn't have left him there to die alone. I suspect Sammy would have then shot me, too, as I stood by my best friend's side.
"Shake it off, Adam," grunted Eric, as if he could read my mind. "No, I can't read your mind, but I can read your face. You're lost in some stupid depressing thought. For our sake, stop replaying the awful scenes and keep your head clear and focused on surviving this mess."
"Will do, boss," I said with a relieved grin and an obnoxious salute.
A thunderous blast from behind shut us up. We quickened our pace, scurrying and stumbling on the slime-coated rocks within the stream. We realized Sammy had indeed tossed something explosive onto the plateau. Additional staccato bursts proved how desperate Sammy was to destroy us. He wasn't out to catch us. He was trying to turn us into dust.
"If we had decided to stay and wait him out further …" I whispered from within a numb state of shock.
Eric fared no better. His face was pale at the realization we had narrowly avoided being blown to bits. He stumbled and, out of breath and weary from being hunted, began to settle onto a dry rock's surface.
"C'mon, Eric, get up! Don't let the bastard win," I urgently whispered. "Listen, he's still tossing dynamite and screaming. He doesn't have a clue where we are now."
"We're not that far away," he mumbled in reply. "On his ATV, he can catch up to us in seconds." He looked sadly at our surroundings. "We're sitting ducks."
"Yeah, we're exposed, and you're right, if we stay any longer, he's gonna find us. This is why we must keep going," I grunted as I grabbed Eric under his arm and forced him onto his feet.
He looked at me and said, "I'm sorry."
"Not now – as you said, we don't have time to waste talking about this touchy-feely stuff. We must keep going." Then, we came upon a sight that almost convinced me to give up.
We were making good time, encouraged by a patch of flat stones that gave us better footing while we hurried downstream. Furthermore, Sammy was still tossing explosives and yelling, though all of it was muffled by the dense vegetation and changing landscape. It was comforting to know he was still there and had not yet decided to follow the stream. I was beginning to relax a little and began to believe we could survive this insanity.
"Oh, no!" Eric sighed and pointed ahead of us.
A massive wooden platform stood atop a short pole. The contraption rested against an immense willow tree that stood at the water's edge. We both recognized the sprung trap and approached it cautiously.
"To answer your earlier question, Adam, yes, it seems at least one guy made it this far."
"But no further," I sighed, flicking a finger toward the boot wedged within the trap.
"Not since Vietnam …," Eric mumbled, letting the words trail off.
I prayed a silent thank you to God that it wasn't Eric and me skewered by this trap. I went to the left of it while Eric examined its right. I shuddered at the sight of stakes of wood partially embedded within the willow's trunk.
"Sammy's getting sloppy," I muttered.
"And desperate," Eric added. "I'm sensing that Sammy gets desperate the further away his victims get, so he sets wickedly nasty traps this far away from Manton."
"From the crushed remains within this trap," I added, "Sammy had no intention of retrieving this guy."
"Where I'm standing, it doesn't look like anyone's tried to pry this trap open."
"Satisfied he killed the guy, I wonder if Sammy left this as a demoralizing warning to others who escape and run this way."
"Makes me wonder what's waiting for us up ahead. One thing's for sure, Sammy is very familiar with this section of the forest. Also, I doubt he would have set such an elaborate trap if others hadn't tried to escape like we are."
"On the bright side, it's encouraging to see that some other guys didn't fall immediately for Sammy's tricks while in Manton." I tried to peer through the sets of wooden spikes to see how long ago this trap had been sprung. I couldn't see anything other than the boot that was pierced by a spike, next to me. The rest of the skeleton was hidden by rows of spikes, fallen leaves and debris. "This guy's been here a while," I whispered.
"We need to move away from the stream now," Eric urged. "I have a feeling he's set up a similar trap nearby in hopes of catching anyone fooled into thinking there wouldn't be another trap for a while." Eric crouched low and swept his hands from side to side as he moved forward. I knew he was searching for tripwires, so I did the same from my side of the stream.
I felt pressure against my left hand, so I pulled away from the small branch that was reaching out over the stream from the left bank. "Down!" I barked as I dropped, and Eric fell flat without further discussion.
"Whoosh!" went the trees and brush on both sides of the stream as two similarly-large wooden frames raced toward each other. "Whack!" Covered in wooden spikes, they slammed together above the center of the stream. Their lowest spikes missed impaling us by about six inches.
"Help me!" Eric pleaded. I was fine, but one spike had pierced the back of Eric's shirt collar. He was pinned beneath the trap. I slipped and slid over to him while he strained to keep his face out of the water, but he needed to get out from beneath the trap or he'd drown.
I flailed around in the water between us until I found a sharp-edged rock. "Coming, buddy," I said. "Hang in there. I'll have you freed in a moment." It only took a few slices of the rock's edge to cut Eric's shirt free of the wooden spike.
"Crap," Eric gurgled as he shakily rose to his feet. "That was too close."
"We're lucky you thought to sweep ahead of us for another trap," I said as we watched the hideous structure sway, suspended above the stream by a pair of saplings Sammy had used as the trap's springs.
"I had a feeling," Eric sighed. He gingerly reached behind his neck and felt the hole the spike had left in his shirt. "Too close," he muttered while shaking from fear and the rush of adrenaline. He wiggled a finger through the hole. "Too close," he softly echoed.
"I suspect there won't be another trap like this for a while," I said while inspecting the trap's intricate construction. "After two in a row, I can't imagine Sammy was interested in making more of these." I ran my hand along one of the spikes. It must have taken days to build and a few more to drag them out here and set up." I looked around the area where we stood, wondering what other traps Sammy might have for us. "We can't let our guard down 'cause Sammy will eventually discover that we sprung the trap."
"He'll probably be this way tomorrow morning. No doubt he suspects we'd follow the stream, as others have done before us. I'm convinced we must leave this stream because there will be further traps ahead."
"Agreed," I muttered. "Let's start looking for a clearing alongside the stream – one that won't likely leave footprints."
Against our better judgment and raw nerves, we continued downstream, staying within its middle, while searching the banks for a good getaway. We knew that the further we went in the stream, the greater our chances were of getting caught in one of Sammy's traps. In spite of this likelihood, we pushed ourselves to continue beyond what might normally be reasonable in hopes of throwing Sammy off our trail. We believed he'd think we left the stream earlier than we did, which would put us even further away from his search area.
"There," I said, nudging Eric in the side. I was pointing at a cave's entrance. It sat a foot above and about three feet away from the stream's bank.
"You're kidding, right?" Eric remarked. "There's no doubt in my mind that Sammy's got that cave rigged with explosives or something."
"Yeah, I think so, too; however, I'm not suggesting we stay the night in the cave."
"Then  what is it?" Eric grumbled.
"Do you see the staggered rocks alongside the cave? Follow them up and to the right. We might have to push through some patches of grass and some shrubs, but it appears  they'll lead us out of this canyon."
"Perfect! A natural staircase - Good job, Adam!" Eric said, slapping me on the shoulder. "Sammy would naturally think we'd attempt to stay in the cave, not avoid it and climb up into the brush … Hey! And with him having to rely on his ATV, he won't be able to follow us into the area above the cave. He'll have to backtrack and find our path from along the road, or he might even assume we had continued along the stream."
"If we had the guts to do it, I'd love to go further downstream, set off more of his traps, and then backtrack to this cave and then up the rock stairs. Man, would that throw him off." I grinned, envisioning Sammy thrashing among the trees, full of  frustration, rage, and anxiety. "It'd serve him right."
"Yeah, but the reality check is that we're standing near our escape hatch, and we barely survived Sammy's last trap. I think we need to count our blessings and head upstairs."
I stared at the cave and its picturesque surroundings before muttering, "Also, it may not take Sammy long to get to this place. The sooner we're out of here the better. But, there's no reason we can't string him along and add to his confusion."
"What are you talking about?"
"You and I know the cave is booby trapped – probably rigged to explode. Well, how about we purposely set off the explosion, which will likely seal the cave's entrance shut."
"You're good … and damn clever! So," Eric said with excitement building in his voice, "we toss a large stone into the cave, it sets off the explosives, and we make our escape. It might take Sammy weeks to dig out the rubble, especially with only one hand and no one to help him."
"Better yet, if Sammy behaves like he has with the other guys who got snared in his traps out here, he'll assume we're dead and give up without bothering to dig. He may just turn around and head back to Manton."
" Either way, this is going to work for us."
Eric and I hurried to find some rocks that were large enough to trigger a trap, yet small enough to throw from a distance. We knew better than to stand directly in front of the cave's entrance; The cave's shape would act like a cannon and blow us apart with its disgorged contents. instead, Eric and I stood at opposite sides of the cave. Eric gave me a silent three-count and then pointed at the cave.
Timidly, I chucked my first rock in and turned away from the cave, hands and arms wrapped around my head and ears for protection.
"No joy," Eric grumbled as my rock clattered harmlessly to a rest. Struggling to maintain his position, he huffed, "Okay, get ready, here goes mine!" Eric lobbed his small boulder in, believing it would bounce around, giving us the greatest chance of setting off a charge.
Sure enough, it worked. The resulting explosion behaved like a cannon's shot. Debris and flames roared out of the cave, plastering and decimating the land across the stream. A mid-sized tree teetered from having half its trunk shot out from under it.
The once-stately oak collapsed straight down to the ground, and then folded over. Its top slowly and gracefully came to rest a couple of feet from where we cowered. The plasma from the explosion ignited the closest leaves   and branches, adding to the firestorm.
It was too hot to stay any longer. Before I bolted up the steps, I took off my sweater and tossed it into the raging pyre.
Eric was trapped by the heat and flames, but succeeded in squirming down from his perch and dropped to the canyon floor. He dashed through the stream, around the shattered tree trunk, and then up the steps to where I was waiting. He kept walking, with me in pursuit, as he said, "Tossing your over-shirt onto the fire was a Great idea, Adam! That should be the final touch – and look, the entrance sealed up just like we'd hoped."
"Yeah, but we didn't think this through. Instead of sneaking away, we set off one heck of a calling card. Because of the explosion, Sammy now knows we're nowhere near the plateau where he was tossing dynamite. We'd better move quickly away from this place. Sammy will be here any minute. "
Getting to the hilltop above the cave wasn't a difficult climb. Although curious, we didn't wait around to see if Sammy came to inspect the cave's remains. It would be stupid to risk him seeing us. He needed to believe we were dead. Our pace quickened into a flat-out run after we crested the hilltop. We heard Sammy's ATV approaching, and that was all the incentive we needed to keep running for another forty-five minutes.
We learned two valuable lessons: First, even though tempting, we would no longer set off Sammy's traps – no point in telling him where we are and how far we're getting. Then, there was no more crossing back and forth along the road and risking exposing ourselves. The way was more complex and difficult, but it was safer to remain hidden within the brush and undergrowth.
We spent the night buried beneath piles of brush and leaves that had filled in a shallow depression in the ground. I startled awake when I heard the sound of a vehicle passing by on the not-so-distant road. At first, I thought it was Sammy, but the truck was heading toward Manton. "Poor bastard," I sighed, wishing there was some way we could warn whoever was driving to turn around. It was too late for Eric and me to run to the road to get the guy to stop and give us a ride to safety.
Selfishly, I sighed groggily and settled back into sleep when I realized that the passing vehicle meant that Sammy must have returned to Manton. I hoped this meant he called off the search for Eric and me. I slept fitfully, however, because I kept waking up from a dream – one where Eric and I were watching the blob of a man floating beneath the surface of an acetone-filled vat.
We awoke before dawn in the hopes of snaring a bird or squirrel sleepily getting on with the day. Experienced campers and hunters, catching such prey was usually not difficult. This time, though, we didn't have tidy backpacks loaded with hunting and fishing gear. Similarly, we weren't experienced at eating things raw, but we were so hungry that even a handful of ants sounded good at the moment. So, that is exactly what we ate for breakfast. They protested, as did we, but protein we needed, so down the hatch they went. Water was plentiful, which helped wash down the little crunchy pieces that we wished to forget. There wasn't much else to eat but wild onions. After this most unappetizing meal, we filled our stomachs with water, covered our camp with handfuls of leaves, and left our site by walking backwards. Doing so, we hoped, would convince Sammy we were heading in a different direction than our actual path. We weren't experts at this commando stuff, but did learn a few tricks from years of camping and watching survival shows on TV. Begrudgingly, I admitted that Eric learned some very cool techniques from Tanner, most of which I never saw before.
As we trudged, we communicated only through hand gestures and touching. There wasn't a conscious effort to create some clever codes; instead, this tactic was borne out of the necessity that, if Sammy were still hunting us, we didn't want our voices to carry. I tapped Eric on the arm and pointed toward the nearby road. We kept our distance from it, but remained parallel to it. No doubt, Sammy anticipated that we'd need to stay close to the road as it was the most direct path back to civilization, but we knew better than to get too close.
Eric stopped for a rest while I slid off toward the road. After confirming we were still on course, I cautiously retraced my steps. Just before coming up beside Eric, I froze, then dropped flat on my stomach. Eric did the same as a thunderous thrumming moved closer toward us from the road leaving Manton.
"Sammy!" I spat, after recognizing the sound of his truck. He wasn't slowing, though, as I had expected. He was hurtling by, but a bizarre sound accompanied his hurried departure. I hugged the ground even tighter and gripped a patch of grass ahead of me, as if doing so offered more than reassurance. I closed my eyes in anticipation of death.
Staccato, yet seamless, shotgun blasts grew closer. I wasn't surprised, I guess I sort-of expected it, but Sammy's blood-money bought him an AA-12, the most feared shotgun in the US-military's arsenal. Recognizing its signature sound was of little consolation. Ironically, this was the same shotgun I told Eric that I saw on TV the night before we left home. I recalled that we joked about how the crazy thing can not just shred your enemy, but tear them into unrecognizable pieces.
After telling Eric the story of the AA-12, we kidded about getting hold of one of the things and going postal on our bosses. Luckily for my boss, he fired me before I could get my hands on an AA-12. God apparently appreciates irony because here I was, lying face down in the dirt, praying for deliverance from the unholy thing.
I looked up and over at Eric, who lied spread-eagle a few steps ahead of me. In response to the terrified look on his face, I mouthed, "AA-12," which he seemed to remember from the story I told him of the military's notorious shotgun. We frantically looked around for a depression or hole we could sink into, but we were on flat and level ground. We watched in horror as trees and brush were mown down or simply vanished within the approaching debris field.
Again, I turned my head toward Eric, and felt even more scared as I watched him slide the photos of his wife and kids out his back pocket, kiss them both, and then hold them tight against his cheek. I noticed the rosary was wrapped around his fist. He was making peace with God – something I realized I'd better get doing myself.
"He's got to run out of ammo," I thought. "Please, God, let it run out of ammo or jam. Please, dear God, please." I tried counting shotgun blasts, but the AA-12 can fire close to 300 rounds per minute. With all the noise, I couldn't keep count. Also, I remembered that the thing used a 20- or 32-round drum. Sammy was firing hundreds of rounds without having to stop to reload. I guessed he devised or bought a belt-fed variant that eagerly spat out shotgun pellets and shrapnel. I never heard a break in the pattern. I envisioned that Sammy had thousands of shotgun shells threaded together, stored in the truck bed, and fed through the cab's rear window and into the AA-12. Why, when faced with horrible situations, did I always think of ways of making my situation worse?
The way trees and rock shards were flying, there was a greater chance, if that were possible, of getting crushed by a falling tree or shattered rock than by shotgun pellets. The mass of debris raced closer as the approaching roar of the AA-12's blasts grew louder.
Unable to take any more, I closed my eyes, jammed a finger into each of my ear canals and settled in for what certainly would be an agonizing death. Oh, how I wished I could wrap my arms around my ex-wife and kids. I would do anything to relive one day with them. Knocking on death's door, perhaps I finally realized life was worth fighting for.
Closer the debris came. Shattered tree bark whizzed a few inches above my head. Tiny pieces and choking dust quietly blanketed Eric and me, rolling ahead of the horrifying destruction. Then, the creaking and thrashing began as the shotgun's shrapnel cut the midsections out of even the hardiest of the nearby trees.
The "whomp, whomp, whomp," was upon us. Ricochets sounded like buzzing bees, while the majority reminded me of a harsh rainstorm as it battered the vegetation into pulp. I ground my face and groin even harder into the soil, feebly attempting to evade the withering death.
Oddly, as the shrapnel and debris reached our hiding place, it rose about a foot into the air above our heads. Later, I realized there must have been a small rise in the road. When Sammy's truck went up and over the rise, so did the pattern of destruction that emanated from the murderous shotgun. I couldn't believe it, but as a result of that slight rise in the road's surface, none of the shotgun pellets hit Eric or me.
Just as quickly as it was upon us, the firestorm moved beyond us, but I felt no relief. I prayed a quick thank you to God, but barely got that thought out of my head when the stricken trees began falling. They tumbled and spun as they fell. Many collapsed back toward the road, but most fell in the same direction the shotgun pellets took. Surrounded by dying trees, Eric and I scrambled to our feet and raced to put as much distance as possible between us and the road. The shorter trees weren't the problem. We were trying to outrun the force of gravity on three trees that were easily 100-feet tall.
Eric and I were side-by-side as the first of the three thrashed to the ground a mere six feet behind us. We didn't swerve from our straight-line path as anything else would have left us beneath the shadows of the two remaining falling trees. The second tree twisted as it crashed into the third, the most massive of the three trees. The glancing blow caused the second tree to spin away harmlessly, but the third one never deviated from its path. It seemed determined to crush Eric and me. It's massive shadow swallowed us as it darkened, blocking out the sun.
In a last, desperate move, I gave Eric a shove, which caused him to stumble and peel off to the right. The recoil from my shove helped steer me to the left. I tripped and then fell, tumbling to rest behind a boulder.
I feared Eric was dead, crushed by the behemoth. I ached, but after checking myself over, found that I suffered nothing more serious than some cuts and bruising. A gash across my forehead dripped blood down my cheeks, but I was so glad to be alive that I didn't care to wipe it away until it got into my eyes. I took off my shirt and wiped my face off. To keep out the swirling dust, I tied my shirt around my head to protect the wound. I felt fine, but as I stood, the forest began spinning. Hungry and weak, our race for survival must have sapped me of my remaining energy. I stumbled as I attempted to sit back down. I made it as far as my knees touching the ground before I blacked out.
When I awoke, the sun was going down. I still hadn't heard from Eric, and as it appeared that hours had passed, I feared he was dead. Suddenly, I felt very alone and very afraid. If Sammy possessed this kind of firepower, how could I ever hope of surviving. Thoughts of giving up clouded my perception.
"He's here," I sighed as I lied flat on my back. "You got me, Sammy," I mumbled as a shadowy figure stood over me. I heard a crack and expected he had just cocked his shotgun.
"Can you get up, Adam?" whispered Eric. I couldn't believe my ears. Certain I was facing imminent death, I gave up on hope; yet, it was Eric, and not Sammy, who stood over me. He stuck out a hand, which I gladly reached up to grasp. However, Eric yelled in pain and threw my hand off of his.
I tumbled onto my back, but as I shakily got to my feet, I noticed that Eric was leaning on a branch That was supporting his weight. My joy was replaced by dread. I imagined Eric was nursing a broken foot or leg, either of which would effectively mean the end to our escape. He wouldn't be able to walk, and I was so weak, I knew I wouldn't be able to support him while navigating the hostile and unforgiving terrain.
"What happened? Are you okay?" I asked, dreading Eric's reply.
"It's either a break or a strain, but either way, my left rib-cage's a mess. I'm swollen like a balloon," he grumbled as he strained to breathe without wincing in pain. "It took me hours to get over to you."
"Why didn't you yell out for me? I could have …"
"I did," he mumbled, "but you didn't answer. I thought you were dead. I had to find a way to stand up in order to find you."
"I was fine until I tried to stand up, too. I'm so worn out that after I hit my head, my body gave up, and I passed out."
"Well, I had time to think while I tried to make a way to get on my feet."
"Yeah, so? About what?" I angrily muttered. "Please spare me any fanciful escape plans. With your fractured ribs and my aching head, we'll be going even slower. We're easy targets now."
"After the guy who passed by in his truck this morning, Sammy is apparently not expecting more victims to Manton," Eric vacantly said.
"Who cares?"
"We should. He wouldn't have savagely attacked the approach to Manton if he had other victims on their way. They'd see the devastation then turn around and flee."
He stopped talking to let the significance sink in. I understood the implication. "Which means he'll have more time to hunt for us."
"Yep. The way I see it, today's attack was out of desperation. If he had a clue to where we were, he would have pinpointed all that firepower on our position. The fact that he carpeted the area says that he lost our trail."
"So, he's no longer trying to capture us – he wants us dead to cover his tracks."
"Seems that way to me. I believe his shotgun attack was a last-ditch effort to kill us. Look further ahead," he said as he motioned in the direction of where we had been heading before Sammy's attack. "The terrain gets rugged as we move toward those distant hills and mountains."
"Yeah, there's no way his ATV could navigate those rocks and boulders. with his bum leg and hand, he can't climb into their either."
The AA-12's destruction made our escape even more harrowing and dangerous. For one hundred yards from the road, the way was choked with dead and dying vegetation, angry and shocked animals, and unstable rock formations.
"It seems Sammy had it all figured out," I grumbled, smacking my hip in frustration. "Neither of us have the strength and endurance to get through all this debris and into the hills before we die of starvation."
"Well, since you said it that way, I have an idea I've been mulling over."
I was afraid of that. Whenever Eric got an idea during troubling times in our past, it may have turned out for the best, but the journey was always fraught with danger and horrible odds. I gave the ravaged scenery one last look over before turning to Eric and asking, "Okay, enlighten me. What's your hare-brained scheme?"

* * * * *

Please come back tomorrow night to read Chapter 5! I hope you enjoy the story. Please leave a comment regarding this novel.

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