This story is by Ingrid Pearce and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Torment In Stone River Valley
“Who is this?” I pleaded with the woman whose voice taunted me in the pre-dawn phone call.
“If you want to see Max again, with all of his pretty guitar strumming fingers attached to those strong, manly hands of his, come and get him.”
Under the driver’s seat of my pickup, the woman who called herself “Cass” left a package and a note. The tiny web camera, now strapped to my forehead, enabled her to monitor my movement, proving I was alone and didn’t alert the police. Adjusting the earpiece through which she would communicate with me, I read her instructions.
“Meet me at your cabin,” the note demanded. “No snowmobile. Use your horse and the old trapper’s trail. Be here by twelve o’clock today. For every minute past noon, I’ll dock a digit.”
Skidding away from the house, I raced up the winding road to the stables where I boarded my mare, Janey. By sled, it would have been a manageable trek. On horseback, the rough trail would be treacherous, given the fast approaching snowstorm.
“Damn!” I cursed and ducked my head so the camera wouldn’t catch Max’s brother, Sam as we passed each other. When he slowed his Jeep almost to a stop, I pretended not to notice and left a backwash of swirling snow behind me. I prayed he didn’t follow me, thinking it strange I’d go riding in this inclement weather.
Ice pellets stung my face as I struggled to follow the path through the rugged terrain of boulders, pines and leafless aspens. Janey knew the trail but in this blizzard, even she hesitated, testing her footing.
I loved Max with all my heart. It was his music that drew me to him, in the beginning. He was a cowboy, yet the songs he wrote were powerful and moving. I searched the archives of my brain in desperation to figure out who would have reason to harm Max. All I knew at this moment was that I couldn’t stop, I had to get to him before noon today.
Gusts of blinding snow assaulted Janey and me as we pressed on through the trees. Each gruelling minute that passed was agony, yet I couldn’t push my mare any faster. Pulling the collar of my oilskin coat around my face, I urged the horse higher along the trail.
“Are you still with me, Rachel? Don’t fall asleep in the saddle. Max is waiting for you.” Cass’s one-sided torments hit their mark. Anger swelled inside of me.
By eleven o’clock I reached the mountain summit. Like an aural beacon, the rushing waters of Stone River guided me on my descent into the valley and soon I would be travelling its bank to our cabin.
“You’re getting close, Rachel. Just another couple of miles.” Cass crooned into my ear.
She was leading me into a trap. Of that, I was certain. How Cass found a way to use our cabin to execute her sadistic plan disturbed and frightened me. Even the thundering roar of the river couldn’t drown out the pounding of my anxious heart.
“Come on, Janey.” I gave my mare a gentle nudge.
Rounding the next bend, the river calmed to a smoother flow and the shoreline opened up to a clearing. Smoke blew sideways out of the small log cabin’s chimney and snow whirled in all directions. What was always a peaceful, welcoming scene, now became one of deception. A wave of panic surged in my chest. I scanned the surroundings, dismounted Janey and tore off the surveillance gear as I trudged through a foot of fresh snow towards the door.
Music playing inside stopped me in my tracks. Max strummed his guitar, singing the familiar song I loved, one he had written for me. Sam accompanied him on the bass and the rest of the band completed the arrangement in the recording.
The door flew open before my shaking hand reached the knob.
I found myself staring down the steel-grey twin barrels of a shotgun, only the physical characteristics of the person aiming it at my face shocked me more.
She was petite, no more than five feet tall with bleached blonde hair to her waist, yet there was no mistaking the malice in her dark eyes. With one arm she pulled me with such unexpected force, I stumbled across the threshold.
Blindfolded, Max sat beside the oak table, hands lashed behind his back and feet tied to the front legs of a hand-hewn chair. Dried blood left a dark crust on his temple.
“Rachel, babe, you shouldn’t have come. There’s no reasoning with this woman.”
Whack! A blow to his head with the butt end of the rifle silenced him.
“Stop! No!” I shouted, lunging toward Max. “What do you want from us?”
“Hold up there, missy,” Cass said, blocking me. “Maxie and I had fun when you were just a little chicken in middle school.”
She caressed his forehead with her free hand. Repulsed, Max pulled away.
“Oh, sweetie,” she cooed. “I don’t expect a big country star like you to remember a one night stand in a room full of eager young ladies.”
“What are you talking about?” Max said. “I haven’t been on the road in fifteen years. I never…”
He gasped, hunched over from the painful jab to his stomach.
“Stop!” Glaring at her, I demanded, “What did he ever do to you?”
“Well, honey, I gave the very best part of me to Maxie, here. But, guys like him don’t appreciate that. No, they have their fun and move on, not giving a horse’s hiney who they leave in their wake. Then, they find themselves a sweet, young thing like you and Bingo!, they’re in love. Now, that just doesn’t seem right, does it? They should be accountable.”
That was it? A disgruntled groupie from Max’s days on the road more than fifteen years ago?
Cass glowered at Max and continued.
“Took me awhile to track him down. When I told him he was a daddy and I could use a few bucks, he just shrugged me off, like I was loony. That’s what he did to me!”
In a quiet, deliberate voice I asked again. “What do you want?”
“Well, let’s see. For starters, maybe a little token or five for my trouble.” Keeping the shotgun well-aimed at my chest, Cass handed me a knife to cut the ropes around Max’s wrists. She grabbed his left hand and slammed it palm down on the table, splaying apart his fingers.
“Get the hatchet.” She nodded toward the fireplace.
“Now, you can do this one guitar plucking finger at a time or take them all at once. Your choice.”
“And if I don’t?” I challenged.
“Well, I can send you into seventh heaven and do it myself,” she smiled, nudging me forward with the shotgun.
“Rachel, it’s ok,” Max said. “I don’t care about my fingers or any other part of me. She told me she’d let you go if you just did everything she wanted.”
The hatchet shook in my hand. If I pretended to go through with it, could I be fast enough to strike at her before she shot me? She was close enough. It was my only chance.
I can do this. I won’t let her win.
I raised my arm, focused, shaking, praying I’d get it right.
A sudden crash and Sam flew through the door. In that precious moment I tackled Cass, sending the shotgun skidding across the floor. Sam pinned her and with the speed of a calf-roping rodeo star, tied her hands behind her back. I rushed to Max, undid his bindings and hugged him fiercely.
“Sam, how did you know to come here?” I asked.
“When you didn’t acknowledge me on the road I thought it was weird,” Sam said. “I checked the stable and found this on the floor of Janey’s stall.” He held up Cass’s crumpled note containing all of her instructions.
“It must have fallen out of my pocket,” I said.
“I brought the snowmobile but left it a ways back so she wouldn’t hear it,” Sam said.
Filled with gratitude, Max and I embraced him.
“What about my kid?” Cass said, still face-down on the floor.
“Your child isn’t Max’s,” I said. “He had an accident when he was a teenager and can’t have children.”
“It’s true,” Sam paused. “There’s something else.”
Max and I exchanged glances.
“I remember you.” Sam said to Cass. “It wasn’t Max you were with, it was me. If you think I’m your kid’s father, a DNA test will prove it. Meanwhile, the Sheriff will be here in a chopper to take you away, as soon as weather permits.”
We sat together in the warmth of the cabin while the blizzard still raged outside. I knew in time, its fury would subside and the skies would clear again for our journey home.