We almost missed it.
Perhaps it was by luck that we heard the hollow metal clang as the hand grenade landed on the stone floor. Someone had tossed it into the cavern through the hidden entrance.
We had been found.
Chad broke from his introduction and shouted the warning that sent the three of us diving for cover, barely in time to avoid the deafening explosion and ricocheting shrapnel. His automatic rifle burst to life as the lead intruder charged headlong down the entrance steps. The man was dead by the time his feet touched the bottom step.
"Head for the passageway," Chad shouted, taking aim at a second man charging down the steps.
Between the exchange of shots, the stranger and I made it to the entrance of the passageway. We grabbed rifles as we scrambled past the stash of weapons Chad had brought with him.
We retreated through the passageway a second after Chad set the timer on a hidden charge of dynamite near the passageway entrance. A minute later, a thundering explosion shook the ground and sealed the entrance. A wall of stone and earth now stood between the killers and we three men within the passageway.
A hundred yards of stone-lined passageway led us to the side of a grass covered slope. Two armed men and just walked over the spot where a large chunk of earth suddenly burst upward, nearly tripping one of them. Surprised, they spun around, leveling automatic weapons as they turned.
A blazing burst of gunfire from the stranger's weapon ripped through the two men before they completed their turn. I wondered if he really understood in what he was getting himself involved.
We scurried out, escaping from the stagnant air of the passageway into fresh mountain air. It actually felt good to fill my lungs with the crisp air. But I didn't have time to savor the feeling and soon my lungs ached and my breathing became labored as we made a break for a grove of trees and thick underbrush perhaps fifty yards away. Fifty yards that seemed like miles.
Off at a distance, a group of armed men ran toward the bodies of the two men. Bullets kicked up dirt and ricocheted off rocks all around us as we zigzagged to the cover of the trees. At that point, I wished I was back sitting in my cramped office. Why the hell hadn't I walked away from this when I first talked to Paul about it? Paul. I sure wished he was here now.
With an intense fireball, two helicopter-launched rockets blasted into the tree line, stirking the tress twenty feet above the ground. The explosion knocked us to the ground, stinging our ear drums. I was beginning to think I was in Afghanistan.
"These men do not like you very well," the stranger shouted as he got back to his feet.
"They love me," I said, barely able to draw in enough air. I stood just as a machine gun burst raked a tree near me. I dove back to the ground, my right side landing square against a sharp rock. A stinging sensation raced through me.
"I can tell," the stranger said with deep gasps. He reached down and grabbed my shirt collar and yanked upward. "We have to get the hell out of sight," he shouted. Through the forest we ran with Deadwood's band of killers pursuing us. I thought my lungs were going to burst. Up until now, I'd thought I was in good shape. Sure I jogged as often as posible, but jogging's a lot different than all out running like we were doing now. I was beginning to feel like I could collapse at any point. But a bullet striking near you has a hell of a lot of incentive to keep a person going. Feeling half dead or not. The only shield from a near continuous volley of automatic weapon's fire was the density of the trees, an acre's span that separated the hunted from the hunters.
We ran through marshes and into the bog that Chad and I had crossed on our way into the forest. Without a thought, I followed the stranger across the bog, followed by Chad who kept up a return fire. One of the bad guys sank into the cold, dark depths of the bog after he broke through a thin layer of sphagnum. Within a split second's time, he slid out of sight. His companions never bothered to help him. A cold-hearted bunch they were. We held the advantage there in the forest, a place as familiar to Chad as his own back yard. It appeared to be equally familiar to the stranger. He led the way for the most part, picking his way like someone at home within the forest. Gradually, we managed to outdistance our pursuers. We stopped at one point to catch our breath. All three of us bent over, resting our palms on our knees, taking in deep breaths. I felt like I had just jogged down every street in D.C. I looked at the stranger. "You're Chad's father," I puffed. The stranger looked back at me. "How do you know?" "The way you crossed the bog," I replied. The man grinned. Without a word, he took off running again. Chad had to tug at me to get me moving again. My feet seemed to resist. A bullet struck nearby. Suddenly I was up and running past Chad. The stranger led the way to a deep gorge. Rock formations jutted from the sides of the gorge. Strong roots held trees fast against erosion. A partially completed footbridge spaned the two hundred foot wide gorge. Three quarters of the way was covered by wood planks tied in place to thick ropes. Where the planks stopped, only rope continued on, two for planking to rest on and two used for handrails. "We cross here," the stranger said. "There's not a whole bridge there,"I said, gasping for air. "Your powers of observation are stunningly keen," the stranger said. "I'll lead." "Maybe we should find another way around," I suggested. I looked down into the depths of the gorge. My fear of heights made my stomach turn. "It's a good five hundred feet deep." "Nine hundred," the stranger countered. He went to a nearby rock pile. Chad joined him. Together they moved the rocks, revealing a green metal trunk. Within the trunk, there were a pair of backpacks. "What's in those?" I questioned. "Parachutes," Chad replied. "We never work on the bridge without them." "There's only two of them," I pointed out. "That's right," the stranger said as he strapped his chute on. "We didn't expect to have company."
"What about me?" I asked. I had no real desire to go anywhere near the bridge. I looked again into the gorge. My stomach waffled.
"You'll be fine," the stranger said. "Just stay close to Chad."
The man started off across the bridge. Under his weight, the bridge creaked, yet swayed remarkably little. The taut ropes gave no more than a few inches.
I inched onto the bridge. I looked down and froze in my tracks.
"Don't look down," Chad said, moving up next to me. "Just take one foot at a time."
A strong vibration rippled through the rope hand rail. I looked up and ahead of me, past the stranger, into the dreaded, depthless eyes of Kennedy. The assassin stood at the far end of the bridge. He repeatedly struck the ropes with the broad side of a machete. An evil smile lurked on his face.
"Gentlemen, what kept you?" Kennedy called out. "I was getting worried I'd miss this moment. Mr. Ross, despite my efforts to be your friend, you managed to piss me off."
"Leave him out of this," the stranger shouted. He stepped backward until he was within a few feet of me and Chad.
"I'm afraid he must learn to fly like the rest of you, Jay," Kennedy shouted back.
"You're Jay Bennet!" I gasped.
The man looked back at me. "Unfortunately."
"It took me a long time to find you, Jay," Kennedy continued. "Having you in such a postition as this, though...that makes it all worth while. I expected more out of you. I didn't expect you to let me take you down like this."
"My son has nothing to do with anything I did. Let him go," Jay Bennet shouted.
"Shut the hell up," Kennedy raged. "I ought to blow your head off for all the trouble you've caused me. But this way, you'll have a few seconds to think about dying on your way down." He raised the machete above his head.
"Hang onto Chad, Ethan," Jay Bennet said.
"Shit!" I cussed.
The machete blade reflected the early morning sun.
Kennedy's evil smile broadened. His eyes shimmered like flaming coals. Suddenly, Deadwood's helicopter swooped up from the gorge. A rocket shot from beneath the chopper. With a thundering explosion, it struck the side of the gorge just beneath the rope bridge where Kennedy was standing.
The rope bridge broke loose and fell away.
I leapt at Chad, clutching the young man's waist just as the bridge fell away from us. In the next second, two parachutes filled with air. The ground came up rapidly as our combined weights caused us to plummet. We landed with a bone jarring thud amongst tall grass and scattered rocks.
"Are you both all right?" Jay asked running up to us.
"Fine," I answered. My left leg was stinging near the knee.
"We have to get under cover," Jay said. "The chopper will be on us before long."