Steve Bird pulled off the state highway into the gas station. He’d been leading, but as they approached the trail they had talked about, he became less sure of his sense of direction. He’d been there a couple of times, but Garrett had always been the one to take the lead. He always marveled that Garrett usually knew a trail somewhere that they hadn’t done. He waved his friend around as he called out on the radio for him to take the lead. Then his phone rang.
Garrett pulled back out, but when he looked up in the rearview, Steve was still sitting in the gas station. Garrett rolled to the side of the road and called out to him on the two-way radio.
“Sorry, Man. My mom just called. I gotta bail. Her car died and I have to take her to work. I’ll call you on the cell after I drop her off and maybe I can catch up to you,” he said over the radio.
“Whatever, Dude. Later,” Garrett replied. He put on his blinker and pulled back into traffic and turned up his stereo. He knew there was no cell coverage anywhere around Booth Valley, where they had been headed.
A few miles later he turned off the main road onto a two-lane country road, then onto the dirt road that led back to the trailhead. On the two-lane, he slowed and moved to the side of the road as the Sheriff’s car passed by him going the other way and waved. When it was past him, he sped up a little and kept driving to his turn-off.
He loved driving by the old farms out here. Aside from a few he’d run across, everyone he met had been very friendly. Often, when he was getting ready to hit a trail, he would end up in a conversation with a local. More often than not, they would know of another trail for him to try. He kept a little notebook in his console with directions. He had found several challenging runs that way… and that was how he had found the trail he was on his way to today. It wasn’t challenging, but it was fun.
A mile after the police car he turned onto narrow two-track. “Stage Road” it said on the street sign. He always thought it was funny when there was a street sign in the middle of nowhere, especially when the “street” was a pair of muddy ruts.
He drove a few yards up the trail to a wide spot and jumped out. He walked to the front and locked in both hubs. He checked around his Jeep to make sure everything looked the way it should… it always did, but it was a habit his father had pushed off on him.
He hopped back into the Jeep and pulled the transfer case shifter back into 4wd high, then a little further back into low-range. When he let the clutch out, the Jeep lurched forward and smoothed out at a pace just below walking speed. He could have done the first mile in two-wheel-drive, but that was another habit his father ingrained… not to spin tires trying to see how far you could make it before shifting into four-wheel-drive. Besides, in low-range the Jeep just rolled along at a little more than walking speed, idling in second gear.
“What the…” he said as he pulled up to the creek crossing. It looked like there was a girl huddled on the far bank, a little downstream. She looked naked. The temperature outside was probably hovering around fifty. Being wet and naked she had to be half frozen, he thought to himself.
“Hey, are you ok?” he yelled at her. She looked up and even from twenty yards away, he could see the terror in her face. “Do you need help?”
He drove across the creek to the side she was on and cut the Jeep off, leaving it in the middle of the trail. He jumped out and started walking along the bank toward her. “You must be freezing,” he said calmly, “let me help you.” The girl had twigs stuck in her hair and mud smudged on her face and all over her body.
She hadn’t moved. It was like she had been rooted to the spot. But she also never took her wide eyes off him. He raised his arms wide to show her that he wasn’t carrying any sort of weapon and meant her no harm. Then he saw that she had a knife in her hand. She was holding it low, but she could barely control her shivering.
Her lips were cracked and purple, and her teeth were chattering so much that when she finally spoke, he could barely understand her. “C-c-c-c-c-old-d-d-d,” she said.
“Let me get you a blanket, I have one in the Jeep,” he said as he started backing away from her. He turned and trotted back to his Jeep and pulled out an old horse blanket he kept behind the seats. It was rough and stiff, but it should also help her warm-up. It was all he had.
When he turned around, she was only a few steps away. She was crouching and trying to cover her nudity, but she was still trying to look threatening with the knife.
“It’s gonna be ok,” he said to her, “I promise. My name is Garrett.” He put his hands out, but she just stared back at him. “Yeah… ok… well, here’s a blanket,” he said, unfolding it. “What are you doing out here like this? You could freeze to death.”
She wrapped the blanket around herself, but still held the knife in her hand, sticking out past the edge of the blanket. “H-h-h-he t-t-ook-k-k m-m-me,” she said softly, shivering violently. “W-w-w-as g-g-g-onna k-k-ill m-me.”
He approached her again, hands still held wide. She looked at him warily, but he could tell she was losing strength. Before he could catch her, she toppled to the ground. He scooped her up and carried her back to the passenger seat of the Jeep. He ran to the back and got the doors and put them on, then hopped into the driver’s seat and started the old Jeep up so he could turn on the heat.
He dived into the back again and rummaged up some socks and shoes, a pair of rain pants, a flannel shirt and a jacket. Everything was going to be huge on her, but it would be better than nothing.
He went to slip her feet into the socks when he saw how cut-up they were. He grabbed his first aid kit from behind the seat and went to work cleaning up the worst of the cuts and the bloody, raw skin around her ankles, then he slipped her delicate feet into the socks. He winced to himself as he pulled the scratchy wool socks over her injured feet and ankles.
He reached up and stroked her face with the back of his hand and plucked some of the sticks from her hair. Her skin was still cold, but not as cold as it had been a minute ago. He slipped the knife out of her hand, folded it and set it in the cup holder on the front of the console. Then he noticed her wrist had the same type of bloody, raw skin all the way around her ankles. It looked to him like a rope burn from a manilla fiber rope, but he’d never seen it as bad as this.
He slipped her hand back inside the blanket and wrapped it a little more tightly around her, then pulled out the seatbelt and put it around her. Just he was getting ready to close the door and go to the other side, she started struggling against the seatbelt.
“Hey, hey, hey… it’s ok. You’re ok now,” he said to her.
“No, stop, leave me alone,” she screamed back. She was hysterical, thrashing against the seatbelt, which had locked from her sudden movements. “I’ll kill you.” Then she looked at him. She slowly calmed down a little bit. “Please let me go. I won’t tell anyone,” she said, pleading.
“Won’t tell anyone what? I didn’t do anything. I was just trying to help you. You were freezing. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Why do you have me tied up? I can’t move.”
“Here,” he said, reaching past her to unbuckle her seatbelt and then stepping back. “I just want to help you.”
She looked at him for a minute like a cornered animal after she made sure she could move. She was scared and cold and didn’t want to trust anyone. But he really seemed to be trying to help her. “Did you put socks on me?” she asked, her voice barely above a squeak.
“Yeah. I have some other stuff, too, but I figured you didn’t want me peeling back the blanket. She flinched as he reached across her to pick the small pile of clothes up from the driver’s seat. He set them on her lap. “I’ll go over by the creek and wait if you want.”
“Th-thank you, she said. As soon as he stepped away, she quickly slipped on the rain pants and flannel shirt. He’d left some boots on the floor of the Jeep and she slipped her feet into them, but they were so big she wouldn’t be able to walk in them. She pulled the jacket on, then stole a look over her shoulder to where he was standing. He was staring off into the distance, and not looking at her. “Ok,” she said, barely loud enough for him to hear. “I’m ready.”
He turned around and smiled at her before he moseyed back in her direction. He walked straight to the side of the Jeep she was sitting on. “Those going to work for you?” Even sitting on the seat, the clothes hung limply off her. He was over six feet tall, and she couldn’t have been more than five-four and must have only weighed about half of his two-hundred pounds, if that.
“Thank you. I’m sorry,” she replied.
“Do you want me to take you to the police?” he asked.
He saw her start to shake. “Please… no… not the police. This was a bad idea. I have to go.” She started trying to get out of the Jeep struggling and shaking while she tried to get the blanket off again.
“Easy. It’s ok. What’s your name?” he asked her, trying to calm her down.
“Kelly,” she replied.
She’d gone back to the quiet voice. He was worried about her. She was still shivering.
“Kelly, when was the last time you ate?”
“I… I don’t know. What day is it?”
Garrett ran around to the back of the Jeep and opened his cooler. He had several bologna and cheese sandwiches and some Cokes. He brought her one of the sandwiches and put a bottle of Coke in the console cupholder by the knife she’d been carrying. “Bologna and cheese with mustard,” he said, smiling and handing her the sandwich.
Her hunger overcame her fear, and she devoured the sandwich. He grabbed another one for her, then went around and got back into the Jeep. He slipped the Jeep into reverse and started to back off the trail. She needed help, and it wasn’t going to come to them here.
“No police,” she said again, louder this time.
When he looked over at her, she was shaking again. He knew it had to be fear. “Did the police do this to you?” he asked.