By the time the full complement of Brothers who could track the escapees had assembled at the stables, the handful of them that knew horseback were outnumbered by the larger number of ATVs usually reserved for the guests on nature trails. From atop his favored horse, a strapping black Arabian named Onyx, Cort shook his head in silent bemusement. The glorified motorcycles were fun to ride and, of course, much easier to control – he’d seen them perform nicely on round-ups – but he trusted horse sense when it came to finding other horses.
“It is not quite what you had in mind for the upcoming festivities, is it?” Maximus asked him as he brought Argento alongside. If it were not for his courtly use of language and commanding presence no matter how he was dressed, one would never guess he’d led Roman legionnaires into battle or grappled with the political machinations of a Caesar.
Cort’s answer was a quiet sigh. What began as a simple outreach to a parish in a neighboring town had turned into a multi-phase plan of meeting hall, campsites, bunkhouses, nature trails and river sports, all in support of a youth charity called The Hosea Tree. Fundraising had been his suggestion to his Brothers, to defray costs for the ministry, and their enthusiasm and creativity had led to a joint event of debuting the two wineries run by Maximus and Max Skinner. It was hard to believe that the year and a half of planning was now at a head the coming week, with a ribbon cutting and tour that Friday.
“I had hoped to do what I could for you and the ladies beforehand,” he replied. “But mischief has a way of workin’ its way into the best laid plans. I don’t mind tellin’ you, I’ve been pretty restless these past few days.”
“Seems the horses were as well.”
“I was lookin’ forward to all this, but I got in my head a few days ago that something was amiss,” Cort said. “Didn’t expect it to be a loose gate in the corral.”
“Siobhan is informing Tina and Stephanie and the others now,” Maximus went on. “John should be along presently. I, for one, am glad for this reprieve.”
“Siobhan has been consumed with schedules, table positions, pamphlets, speech notes…paper napkins.”
“She driving you crazy, I take it?”
“Or I, her. Between my vineyard and Skinner’s, there are a multitude of issues that have us running like Marius’ mules,” the gladiator-turned-vintner added with a laugh. “ But I can only surmise that this will hamper your efforts to finish the retreat hall.”
“Apart from some final checks, it’s ready for its first viewing, thank God. The pastor and others from the church will get a private tour tonight.”
“At least it is not the mustangs,” Maximus commented as they urged their horses forward.
The trail of horse hooves soon melted into the woods and hills beyond the defined borders of the resort and became harder to track. A fog plagued their sight until the rays of the rising sun broke through and before long, they came to a small bowl of a valley. It was there the herd had fortunately decided to forget its wild adventure in favor of the soft dew-drenched grasses. They looked utterly content and unconcerned by the appearance of the Boyz.
Maximus, Terry, Jack Aubrey, Ben Wade, on their horses, and John Biebe in the motor-mule joined Cort on the rim of the bowl. The others on their ATVs rumbled into place behind them.
“We do this right, we can have them all back in the afternoon,” he told them.
“Looks like there’s an outlet at the far end,” Ben said. “I’ll take a couple and block that pass.”
“Good. I’m going outward to keep an eye out for strays on that side,” Cort replied, and pointed to the south. The other Brothers voiced their positions, and spread out.
“Is it not unlike a fox hunt?” Aubrey asked him with a laugh, his face flushed. “These mutinous beasts are all of a piece and we stalk about them as if they were to go to ground.”
Cort grinned at him, thinking back to the first time Jack joined in on a round-up. His unease on a horse had mostly disappeared since his arrival, but one always got the sense that Jack would never get used to the animal’s movement. Horsemanship had never been his strong suit, as they all knew from the books by now. However, Jack was unrelenting in his desire to show the same loyalty and hard work they gave when he trained them on the Surprise.
“I think fox are more challenging,” Cort said. “Those mutinous beasts down there like their food too much.”
Jack gave a sharp laugh.
“If they are anything like foremast jacks, they will fight us for it.”
“You could be right.”
“I don’t much like this mist, though,” Jack added, and Cort nodded in agreement. Veils of it still clung to the treetops and hovered between the trunks like ragged ghosts. They both picked their way among the shreds and low slung boughs, listening for tell-tale nickers. Cort brought Onyx up short when Jack stiffened in his saddle, his cheerful blue eyes sharp with consternation.
“What is it?”
Jack only frowned and shook his head.
They moved further into the woods, to follow the edge of the vale, but the mists moved and Cort got the sensation they were being diverted. He tried to shake it off as the disorientation of limited vision, but his keen hearing whispered that there had been a subtle shift somewhere.
Jack yanked his horse to a halt. Now he looked angry.
“Damn my eyes,” he growled. When Cort looked askance, he added, “you will not countenance any foolery of mirage, I am sure, but I find no other…”
A light flashed in the corner of Cort’s eye.
“There! Did you see it?” He cried, now understanding Jack’s chagrin. Both of them peered into the direction of the mirage.
Another flash, just a little beyond the first point. Then a third, quicker and further still. The line of sight led away to their right. He and Jack exchanged looks.
“I’m following it,” Cort said.
“It may perchance be one of those haphazard little vermin that flit their posterior with thunderbolts,” Jack posited.
“You mean, lightening bugs?”
“The very thing.”
Like a beacon, the flash beamed close, so close in fact, that Cort thought he caught the shadow of a figure in a strand of mist. It was as elusive as the light.
“No, it means for us to follow,” Cort replied and spurred Onyx into a trot.
Yards further and they were brought up short again. An edge of rock opened into a gaping ravine, deep and wide. A small pile lay near its edge. Dark woolen blankets covered a person, a woman, on her back. She was sound asleep, face toward the skies. Evidence of a small campfire was nearby. With an oath, Jack dismounted and knelt beside her.
“She breathes,” he said.
Cort got off Onyx in weary exasperation – how often had Point visitors ventured off into the woods without consulting the guides or failed to equip themselves responsibly, only to become the rescue d’jour? He stared down at her, not liking the idea of the effort they’d have to go through in order to get her back to the Point complex. Damn! With the luck they’d been having today, she’d probably prove to be one of those who prattled about their independence and how fearless she was…not to mention a list of complaints against the Point…when it was she who…
“There is something on her face,” Jack said, after a few attempts to wake her by pulling out her hand and patting it. He took a finger and swept some of the material off and held it up for Cort’s inspection. “A medic, perhaps?”
Cort ran his hand through his hair. How long had she been out here, and would they be able to get her help in time? Great, he thought with mounting anxiety, just great…
“She’s been injured,” Jack added, his deep voice roughened by concern as he gingerly pulled back the blankets and revealed a cut on her upper arm.
He pulled forward her other hand but it was in a tight fist around a hidden object. Cort reached into his pocket to get his cell phone, his hand shaking. He uttered his own oath and turned away. The restlessness had an identity now.
Never mind. He would dial John and see if he could break away to find them. Technology in the Point and the 21st century often left him baffled, but he was grateful for it at this moment. Only variable was that there was a slim chance that his signal would even reach John this far into the woods.
Once again, a movement or glint in the corner of his sight enticed him to brave the edge of the ravine.
Well, that changes everything, he thought, after several moments of staring in disbelief. There at the bottom of the deep gulley was an upturned vehicle; a silver truck, it looked like, with its wheels mangled and cab crushed in. He could see a spillage of items alongside. Cort looked back at the sleeping woman in amazement. What the hell was going on here?
“Cort! Cort, is that you? What’s wrong?” came a tin-can voice at his hand.
Cort looked down at his cell phone. The call had patched through to Biebe after all.
“John, it’s me,” he spoke into the receiver, his own voice a little rough now. “You’re never going to believe this. We have…a situation. And it has nothing to do with the round-up.”