Chapter 41

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Howie Boy Collier snapped awake at the terrible sound. For a moment, he feared the entire lodge would come crashing down around him. "What the hell was that?"

He sprang from his recliner and ran to the rifle cabinet. His father kept the key on top. Howie Boy felt for and found the key, speared it into the lock, and opened the glass door fronting the cabinet. Grabbing his father's twelve gauge shotgun with one hand, he opened the drawer beneath and pulled a box of shells with his other hand. He loaded the shotgun and stuck a few more rounds in his trouser pocket.

Feeling more confident, he took a moment to process what he had just heard. There had been a growling, or was that just his imagination? He had been drinking a lot today and still felt a bit tipsy. Was a bear prowling around outside? He walked into the utility room and opened the breaker panel. He switched on all the exterior lights, knowing it would light up the area around the lodge like a Christmas tree. The illumination would scare off any nearby bear.

For a moment, he had the uneasy feeling that somehow Barlow Jackson might have figured out his location from their brief phone call. He laughed. No way. He chided, "You're spooking yourself, Howie Boy."

Still, he remained uncomfortable. He walked across the living room and opened the front door. "Oh, holy hell, it's snowing." That was an unexpected pain-in-the-ass. If this was the start of a bad cold snap, the ground might freeze making it hard for him to dig the hole he needed to dispose of the bodies. If the storm kept up, it would make digging a sloppy mess in the morning.

He cursed his bad luck. Howie Boy closed the door and grabbed his coat. It would be better if he dug the hole now instead of dealing with who knew how much snow accumulation in the morning. He buttoned up and grabbed his hat.

Better check on the lady cop. It wasn't likely she would try anything, but he wanted to make sure she was still secured in her room.

He closed the gun cabinet, but didn't bother locking it, and climbed the staircase to the second floor. He unlocked her door. She lay on the bed sleeping in the exact same position he had left her, the oxy pills having done their job. He watched her for a few moments thinking again what a waste it was that she would have to die.

He backed out and locked her in.

The backhoe was parked at the back of the lodge under a shed that had been constructed to keep firewood dry. He wanted to get the job done as quickly as possible so he could get back to sleep. Tomorrow would be even more stressful than today.

Barlow lay on his back gasping, waiting for his hammering heart to calm from his bear encounter

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Barlow lay on his back gasping, waiting for his hammering heart to calm from his bear encounter. He mumbled, "That was way freakier than anything that ever happened to me in the Middle East." He hoped nothing like it would ever happen again. Luckily, the bear was probably more frightened than he was and thought only of making an escape. Good thing it wasn't a mother with cubs. 

He sobered after realizing anyone in the house would now be awake. He needed to get out of there. With wobbly legs, he stood and considered his next best move. Someone would likely come to investigate. Where could he hide?

The woods. Barlow left the shelter beneath the porch and felt big, thick flakes of snow pelt his face. An inch already covered the grass. While making his way across the yard, lights snapped on illuminating the entire area like a baseball stadium at night. He sprinted for the trees and ducked behind a thick trunk. After catching his breath, Barlow peeked around the tree. Nobody had come outside yet.

After about five minutes, he wondered if the lights would remain on all night until morning with no way for him to make his way back to the house without being seen. He shivered, unsure if it was from the cold or from the lingering effect of his near-death experience with the bear.

He noticed the man who had been in the recliner stepping onto the porch, bundled up in a camo hunting coat and carrying what appeared to be long-barreled shotgun. The man looked around and stomped off the porch toward the back of the house.

Barlow watched, unable to do anything as long as the guy carried the shotgun. He disappeared behind a shed and rack of firewood. An engine started, some sort of heavy equipment. What was this guy up to?

He came into view driving a backhoe and headed for the far corner of the clearing. There he stopped and started to dig.

"Why is the crazy fool digging at this time of night and during a snowstorm?" Barlow scanned the house. How many more men were inside? Given the distraction caused by the backhoe, he decided to risk crossing the yard under the glare of spotlights to peek into some windows.

When he reached the busted-up lattice work, Barlow caught his breath and worked himself around to the porch. He waited a moment until sure no one else was in sight and climbed the stairs. He tried the knob.

This time it was unlocked. The door opened with a creak. Barlow stepped back. Everything remained quiet, so he ducked inside and closed the door behind him. Taking a moment to scope out the lodge's rustic charm, he spied the gun cabinet. He tiptoed over and slid open the glass doors, pulled out a Winchester lever action .30-30 rifle and smiled.

"This is a game changer," he mumbled.

From the drawer beneath the gun rack he found half a box of shells, ten rounds. He slid five into the rifle's tubular magazine and levered a round into the chamber. The other five rounds he pocketed. No longer needing the tire iron, he slid it under the gun cabinet out of sight.

Still no activity from anywhere within the house. The muffled engine noise from outside assured Barlow that recliner man continued digging with the backhoe.

Recalling his Marine training and taking great care, he cleared every room on the first floor. Where was old man Collier? Where was Pet? He discovered the interior door to the basement and found nobody down there. If anyone else was home, they would be on the second floor.

He climbed the stairs, leading with the business end of the rifle. From the second-floor landing, he could see four doors hanging open and one closed. He tried the closed door. Locked. He wanted to call out Pet's name but couldn't risk it until he cleared the other rooms.

The backhoe engine grew louder, recliner man apparently returning to the house from whatever he had been doing. That left Barlow with a dilemma. He felt certain Pet was behind the locked door, but he needed to clear the rest of the upstairs rooms to make sure no one else could interfere with her rescue.

When the backhoe motor shut off, Barlow knew he was out of time. He moved into the nearest open bedroom and checked the closet. All clear. The creaking front door and footsteps confirmed for Barlow that recliner man had returned.

Footsteps sounded on the staircase.

Recliner man was coming.

Should Barlow hide to make sure nobody else is around or should he immediately confront Howie Boy?

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Should Barlow hide to make sure nobody else is around or should he immediately confront Howie Boy?

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