Following the postmaster’s directions took us north out of town. At a red barn we turned right and flew down a narrow gravel road heading for the mountains. Before long the gravel gave way to dirt that heavily coated our tires and sidewalls.
Within minutes the road we were climbing leveled off. Suddenly spread out before us was a wide valley that stretched to the base of the mountains. In the distance we could see a small farmhouse and a barn at the end of a dirt road. Parked in front was a shiny new Ford that looked very out of place. We paused for a moment and then took off into the valley.
I slid our car in behind the California plated Ford intentionally blocking its exit. I motioned for Doris to stay down as I took my gun out of the back of my belt. My redhead’s eyes went wide.
“What in the world?” She gasped. “What are you doing?”
“Before anything happens,” I said probably more dramatically than I should have, “I want you to go back to town and get the sheriff.”
“Are you out of your mind?” She yelled at me across the front seat. “There’s no sheriff in town. I see a phone line running to the house. Let me go in there and make a call if I have to.”
“All right,” I agreed. “But stay here for a moment.”
I bent low behind the Ford and then quickly darted to the front porch. Leaning tightly against the side of the farmhouse I stopped and listened. A tapping sound made me spin around only to see a window shade playing a rhythm against a sill. Breathing heavily I tried to put my heart back inside my chest.
The front of the dilapidated house was dominated by a wide open-air porch. It was not in any better condition than the rest of the building. Everything from loose boards to a worn exterior in serious need of paint to windows that were out of square told me that the owner was hard up for cash.
I crept slowly along the front wall carefully peaking inside a couple of times. I saw nothing but old furniture and worn walls. When I reached the end of the porch I made my way down the side of the farmhouse toward the back yard. There were no trees nearby and the barn was over 150 feet away. If someone was watching me they would have a nice clear view.
Behind the house was another empty expanse that contained a couple of old farm implements and a pick up truck with two flat tires. Confident that no one was nearby I ran back to the front corner of the house and waved at Doris to run to the porch. She was there in seconds.
“Go inside and find the phone,” I told her and she disappeared inside.
There’s a feeling you get when you think danger is nearby. Maybe it’s a sixth sense we all have but is only triggered under certain circumstances. Whatever it was I was feeling it in spades. Heat washed up my neck and I could feel my hair standing on end. Suddenly the spell was broken when Doris screamed from somewhere inside the farmhouse.
Without a second thought I tore through the front door with my pistol raised. Sweat poured down my face and I could feel my hands tingling with adrenaline. As my eyes adjusted to the dark interior I saw the room was empty. Slowly I headed for the banister by the stairs in the rear of the living room.
Doris called to me again but this time it was clear she was downstairs. Off the living room a short hallway ran past a couple of closed doors and led into the kitchen. What I saw caused me to freeze for a second.
Doris was kneeling over an unconscious woman. A fair amount of blood was smeared across the floor. I went to the sink and soaked down a dishtowel and quickly knelt down next to the two of them. The woman’s breathing was labored, but still regular.
“JP,” Doris’ voice was strained. “What’s going on here?”
“Later,” I said quickly. “We need to find out where she’s hurt and how bad it is.”
The woman had a large gash across her forehead and two black eyes. Blood had run down her face and stained her housedress. She was frail and probably looked older than she really was but the resemblance was clear. She had the same high cheekbones, the same wide set eyes, and the remnants of the same body. The name of the woman lying in front of us had to be Hortense Gilley, Andrea Gilmore’s older sister.
Doris and I pealed her clothes back, but didn’t find anything life threatening. She was bruised about the throat and had a fairly deep cut on her left shoulder. She wasn’t in good shape but at least we’d accounted for the blood on the floor.
Johnston had worked her over pretty well, but I still got the idea she’d put up a fight. We found a knife across the room under the table. It was a standard steak knife that she’d apparently used to defend herself. It certainly wasn’t the variety that an attacker would have used.
Together we propped her up against the wall. I filled up a saucepan with warm water and cleaned both wounds. Doris ran back down the hall and found a small bathroom. She returned in seconds with some ointment and gauze. Gilley was lucky she hadn’t bled to death. Johnston could have easily finished her, but something must have happened to stop him.
Suddenly she gasped as she regained consciousness, which made both Doris and I jump. Her eyes were white with fear and she tried to crawl away from us. Her first move made her cry out in pain and her eyes fluttered.
“Please,” Doris said in a gentle voice, “don’t move. You’re hurt pretty badly. Don’t be afraid, we’re here to help.”
Gilley’s eyes darted between us and I tried to smile reassuringly. Doris ran a warm cloth across the injured woman’s face as the two of us helped her into a sitting position.
“Who are…” She stammered.
“We’re friends,” I said.
“We want to help,” Doris added.
Gilley’s eyes began to clear and for the first time she was able to focus. She looked back and forth between us and there was desperation flashing in her eyes. The battered victim moved her mouth as if trying to say something but at first nothing came out. After some practice she began to form a word or a name.
“Are you trying to say ‘Sarah’?” I asked after reading her lips. She nodded.
“Your daughter?” I continued and she nodded again.
“A bearded man is looking for her to harm her?” I asked again and she frantically mouthed a yes. Doris then looked at me with almost the identical frightened expression.
“And he’s outside looking for her because you wouldn’t tell him where she was?”
“Run…” She choked. “Just run…get…safe…run.” Gilley’s eyes rolled white.
“Don’t let her go to sleep,” I told Doris. “She’s probably got a concussion and may be going into shock. Keep talking to her. Wipe her face.”
Gilley’s head lolled from side to side. Again she looked at me. “Silo…run…safe…”
“Good enough,” I said jumping to my feet.
“JP,” Doris looked up at me. “What are you going…”
“You’re doing great,” I said as I neared the kitchen’s back door. “Keep her awake. Call the cops if you can. Pray that I find Sarah in time.”
As I went out the back door I heard Doris call, “what in the world is going on?”
I decided to tell her when I got back, if I got back.
It was mid afternoon and the sun glared off the bare dry ground. I looked through the back yard until it ended at the base of the mountains. Finding Johnston would have to come first and then I could go after Sarah. There was no way I wanted to expose her to any more danger than she’d already seen.
It seemed unlikely that my prey was in the house but I opened the outside cellar door and stepped down into the darkness. Enough light poured in through the narrow windows at ground level to allow me to make my way around once my eyes had a few seconds to adjust. The cement cellar was filled with old rusted farm equipment, a coal chute, and a furnace. It was dirty and damp but that was all.
I climbed back outside and headed for the barn. At about halfway there a bullet danced off the ground at the feet. A cloud of dust circled up from next to my shoe. Being exposed in the middle of the back yard put me at a serious disadvantage.
Two more shots hissed by me as I ran a zig zag pattern to the far side of the house. Another bullet slammed into a wood shingle just behind my head as I turned the corner out of range. Johnston was a good shot.
“JP!” Doris screamed from inside.
“I’m OK,” I yelled back. “Stay away from the windows.”
Peaking around the corner I saw a puff of smoke hanging in the air just outside barn’s loft. Johnston was more trapped than I was. He might have had the angle on me, but under normal circumstances I could just wait him out. Unfortunately this time the odds were very different because there was no way to know whether he had found Sarah.
With waiting not an option I walked around the far side of the farmhouse. Staying out of the line of fire I crawled into my car and backed it up away from his Ford. The idea to block him in had initially seemed like a good one.
Being careful to stay out of sight I then carefully got out of my car, crouched down, and made my way back to where he’d parked. I opened his door and crawled in under the dash. Within seconds I managed to pull the ignition wires out. After stripping a couple of them with my thumbnails I hot-wired the car. It started right up. Ford’s are great that way.
Slowly I steered it toward the barn with my head down as far below the dashboard as possible. Another bullet pierced the windshield and dug itself into the seat just above my left shoulder. I kept moving forward and aimed the Ford at the closed barn doors in front of me.
Johnston’s next shot took out the front left tire and then another took out the right. The car shuddered a bit but kept moving. I peaked over the dash for a second and re-aimed for the doors. At about 25 feet away I pulled out the clutch and the car lurched forward. Timing this would have to be perfect especially since I wasn’t going to get a second chance.
As the car picked up speed I opened the door. Hanging on its handle I waited for just the right second to roll free of the impending crash. After a deep breath and a quick prayer I dove away barely a split second before the Ford broke down the barn doors. It continued inside a short distance before colliding with a tractor. Tangled together the two metal beasts held each other in a stalemate.
“Johnston,” I yelled up at from a hiding place I’d found in a stall behind the tractor. “Give it up. You’re trapped.”
“Like hell,” he snarled back at me. “I’ve got the kid. If you don’t clear out of here she’s dead. You get me?”
Something didn’t sound right. If he had her why were they hiding out in the second story of the barn? I crawled as quietly as possible across the floor and, after finding a loose board in the rear of the barn, when back outside.
After looking up and not seeing a gun pointing out of the wall above my head I ran around to the far side of the attached silo. There was a ladder running up its exterior that led to a door about 40 feet off the ground. I climbed it two steps at a time.
If he knew where I was all he’d have to do was run around outside and pick me off. He was clearly a good enough shot. I tried unsuccessfully to put that idea out of my head.
I reached the top, opened the small door, and climbed inside. The smell of the rotting corn was overpowering and I became nauseous almost immediately. The sound of a little girl crying snapped me out of it. She was to my right and just above my head hanging onto a ladder inside the silo. I thought Johnston had been bluffing.
“Sarah honey,” I said in the most reassuring voice I had. “Don’t cry. I’ve come to help you and your mommy.”
She was white with fear and continued to sob.
“I know the bad man is outside,” I continued, “but he doesn’t know you’re in here. My wife is inside the house helping mommy. She’s going to be OK. You understand?”
She nodded very slightly. Her crying and breaths were coming in gasps. All I could think of was the lifetime of nightmares she was going to have, that is, assuming I got her out of this.
Pushing the door open slightly I scanned below for Johnston. He was nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately there was no way I could be sure that he wouldn’t walk around the corner at the instant I began to climb down the silo.
“I’m going back outside,” I said to the petrified little girl. “You stay here. Can you be brave for mommy just a little bit longer?” All the time I’d spent with my pal Ralph’s kids over the years was paying off.
She nodded and I heard a faint “yes.”
“Good girl. You’re very brave. OK honey, I’ll be back in just a little while and then we’ll go see mommy. Do you know how to pray?”
“OK, then pray very hard.”
Again I looked out through the narrow opening. It was still clear. Not wanting to take any longer than I had to I wrapped my shirt around my hands and quickly swung myself outside the silo. I grabbed the sides of the ladder and in one motion slid the 40 feet to the ground. It couldn’t have taken more than two seconds.
Just as I ran behind the barn another bullet danced off the ground at my feet. I reversed course and ran back toward the front of the barn. Johnston was right behind me.
“So,” he laughed maniacally, “the kid’s in the silo. Thanks.”
As I neared the demolished front door I noticed that he was no longer behind me. Johnston had begun to climb the ladder. Feeling the weight of my gun in my hand I ran back around and fired at him. The bullet glanced of the metal frame of the silo.
Startled that I was armed he hung off the side of the ladder and fired back causing me to have to duck around the side of the barn. If I wasn’t able to hold him where he was he’d get too close to the door and it wouldn’t be safe for me to shoot again. And, if he actually got a hold of Sarah we were all in big trouble. It was a stalemate. He couldn’t climb down and I couldn’t go up after him.
“Come on down,” I called from around the corner of the barn. “I’ll let you go.”
“Fat chance,” he yelled back. “Tell you what. Let me have the kid and I’ll let you and the women go.”
This was pointless. We stayed frozen in place with neither one of us able to move and the little girl’s life hanging in the balance. My mind spun desperately for a way out.
We must have stayed that way for several minutes jawing back and forth at each other when I noticed a smell of smoke. Glancing quickly over my shoulder I saw it pouring out of the opening in the front of the barn where the doors used to be. In my frantic hurry to get into the barn I’d never turned off Johnston’s car’s ignition. A possible broken fuel line and some friction were about turn the barn into the Fourth of July.
Within seconds there was a loud explosion that shook the entire barn. Not being ready for it Johnston lost his grip on the ladder and dropped awkwardly to the ground losing his gun in the process. Before he could recover I was on him.
I caught him across the face with a solid left and he sprawled backward in the dust. With him temporarily disabled I frantically scanned the ground looking for his gun. I saw it lying near the side of the barn, but before I was able to get to it he tackled me from behind.
We rolled over several times in the dirt and another explosion rocked the barn. Very soon flames were pouring out from under the eaves of the roof and would be spreading to the silo in only seconds. I was horrified that even if I won the fight it might be too late to save Sarah.
Johnston pushed me face down into the dirt and buried his knee into the small of my back. Despite his superior position I was able to grab his hand and sink my teeth into the soft flesh between his thumb and forefinger. The skin gave way and blood poured into my mouth and onto the ground. Johnston screamed in pain and rolled off to my side.
Forcing the stiffness out of my back I staggered to my feet and kicked him in the ribs. Johnston coughed and rolled over on his back. His eyes were glassy and his left hand was bloodied and useless. The fight looked to be over until his unsteady right hand happened to land on his lost weapon.
I reached for mine only to find it had been lost during the melee. Backing up I tried to keep my eyes simultaneously on him, the engulfed barn, and the now slightly tilting silo.
I didn’t know what I looked like, but Johnston was in bad shape. Blood was pouring from his mouth, nose, and hand. He may have also had a broken rib or two. As I backed away he painfully pulled himself into a seating position and tried to aim his gun. I quickly moved away from both him and the silo.
His first shot sailed high over my head and his second buried itself into the ground not far from his outstretched foot. I thought about rushing him, but knowing Sarah was still imprisoned above my head I had to move in the opposite direction.
Flames by this time had spread throughout the barn and were leaping out the window above where Johnston lay. He once again raised his gun and tried to fire but it was empty. Confident he couldn’t chase after me I feverishly vaulted up the silo’s ladder.
By the time I was only 10 feet from the door and the little girl the side of the barn behind where Johnston lay collapsed outward and landed right on top of him. One problem was gone. But the adjoining wall that was behind the silo having lost its support was now sagging precariously inward. We had mere seconds to escape.
I flung open the door and wrapped my left arm around the hysterical little girl. We backed out of the silo onto what had become a very unstable ladder. I remember reading about people who in times of extreme situations did things that they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. That was the first time I’d ever experienced it.
I held Sarah tightly and grabbed the ladder with my right hand. As the barn was falling in on itself I was somehow able to hold on tightly enough to let us slide to the ground. As soon as we landed the ladder was wrenched from my hand as the silo toppled over into the inferno.
The heat may have been intense, but we were miraculously safe. After a few seconds I scrambled to my feet, and still holding Sarah, sprinted to the house. Doris appeared in the back door and ran out to me. I collapsed into her. Sarah jumped out of my grasp and ran inside yelling and crying, “mommy, mommy.”
I was lying on my back with my head in Doris’ lap as she knelt beside me. Slowly my wind began to return and in a minute or two I was able to sit up and look into her wonderful face.
“How bad do I look?” I wheezed.
“You never looked better,” she said as tears streamed down her cheeks. The wet warm towel she began use on my face helped clear my mind.
“The little girl was hiding in the silo,” I said and Doris nodded through her tears. “How’s the girl’s mother?”
“I think she’s going to be fine,” my redhead smiled while getting control of her emotions. “I cleaned and bandaged her and mopped up the mess on the floor. She’s weak but conscious. We managed to get her clothes changed so by the time her daughter sees her she should look mostly normal. I left her sitting in the living room.”
“Good work doll,” I smiled.
“How awful it would have been for the little girl to lose her mother that way. She’s been traumatized enough today”
“Except that she’s not really her daughter, you know,” I said slowly dragging myself into a kneeling position.
Doris took my arm and wrapped it around her wide shoulders helping me to get to my feet. “What are you talking about?” She asked as we walked slowly toward the back door.
“Well,” I smiled sheepishly still fighting to get my breathing totally under control. “She’s what this whole thing is about.”
“The lost year of 1944.”
“Now you’ve lost me,” Doris looked at me quizzically.
“The mysterious movie project from ‘43.”
“When we get inside I’ll have to introduce you to the love child of Andrea Gilmore and Brix Maxwell.”