It was a half hour later before Mr. Anderson called again. When he did, Mr. Sharpe walked out into the hall and talked to him for almost half an hour. When he came back into the den, he told us, "Tim said the chief and sheriff walked into the compound alone and unarmed since they didn't have a search warrant. When they entered the central yard, they were met by Silas Mitchell. No-one else was in evidence."
"As they were talking, a Humvee--camouflage painted--came thundering into the compound and a boy hopped out as the vehicle whipped around and headed back up the mountain. As the kid ran into a building, both the chief and the sheriff spotted the shoes he was wearing--you guessed it, bright red and white, nearly new Nikes. The chief said, 'Them guys were right, those were some weird shoes, and a very small size.' To their mind there was no question, none at all, that the shoes were Jonathan's and the Humvee was the one the two hookie-playing boys had seen. They asked Mitchell about the shoes and he said the kid had been given the shoes by Abel, his son."
"When they asked to speak to Abel, Silas said he was not in the compound, but he seemed nervous and kept glancing toward the mountain where the Humvee had disappeared."
"Tim said the sheriff and chief are sure they have Jonathan, probably with Abel, somewhere in the compound. But the shoes were all the evidence they saw--nothing else and no sign of Jonathan. Of course, the shoes could have been a coincidence, but I doubt it," Mr. Sharpe said.
"They also said the compound was an armed camp. While they saw no-one other than Mitchell and the boy, they were made well aware of the weapons covering them. Mitchell said he didn't want any trouble; they were peace-loving people who only wanted to be left alone, 'but we will defend ourselves and our rights,' he announced, and Tim says there is no doubt he means it. Neither the chief nor sheriff were willing to bring up their troops, especially without a proper search warrant. They are going back to the school to regroup."
"Do you have any idea what's going to happen now?" Mr. Dennison asked.
"Tim is making another attempt to get a search warrant. The truth of the matter is if he tries to go in now, someone will get hurt, maybe killed. Given Waco and the aftermath, no-one is willing to push too hard. I'm going to the school to see what I might do to help."
"We're going too," I said. "I saw what happened to Jonathan the first time and I don't want the same or worse to happen again."
"Yes, I'm coming along. He's my boy now," Mr. Dennison said.
"I'll not try to stop you, Mr. Dennison, but I think you really need to stay here with your wife and daughter. They need you."
"If you think that's best," Mr. Dennison said. When I looked at him he suddenly looked old, and I had never thought of him as old before.
When we were outside, Mr. Sharpe said, "I didn't want to mention it inside to worry your mom and dad, Hank, but I had a brainstorm I checked out with Tim. He thought it might be worth a try. We'll talk further when we get to the school but, unless he vetoes it, I'll run with it and I want you all to go on a mission with me and a friend. If you have them, you need to get dressed in long johns and wind suits. Have those? Hank, can you go back in and get yours without raising too many questions?"
"Oh, yeah, your backpack as well."
Hank nodded then said, "Jason, cover for me while I get it."
The two went into the house and when they got back, Jason said the Dennisons were all around the kitchen table and didn't even know he and Jason had come back. "We brought Jonathan's backpack as well, Mr. Sharpe," Hank said. "Thought you might need one."
"Great. Solves that problem, but I need to call Mom to bring a wind suit and long johns from my place," Mr. Sharpe said.
We were standing on the Dennisons' front porch talking, and had not yet started toward the Jeep when Beth came racing into the drive, hell bent for leather. Almost before her car stopped, she was out and headed for Hank. When she reached him she said, "Hank, how did you let this happen? How did that nut bunch get Jonathan? Where were you when Jonathan needed you?"
"I don't have time to talk now, Beth, but how did you know about it?"
"Dad's a volunteer sheriff's deputy, remember? He got a call and told me Jonathan was gone and presumed being held by The Circle of God's Chosen."
"Dad can tell you all about it," Hank responded. "We're off to do something about it."
"Be careful, Hank, but find Jonathan," Beth responded. She gave Hank a wild kiss, slapped him on the butt and said, "Get going."
As Beth ran inside, we walked toward the Jeep. About half-way there, Wesley said, "You don't need to."
"Who doesn't need to what, Wesley?" Jason asked, obviously irritated.
Jason had really come to accept Wesley most of the time but, occasionally, he got irritated. Once he was irritated and had said something pretty nasty to Wesley, then apologized. Wesley had responded, "Look, I know I was a real shit to Douglas and I know how you love him, so I understand your having a burr under your saddle, a burr I put there. But if it ever gets to the point where I can't handle it, I'll call you on it. Otherwise, we'll both just be cool with it. Ok?" Jason had agreed.
"Mr. Sharpe--Mr Sharpe doesn't have to have someone bring his wind suit and long johns if he thinks he can wear some of mine. Silk long johns be ok?"
"You should be so lucky," Mr. Sharpe said, "but, yes, if you think they'll keep us warm. We all need something warm."
We stopped by the house to get backpacks and clothes. Hank and I put on our swim team wind suits and, you guessed it, Wesley had wind suits--two of every kind and color, I think. Mr. Sharpe found one which fit him very well. Wesley had silk long johns, but Mr. Sharpe said he'd take regular ones because they would be warmer. Wesley got dressed in regular ones too, as Jason, Hank and I had done.
All dressed, the five of us squeezed into the Jeep again and we were off--we hoped to rescue Jonathan.
When we arrived at the school parking lot, there were several police cars from Clarksville, sheriff's patrol cars and two state troopers' cars. Someone had opened the school and everyone was assembled in the gym, milling around, talking, looking bored.
Mr. Sharpe spotted Mr. Anderson and quickly joined him. Meanwhile, Vincent, the school's chief custodian, and the sheriff came walking in with a portable PA system which was quickly set up. As soon as it was, Sheriff Hall did the "tapping the mike" routine and then said, "If everyone will find a seat in the bleachers, I'll fill you in on what's going on."
"As I guess most of you know, some members of The Circle of God's Chosen which have a compound in Sadies Cove, were arrested several weeks ago and charged with child abuse. They made bond and got an injunction which allowed them to take the children from foster care, then they disappeared."
"Yesterday, based on information given the Children's Protective Services, another raid was made on the compound and a search warrant executed. Several people were arrested and children taken into custody. The children have been placed in foster care for the time being. In preparation for the trial, an appeal was made for a young man to come forward to testify. Without going into the details, he did come forward and, while terrified of what members of the group might do to him, he agreed to testify."
"This afternoon, the young man, Jonathan Henderson, disappeared while walking from the Sharpe Building to Ace Hardware. He disappeared without ever reaching the hardware. It is assumed by all involved that he has been kidnapped by members of the Sadies Cove organization."
"An attempt to get a search warrant failed, but Chief Whisant and I went into the compound hoping to learn something of Jonathan's whereabouts. While we cannot prove they are Jonathan's, we saw a young man wearing distinctive sneakers matching those Jonathan had been wearing."
"We noticed the shoes, not only because they are bright red and white and, as his foster brothers said, weird-looking, but also because Jonathan has little feet," Chief Whisant laughed, "and the kid wearing the shoes doesn't. It was obvious his shoes were too small."
"The chief is into feet," the sheriff laughed, then became very serious. "Another thing we observed was the compound is well armed and guarded. People were not in plain sight, but plenty firearms were in evidence. Now we don't want another Waco, but we will act. Right now another attempt is being made to get a search warrant. When we get one--when, not if--we will attempt a peaceful search. If we are turned back, we will get state and federal help. We want a good show of force when we approach the compound, but we don't want any of you or members of the cult to get hurt. Now, until we get the warrant, stand down."
As soon as the sheriff finished, Mr. Sharpe motioned for us to join him. When we reached him, he said, "It's been a few years since I was in school here. You guys know this place. Isn't there a room somewhere close where we can get away from this crowd and do some serious planning?"
Hank motioned for Vincent, who came over to where we were standing. "Vincent, can you unlock the PE classroom for us? We need to do some planning away from this bunch."
"Sure can. You fellows got to find Jonathan. He's a nice fellow," Vincent said. "He's always polite and speaks to me."
Vincent was a bit simple, but was a good soul and generally loved by the students. He unlocked the room and as we walked in Jason said, "Good manners wins again. Remember that, Wesley." Wesley blushed.
Mr. Sharpe began, "Fellows, I hope you know I think the world of you guys. I have great respect for what you are doing with your lives. I want you to know that because I am going to ask you to do something which is very dangerous and could cost you your life. I won't shit you. I want us to be clear about that. If you don't want to be involved, I will think no less of you. I am putting my ass in a real crack if things go wrong, since you are all underage and I haven't gotten permission for you to participate. I know that and it's a risk I am willing to take."
"I think it's also important for you to realize that I see myself as your equal in this undertaking--totally. Another day I might expect and you might expect me to be Mr. Sharpe, now I am Stone. Ah, here comes Tim."
As Mr. Anderson walked into the classroom carrying some rolled-up charts, he said, "And I am Tim. Not being folksy, I just want us to be clear that we are in this together, brothers, if you will."
With him was a short, stocky man with long, coal-black hair worn in a braid. A leather thong--to which was attached a single feather, I was positive it was an eagle feather--was braided into his hair. His complexion and facial features certainly indicated he was entitled to wear the feather. (Only Indians can legally own an eagle feather, much less wear one.) He was dressed in buckskins and had a hunting knife strapped to his waist. He looked every bit like a character from a western movie.
"Gentlemen, I'd like you to meet John Wesley Bushyhead of Bear Creek," Tim said.
"I thought you were just a tale people tell," Hank blurted out.
Mr. Bushyhead laughed and said, "That's the way I like it. Don't want much to do with a lot of folks and just as soon they think I am made up."
Tim laughed, "Don't let John Wesley pull your leg too far. He plays the Indian mountain man role well and makes a good living out of it, scaring tourists and their kids. That's one side of the man. The other side is he is a man of these mountains. No-one, but no-one, knows them as he does. He knows Sadies Cove backward and forward, right and left, up and down. He has forgotten more about the area than any of those flatland foreigners in that compound know. Stone suggested I see if John Wesley would help us out and when I told him about Jonathan, he was ready and willing so, John Wesley, take over."
"Who ar' you'ns?" he asked.
"Son, I'm John Wesley, been that since I was a baby."
"John Wesley, I'm Hank Dennison..."
"Deep Cove Dennisons?"
John Wesley fixed his eye on me and said, "If you're not a McElrath from Deep Cove, I'm going blind."
"Douglas McElrath, sir."
"Sorry about your family, Douglas. Where's Gerald?"
"In Florida, sir."
"Bet Sara's having a hard time keeping his eyes off the young girls," he chuckled.
"You have to be a Talltree," he said looking at Jason. "Knew your grandparents well. Sorry for your loss as well."
He then looked at Wesley and said, "A flatland foreigner if I've ever seen one."
"But I guess kinfolks," Wesley said with a twinkle in his eye as he thrust his hand toward John Wesley. I'm Wesley, Wesley Wilson, Douglas's cousin."
John Wesley gave a great belly laugh and said, "You'll do. Now down to business," his "movie" hillbilly accent gone. He reached out and took a rolled chart from Tim and spread it out on the desk. "This is a map of the area including Sadies Cove. When that bunch came to the cove and built their place, they eventually fenced it all in. Created a problem for animals and some people, but it hasn't slowed me down a lot."
"Not only did they build the buildings inside the inner fenced area, but also four underground bunkers outside the central compound. They are so well camouflaged I would be surprised if someone not knowing about them could spot or locate them. They are scattered over the cove between the inner and outer fence. Now I'm sure Tim here will eventually get a search warrant for the compound, but I don't think it will do any good. Anything they want to hide, they will put in the underground bunkers. I hope Jonathan is in one of them. I suspect, however, he is in a fifth hiding place known to very few in the cult. It's actually a kind of headquarters for Abel Mitchell, Noah Holland and Mark Grey. Abel is Silas Mitchell's designated heir and he, Holland and Grey are as tight as ticks in a hound's ear."
"When the bunch decided the world was coming to an end, unbeknownst to the general members, a cave was revamped into a bunker--first class. I don't know how the world was to come to an end and the cave be untouched, but there you have it. Abel was to emerge after the holocaust and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. He chose Holland and Grey to join him. Never figured how they were going to repopulate the earth, but I guess if you survive the final holocaust, you could do just about anything. All kidding aside, I think the old man may believe the line he feeds the faithful, but Abel and the others are in it for the money and maybe something else, but definitely there's nothing religious about their activities. I don't know what they are doing on the side. I have my suspicions, but I've never been able to catch them at anything.
"There are, I believe, only a dozen or so men who know about the cave. To the best of my knowledge, there are no women in that inner circle. I guess they were planning on choosing who they wanted just before the end began. Anyway, that's more information than you wanted, I'm sure, but you need to have some idea what we're up against. City boy, think you can take part in a commando raid?" John Wesley asked, looking at Wesley.
"I'm Wesley, remember?"
John Wesley laughed again, then outlined the plan. When he had finished, Stone said, "You know what we are up against--at least as much as I know. If you have any hesitancy about what is planned, just say so. No-one will think less of you." He paused then said, "We need to make this as kosher as possible, given how unkosher it really is. Ok, Tim, call in the sheriff."
Tim left and returned in a few minutes, walking with the sheriff. "Fellows, it's a bit irregular for people as young as some of you to be deputized but, then, I don't know how old you are, so raise your right hand and repeat after me." A minute or two later, we had been sworn in as sheriff's deputies. "That's just in case you need to have been deputized. When I walk back out that door, I'll forget I was ever in here and I'd like for you to forget it as well unless it is absolutely necessary to remember it. Ok?" We all nodded.
As soon as that formality was over and the sheriff gone, John Wesley said, "Great! Now let's get on with it. We'll be operating in two teams, approaching any area from two sides. I'll take my namesake and Hank." John Wesley said, "and, Stone, you take the other two. Stone and I will be armed, you four will not so if there's any question, keep down and don't try to be a hero."
Four deputies came into the room carrying two very large containers--aluminum trunks. A fifth deputy was pulling a large container on rollers. "Damn, we have to take our own coffins?" Hank asked, then grinned. Stone and Tim opened the smaller container and passed out flashlights, small FRS radios and first aid kits along with some other things such as hanks of nylon rope and knives. John Wesley passed out Ziploc bags with instructions to seal the first aid kits, flashlights and radios in them. "Anything else water will hurt needs to be put in the bags," he concluded. We packed things in our backpacks as Stone and John Wesley distributed them.
"Ok, strip to your long johns," Stone said when the backpacks were packed and as he started shedding his outer clothes. When we were all clad only in long johns, Tim and Stone opened the large trunks and started taking out wet suits. "I'm sure there's a wet suit here that will fit each of you, but we need to make sure. We also want to make sure you know how to get into one."
Twenty minutes to half an hour later, we had all gotten into a wet suit and out and gotten it in our backpack.
"Ok, let's check things," Tim said, and started running down an imaginary list. When he was satisfied we had what we needed, he hugged Stone and said, "Be careful." That started me wondering, not for the first time, but then he hugged each of us, including John Wesley, and told us all to take care.
Stone took us outside where we got into an all-terrain vehicle--not a buggy kind of thing but a cross between a truck and a Jeep, heavy duty stuff--with a sheriff's department decal on it. I was surprised when we didn't head for Deep Cove, since Sadies Cove was beyond it and that was the best way in. It was the only way into the compound itself, I was positive. Instead of heading for Deep Cove, we headed toward Pea Ridge.
Half an hour later, we came to the end of the state road. Stone stopped the vehicle and turned off the lights. "We'll have to wait here until my eyes get adjusted to the dark. There's a logging road which runs from here to the top of the ridge." Then I remembered John Wesley has showed us our approach on the map and it was from the top of Pea Ridge to the back of Sadies Cove.
After we had been waiting for ten minutes, my eyes had made some adjustment to the darkness and I was surprised we didn't move out. "What are we waiting for?" I asked.
"We're only half of this operation," Stone said. "Tim will do everything he can to get a search warrant and I am sure he will, but it will take some time. Also, a personnel carrier from the Clarksville Armory is being brought it. There is no way it can move very fast. John Wesley and I are convinced Jonathan is in one of the bunkers, and our job is to find him and get him out. But we can't have the whole bunch down on our necks. So we are trying the commando route while Tim and the others will launch a formal, legal attack."
"One damn big distraction," John Wesley said, "that's what we want and need." After looking at his watch, the mountain man said, "It's almost midnight...."
"Are you sure?" Wesley asked. "I can't believe it's that late."
"Three minutes 'til," John Wesley said. "Stone, I think we can move out now."
The moon had been behind thin cloud cover all evening, but now the clouds started moving away, revealing its brightness. "Good to have moonlight now," Stone said as he started the vehicle, "but I hope we have clouds later." He shifted the vehicle into four wheel drive and low range, and we started a slow trek to the top of Pea Ridge, driving without lights.
Half an hour later, we stopped just below the brow of the ridge. "We are about a hundred yards from the back fence of the compound," John Wesley said. "The first bunker is a good way in. When we move out, we need to be as quiet as possible and there's to be no unnecessary talking. Voices carry far up here in the mountain air. When we get to the fence, my team will go first and cut an opening. Any questions?" There were none, so John Wesley said, "Let's move out." Before he left the vehicle, he reached in the back and picked up a burlap sack which he slung over his shoulder and started walking toward the top of the ridge.
The rest of us followed, walking single file. The night had gotten cold and there was a slight wind blowing which made the temperature seem lower than it was. The moon was once again covered by thin clouds, which meant walking was treacherous. When we topped the ridge, I could see the fence a few yards in front of me, the razor wire atop the chain-link fence shining in the faint moonlight. Wesley and Hank were pulling aside the chain-link fencing as John Wesley cut it with a pair of bolt cutters. The job completed, the three walked through the hole in the fence and soon disappeared in the darkness of the woods.
Five minutes or so later, Stone said, softly "Ok, time to move out. Keep the person in front of you in sight, but leave five or six yards between you for the time being."
We walked in silence for what seemed like at least an hour, but when I looked at my watch, I found less than half an hour had passed. Jason was walking in front of me and I suddenly realized he had stopped, holding out his arm to indicate I should as well. A few minutes later, he motioned me ahead. When I reached him, I saw he was crouched beside Stone, both looking into the darkness. Jason tapped me on the shoulder and pointed ahead where I saw John Wesley, Hank and Wesley moving toward us, approaching a slight mound between the two teams.
When they reached it, John Wesley pointed to a stone which Wesley moved aside. John Wesley reached into the sack he had taken from the vehicle and when he removed his hand, it held a snake, at least five feet long, which he handed to Hank, then took a second, smaller snake from the bag. Apparently the stone Wesley moved covered an opening because first one, then the other of the snakes were dropped and disappeared. The three then sat back, relaxing. Perhaps five minutes later, John Wesley motioned to us. When we reached him, he said, very softly, "I think we can safely assume there's no-one in this bunker."
"Not unless they are snake charmers," Jason said.
"They were only harmless black snakes," Hank answered.
"It's always seemed to me that cardiac arrest is just as fatal as snake bite," I said, not sure I wanted to be around people who played with snakes.
"It's a good way to check on whether or not a bunker is empty without revealing your presence," John Wesley said, then added, "Well, we've had our break. There are three more bunkers and six more snakes and then the cave, if we don't find Jonathan before--which I sure hope we do." John Wesley stood and he and his crew moved into the darkness. Stone lead us off in a slightly different direction.
I had worked up a pretty good sweat walking to the bunker, and had opened my wind jacket to keep from getting too hot. I had gotten more than cooled off while we were resting and shivered as we started out again.
It was another half hour before the John Wesley team suddenly appeared ahead of us. Stone signaled and we moved up to join them. The "snakes in the bunker" technique was used once more with the same results. Over the next two hours, the last two bunkers failed to produce Jonathan or anyone else.
After the snakes had been released in the last bunker, John Wesley sat down and we gathered around him. "I'm sure you are all disappointed and discouraged. I can understand that. I really hoped we'd find the lad in one of these smaller bunkers. But, to be honest, I really didn't think we would. What's left is the main bunker..."
As he spoke, the radio on Stone's belt crackled, a noise so soft I wasn't sure I had heard it until Stone took the radio from his belt as a faint voice said, "Falling Rock calling Rolling Stone."
Stone whispered into the radio, "Falling Rock, this is Rolling Stone."
Tim's voice could barely be heard as he said, "Be aware permission for the trip hasn't come yet, but we're ready for the show when you are."
"Roger, Falling Rock. Wait for my signal." Stone fastened the radio to his belt again and as he did said, "Tim's got everyone in place. They haven't gotten the search warrant yet, but he is ready to create a major diversion when we need it."
"Ok, if they are ready, let's move," John Wesley said. "We have a couple miles or so of fast walking to reach the cave. We'll stop, Stone, half-way--under Eagle's Beak. We could go together to there, but just in case something happens, I'd like to keep us separate. Besides, this city boy is good company. Right, Hank?" John Wesley actually tussled Wesley's hair.
Scudding clouds played tricks with the moonlight which made walking difficult. Additionally, earlier we had been walking in a huge circle parallel to the top of the ridge and, therefore, walking a more or less level track. Now we were headed straight down the very steep side of the mountain, which often was little more than a sheer drop. It was tough on the legs and we were moving at a much faster clip than we had been.
After fifteen minutes I was sweating like mad and thought about taking off my jacket, and when the clouds left the face of the moon again, I saw Jason taking his off. When I looked, I saw that Stone had taken his off and tied it to his backpack. I caught up with Jason, took his jacket and fastened it to his backpack, then took mine off and walked in front of him so he could return the favor.
In spite of the fact that I had been swimming and working out, I didn't know how much longer I could hold out, when I looked up and saw a huge black shadow rising from the mountainside. Stone turned toward it and soon we were underneath the outcropping, sitting on a bed of leaves.
"You fellows need to come up this way in the daylight one of these days--after Sadies Cove is cleaned up--and see the formation above us. Looks just like an eagle's beak," John Wesley said. "And you have a great view of Sadies Cove and beyond. Special place for me," he said, very softly.
"Heard anything from the compound?" he asked Stone. Stone shook his head. "We'll give Tim and the boys a little more time. I want to find Jonathan and get him out as soon as possible, but I'd also like to do so with as little trouble as possible. I'd like to have something going on in the central compound that will hold the attention of all The Circle of God's Chosen. We'll rest here a few minutes then start our part of the operation. By the way, don't let yourselves get chilled, boys. If you're like me, you worked up a pretty good sweat and the cold air feels good, but too much and you'll stiffen up."
"How come you know so much about this compound, John Wesley?" I asked.
"Bill Simpson's son, Andrew, and I were best friends growing up. We spent every free minute we had roaming the mountains--hunting, trapping, fishing, gathering herbs. We knew every crease and crevice of the Simpson place and ours--most everyone else's as well. We had dreams of combining the two farms and starting a number of things--a summer camp, mountain inn, several things."
"We went off to college together, but soon I had to come home. Both my mom and dad came down with something--it was never properly diagnosed--and I had to drop out to take care of them. I guess I could have had someone else, maybe a nursing home, do the job, but I didn't want to. They had taken care of me, now it was my turn. It was tough. It took them two years to die and not a minute of it was easy."
"Meanwhile, Andrew was in school at NC State. His mom died very suddenly, shortly after I had come home to care for Mom and Dad. Bill Simpson hit the skids. He was into the bottle pretty good before, and after his wife died he was never sober. He was a very angry, bitter man. Then the Thanksgiving before my parents died, Andrew came home. Thanksgiving day Andrew told his dad he was going to my place for dinner. His dad made some remark about me, I don't know what, and they got in a real heavy fight. His dad ordered him out of the house, telling him he was never to darken his door again."
"Disowned, Andrew had no money for college. I wanted him to go on back to school and told him I could pay his way, and if he didn't want to do that, he could come and live with me, but he wouldn't--couldn't. He said he didn't want what had happened to him to bring grief on me. Beg as I would, he told me goodbye and left. In the next six months I got letters from him as he drove west. He would stay in one place a few days or a couple weeks and then move on."
"Then I got a letter from a priest in San Francisco telling me he had been killed in an automobile accident. Bill Simpson made no arrangements for his burial or anything. I sent money for his cremation and scattered his ashes from atop Eagle's Beak. You know what happened to Bill Simpson. I saw no reason to return to college and I have developed a few things on my place which keep me going."
"When I asked Silas Mitchell for permission to come up here to spend time with Andrew, he gave me a sermon on worshiping the dead and the wickedness of cremation and forbade me to set foot on the property, which meant I have made it my business to know everything that's been done on this hundred acres."
"So much for John Wesley the uneducated but wise-in-the-ways-of-the-woods hillbilly," I said.
"I think you've just about John Wesleyed me enough. My friends call me Wes. You don't have to be uneducated to be wise in the ways of the woods, but it's a well-paying role sometimes," he laughed. "See, Stone's the other kind of mountain man. He's obviously educated and no-one thinks he's wise in the ways of the woods, but there are few places in these Haynes county mountains which have not felt the imprint of Stone's feet. Same, by the way, with Tim. So, Stone, Chapel Hill law school hillbilly, what's the plan?"
"I think we approach from two routes as before, you take the north route and I'll take the south. Then? I haven't seen the cave in... what? It's been at least ten years, probably more. Certainly my memory of it isn't perfect. Add to that the fact that I haven't seen what has been done to it, and I'm pretty much in the dark once we get there."
"If you remember, Stone, the front opening was fairly large, large enough to drive a small excavator into the first chamber, which they did. You'll recall the first chamber had a fairly low ceiling compared to the other two. It was a large room with a level, sandy floor. They cleaned out the loose rock in it, stabilized the sandy floor and made the chamber a kind of reception hall/garage/work area. The entrance was brought down in size and large, motor-operated steel doors installed. You'd never spot them unless you remembered where the entrance was. Not only are the doors well hidden, but also you'd never get in that way unless invited."
"Stone knows this, but I'd like the rest of you to have some idea of the inside. There are two branches off of the first chamber. One has a decent enough opening and a high ceiling. A stream runs through it. That chamber had been fixed up to provide water, food storage, so on. Essentially, it is a warehouse with a year's supply of just about everything. Remember the blowhole in that chamber, Stone?" Stone nodded. "It was fitted with exhausts for ventilators and generators. The opening you and I remember was sealed around the exhausts which are well camouflaged."
"Originally, the third chamber was almost blocked by a huge boulder which had fallen from the ceiling. I'm sure you remember seeing someone a little overweight try to squeeze through," Wes looked at Stone who had a grin on his face. "I don't know how they managed it, but they removed the boulder and created a large double door into the third chamber. Those doors are never left unlocked. The third chamber is fixed up like a million dollar condo. You wouldn't believe it. I'm thinking that Jonathan is in the third chamber, probably in a bedroom."
"I may not be smart in the ways of the woods," Wesley said, "but us city boys probably know more about locked doors than you guys do. What I have just heard is the cave entrance has steel doors which, I believe you said, are so thick and so heavy they have to be motor operated. I guess there is a big switch outside with 'Open' and 'Close' on it and all we have to do is walk up and flip the switch. Then, once we are inside, we face two more doors that, you said it Mr. Mountain Man, are never left unlocked. So we walk up, knock and say, "Let Jonathan go or we'll huff and we'll puff and blow your doors down."
"Haven't you heard that locks are there to keep honest people out?" Wes asked.
"Cherokee Slide!" Stone said suddenly. "That's it! Cherokee Slide."
"Right! You see there is a fourth chamber. It's kinda hard to find. I told you there was a stream through the second chamber. Well, above the cave and up the mountainside there is a huge rock which slopes toward a sinkhole. The stream runs over the rock into a huge basin. From the basin, it plunges into a large opening and disappears. What cannot be seen from the surface is the lake formed by the water flowing from the basin. What our good religious people haven't discovered--I hope--is a tunnel from the lake to the third chamber."
"Just at the waterline of the lake is a narrow ledge which tapers back to a very small opening, half-covered by water. The opening is the mouth of a tunnel. It is narrow and you'll do some tight wiggling and crawling, but it'll get you into the condo chamber. When I saw what they were doing to the cave, I thought I might need to get in some day, so I went over the slide, down into the sinkhole and out through the opening. It is behind the wall of a very fancy bedroom. Even better, it is the back wall of a large walk-in closet. I made sure one of the wall panels wasn't securely fastened. It's our door into the cave."
Wes looked at his watch and said, "Ok, I wanted to give Tim time to get set up to create a major diversion and for all of us to get a bit of rest, because things are going to start moving fast and furious in a few minutes. We now have a mile of quick time to do. When we reach the slide, we'll leave behind everything we can. We'll get dressed in the wet suits and put our wind suits over them to protect them. We'll take our flashlights, radios and first aid kits, that's about it."
"I hope none of you are claustrophobic. When we reach the slide, we'll slide down into basin, swim--or be swept--over the falls, into the sinkhole lake and go through the tunnel to the closet. After that, we'll fly by the seat of our pants. When we have Jonathan, I hope we can get out through the doors to the outside without any trouble."
As we left the shelter of Eagle's Beak, my thoughts were running wild. I was pretty sure Stone and Wes had both been hoping against hope that Jonathan would be found in one of bunkers we had looked into, but both seemed pretty sure he wasn't even as we searched. Now, neither was taking this last search lightly. Another part of my brain was engaged in thinking about a young man spending two years caring for his parents, watching them die.
Also it was very obvious he had suffered greatly and still suffered because of Andrew's rejection by his father and then his death. I was thinking about Stone and Wes and how I really wanted to get to know these two guys, men who were putting their lives on the line for a kid neither knew well, and who were willing to allow us to put ours on the line for our brother.
The trip to Cherokee Slide seemed to take only minutes. I would like to have seen the place in the daylight. A wide creek spilled over a very large sloping rock, the slide of Cherokee Slide. At the lower end it formed a waterfall, spilling into a basin perhaps ten feet or more below. As soon as we reached it, Stone again said, "Any of you want to stop here, do. No-one will think less of you for it." He then started stripping for action as did we all.
As soon as we were all suited up in wet suit and wind suit, Wes said, "Fasten your flashlight securely to your waist and as soon as you are ready to slide, turn it on. That way we can find everyone should someone get disorientated in the water. Ready?" We all nodded--I know I didn't trust my voice to actually say anything. No doubt about it, I was scared.