The luck! The absolutely incredible luck!
Rick Milton had been working it over in his mind for several days. There seemed no way to crack this nut – no way to reap what he had sown by following the military vehicles back to this location. Rick had waited and watched and schemed and planned. In the end, it all came down to plain old luck. The key. The way in … and, hopefully, the way out again.
Everyone had a weakness, Rick reflected. The trick was to capitalize on weaknesses when they presented themselves. Survival now was not that different from doing business before the crash. It was you or your competitors. If they blinked, you needed to seize the opportunity or it could be lost forever.
It had taken nearly three days but Rick had found this competitor’s weakness. Actually, it found him.
Rick spotted the boy nearly 200 yards in the distance as he separated from a girl about his age. The boy turned and headed in the direction of Rick’s hideout. Rick recalled that he had sat in this very same spot two nights ago. An owl had been overhead that evening, calling into the night. Unfamiliar with the sounds of nighttime in the country, Rick had worried that the owl would give away his position. The owl, and numerous other things that went bump that night, had kept Rick on edge.
Gradually, Rick overcame the nervousness caused by the unfamiliar night sounds. Eventually, Rick settled in and watched calmly as life on the farm unfolded before him. He noted the guards and the defenses and drew conclusions as to the obvious stockpile of provisions.
As Rick watched, he plotted. This treasure trove could supply him for months – even if he only took a small portion. But, he had to find a way in and out unnoticed.
Until the boy practically landed in his lap. Rick knew a bargaining chip when he saw one. This towheaded, teenage chip, Rick quickly realized, was his pass … his ticket. The kid could be used as leverage … leverage to go in, to take what he needed and to get back out again. No need to try to sneak past the defenses. No worries about getting back out again. This way would be simpler – relatively speaking. Drive in with the kid as a bargaining chip. Get the residents of the farm to load up his pickup … or maybe the big military truck, instead … and then drive back out again with the kid in tow. When he got far enough away, Rick rationalized, he could just drop the kid off on the roadside and find a place, far away, to hide out.
There were still risks. Rick would still need some time to plan and prepare. That would come later. The boy was only 100 yards away now, bearing down on Rick’s hiding spot, looking down at the ground.
Rick’s fingers clenched on the log that he’d found. When the boy got close enough, Rick had decided, he would spring up from his hiding spot and knock the kid out.
As the boy drew closer, Rick could see that he was armed. There was a pistol in a holster on his left hip and a knife in a sheath on his right.
“Arming young teenagers?” Rick was incredulous. “These people would give the Brady Campaign nightmares.”
The boy continued on a line more or less directly toward Rick as he zig-zagged back and forth across the stubble of the corn field. His eyes scanned like the nose of a hunting dog looking for a scent. If Rick had been more familiar with the outdoors, he might have recognized that the boy was scouting for sign. Rick saw a careless kid out for a late afternoon walk … and his key to the provisions hidden in the distant buildings.
Rick tensed as the boy approached to within a few feet of the woods where he was hidden. He waggled his fingers around the log that he intended to use as his club. The boy stopped and tilted his head, eyes scanning the trees. Rick tried to control his breathing. He was starting to sweat even in the cool of the early April evening.
One step. Then another. Tentatively, the boy drew closer to the trees. Each step was light and noiseless, falling between the corn husks in the harvested rows.
Another step; looking at the ground before he put his foot down. Gingerly, the boy turned fully toward Rick and put his hand on the butt of his pistol. He began to take a step backward.
It was now or never, Rick decided. If that kid pulled his gun, it would all be over. The key would be lost. Even worse, Rick realized, he might be found … and shot.
Rick sprang at the boy from only a few feet away, club raised, eyes blazing.
The boy reacted quickly, but not quickly enough. Rick was on top of him before he could draw. The club fell heavily but the boy ducked inside Rick’s swing. The blow glanced off of the boy’s shoulder momentarily deadening his left arm. Rolling on the ground, the boy reached for his knife with his right hand. Rick was on top of him, club cast aside, hands at the boy’s throat. The boy tried to buck Rick off, but he was small for his age and Rick had been eating well for the past few weeks. Rick’s weight was simply too much.
Trying another tactic, the boy squirmed to the side. Rick’s hands broke free from the boy’s throat but the sideways roll was a critical mistake. Rather than trying to regain his grasp on the boy’s throat with his hands, Rick slid his arm around the boy’s neck as he rolled. Instinctively, the boy tucked his chin to his chest. Rick was surprised by the move, but slid his left arm over his right wrist, tucking the wrist inside his elbow, and applied the pressure of his forearm to the boy’s chin. Bit by bit, Rick’s arm worked its way under the boy’s chin and then against his neck. Seconds later, Rick felt the boy’s body go limp as his brain was momentarily starved of blood.
Rick rolled off of the boy, chest heaving.
“Whew! I’m out of shape,” Rick lamented as he rested on his hands and knees trying to regain his breath.
As the boy stirred, Rick scrambled to pull a roll of duct tape from the cargo pocket of his pants. Before the boy’s eyes opened, Rick had taken his gun and knife, taped his wrists behind his back, and sealed his mouth.
“More than the handyman’s best friend,” Rick chuckled aloud at his own joke.
When the boy’s hazel eyes fluttered open, they focused on Rick’s face. Rick saw a momentary flash of fear quickly replaced by an intense look of defiance. The boy’s eyes gleamed as Rick felt a brief twinge of guilt. In the old days, Rick would never have considered hurting a kid – he’d never even spanked his own kids – but things were different now.
“It’s him or me,” Rick rationalized. “I’m not going to hurt him … unless I have to.”
“All right, kid, on your feet,” Rick commanded.
The boy crossed his legs, Indian-style, and stood unassisted.
Rick assessed what the boy might be thinking and pointed his pistol at the boy’s chest, “Don’t even think about running. Just turn around a walk where I tell you.”
The boy’s blond hair swept across his eyes as he nodded. The icily defiant stare never wavered.