Frank Molinari was back out at the highway before first light, and the arriving dawn found him just as angry and frustrated as he had been the day before. With him were seven men, his original three plus four more from the city. None of them were what you would call people of the great outdoors and all of them hated their current assignment.
"The old man must be nuts thinking we can find her out here," said 'Red' Rudovski, Frank's right-hand man and one of the men who had just flown out.
"Yeah, Red, I know. But he pays the bills so he calls the shots," Frank replied, staring at the surrounding area. He thought the place looked like a big Marlboro Man commercial.
"What makes you think she's still alive out here anyway?" Red asked. "It's been two days now, right?"
"I don't, but I can't take that risk, Red."
Red looked at his boss, "It was pretty stupid of you to lose her out here, Moose!"
Frank stiffened just slightly. If it had been anyone else, Frank would have wiped the ground with his face after a remark like that. But the two of them went way back, and were closer than brothers in some ways. Frank had come to rely on the Russian to give him what all his other men were afraid to give, a reality check. "Yeah, I know," he said finally.
The radio on his belt squawked and Frank answered it. "What?"
"Georgie, Boss. I'm on the north side of the hill and I found a road. It's almost covered in sand but it has to go somewhere, right?"
Frank looked north and saw nothing but high cliffs and big rock formations; nothing that looked like it was anything.
"Any footprints or car tracks?" he asked.
"After yesterdays blow? No way, Boss!"
"Well...keep looking. This hill is full of places to hide and she can't be far. We'll worry about the road later."
"Sure thing, Boss," said Georgie.
Frank shrugged and rolled his eyes before triggering his radio again. "Pankow, you awake?"
"Yeah, Moose," replied a heavy-sounding voice.
"Any sign of her near that water hole?"
"Stay awake," ordered Frank.
Red chuckled, "Not a man of words is Pankow."
Frank wasn't in the mood to laugh, "Come on, let's go check out that road."
The sound of chickens outside the barn woke up Charlotte after a restless night. She was just about slept out now so it had been a long night for her. Cold, and feeling the effects of her full-body sunburn, Charlotte had found it hard to get comfortable and ended up pacing her small prison for much of the night. She was very worried about what was going to happen to her. Who were these people and who was the Judge?
Things were very strange here, too strange in her opinion, and she didn't like it. Would normal people keep a woman chained up in their barn?
She finally did fall asleep again though, only to be wakened up by the aforementioned chickens, and as she struggled back to full consciousness her captor came through the door with a bowl of food in one hand.
Charlotte noticed it immediately, her hunger now back and demanding attention. She stayed where she was, sitting on the straw of her stall, and watched while Zachery placed the bowl and a mug of water where she could reach it.
He grinned at her in a friendly way and then moved over to where a hopper
of grain sat next to the far wall. He filled a leather bag and left
the barn, leaving her alone again.
Charlotte wondered if he was going to feed the chickens.
She waited until she was sure he wasn't coming back and then went for the food. Her entire body screamed at her, sore muscles and sensitive skin protesting loudly, but she gathered her food up all the same. In the bowl was oatmeal with honey trickled on top, and it smelled pretty good. It was also warm, as Charlotte discovered when she put her fingers into it, and it went down well. It filled her empty stomach nicely, as did the water that followed it.
Charlotte was therefore feeling a lot more human when her next visitors arrived -- Hettie and Levi.
Levi was wearing the same clothes as the day before, but Hettie looked like she had changed her dress for another while keeping the same plastic bag. They were wearing the same expressions too, Levi looking suspiciously at her. Hettie smiled though and Charlotte almost caught herself smiling back.
"Hello, Charlotte child," Hettie said. "Did you sleep well last night?"
"Er, no, not really. I'm not used to sleeping chained up in barns," replied Charlotte, a little harsher than she had planned.
Hettie didn't seem to notice, "Well I'm sorry dear, but it's for your own good. And today we'll see the Judge and he'll decide what to do with you."
"You could just let me go...please?" Charlotte said, trying not to sound like she was begging.
"Oh no, we can't do that. The Judge has to see you first," Hettie replied with a shake of her head.
"Will he let me go then?" asked Charlotte.
"I don't presume to know what is in his mind, child."
"But...he can't keep me here. That's kidnapping! He can't keep me prisoner!"
"You only get what you deserve, child, and he knows," Hettie said with conviction.
"But..." Charlotte said, but Hettie cut her off.
"Not another word about it, child. You just mind your manners and mind us and things will be a lot easier on you. Understand?"
Charlotte closed her mouth. This kindly old lady suddenly looked a lot harder than she appeared.
Hettie regarded her for a moment, then nodded and smiled, "Very good.
Now let's get ready to go." Hettie turned and yelled for Zack who appeared
a moment later at the door.
"Zachery, she could use a wash before we go; she won't make a good impression on the Judge as filthy as she is right now. Could you go unlock her please?"
Charlotte perked up. In truth she was dying for a shower and thought that maybe the old woman was trying to help her after all. Getting clean would certainly help her case. She only wished she had something decent to wear instead of these overalls.
Zachery nodded and dug in a pocket of his dirty jeans. He found a set of keys and stepped into the horse stall where Charlotte had been kept prisoner.
She held out her hands for him, but he walked right by her and began unlocking the chain where it attached to the wall.
"Hey!" she said, frowning.
Zachery gave her a smile and began gathering the loose chain up in his hands. He tugged on it like a leash.
"I'm not a damn animal," Charlotte said angrily, "I'll come with you without the chains. Can't you let me go?"
"What did my wife tell you about your mouth, girl?" Levi said angrily from the front of the stall.
Hettie stepped forward, "There's no need for that, Levi. The girl is just confused, that's all." She took the chain from Zack and pulled on it. "You come with me, child, and we'll get you cleaned up."
Charlotte nodded and let herself be led from the barn. She felt pretty
stupid being towed, handcuffed, by this little old lady, but then she didn't
think she had much choice. She also felt rather vulnerable, despite
the fact that she had been given something to wear.
Her bare feet, her bare back, and the fact that from the sides her breasts were still visible, all made her feel naked. She didn't like it.
Charlotte was led from the barn to the cabin and she was aware that the men were following her. She looked back to see Zachery looking at her ass, and he smiled when he saw her watching him. She stuck out her tongue at him.
Charlotte had expected to be led inside the cabin to some kind of bathroom.
But when they stopped under a small cistern on legs, Charlotte's hopes fell.
"I'll help you get those dungarees off," Hettie said as she reached for the snaps holding the straps on, "and we'll soon have you clean."
"No, wait," Charlotte said, stepping back, "out here?"
"Of course out here," Hettie replied. "Zachery doesn't have one of those indoor showers, do you Zachery?"
Zack shook his head and pulled the chain from Hettie's grasp, locking the free end around one leg of the cistern.
"But...I can't!" Charlotte said, shocked at being told to bathe out here in the open.
"You can and you will, or you go see the Judge just as you are. Do you want him to see you like this, filthy?"
Charlotte looked down at herself. Her legs up to her knees were still dark from pond mud, her skin still dirty from sleeping in the rough. She knew she smelled and didn't want to speculate on the condition of her hair. She knew she was a wreck but... "Do they...do they have to be here to watch?" Charlotte asked, pointing at the men.
Hettie turned to face them, "Go on, go have some coffee or something. Let the girl have some privacy while she can. Go on now!"
Levi gave Charlotte one more angry look before leaving, while Zachery hesitated. A glare from Hettie got him moving though and soon the women were alone.
Charlotte didn't feel much better about things, but she did as she was ordered and pulled off the overalls. Hettie set them to one side, beyond the reach of her chain Charlotte noted, and went over to where another chain hung from the side of the cistern. Charlotte stood still, hands over her breasts again, feeling lost and alone and also rather scared.
"Under the spout, child!" Hettie ordered.
"What?" Charlotte replied. Then she looked where the old woman was pointing and saw a large shower head on a pipe sticking out from the cistern. She padded over to it and found she could stand under it if she stretched her arms out, the chain not being quite long enough. Being naked, Charlotte didn't think much of this position.
Hettie pulled on the chain and the water started to pour and it was cold; not ice cold, but cold enough to make Charlotte jump out from under the spray.
"Get back under there and wet yourself down, I have some soap here someplace," said Hettie, digging in her plastic bag.
Charlotte grimaced and stepped back under the spray. She had to wait a few minutes while Hettie sorted herself out, but by then she grew somewhat used to the water temperature. She also got to see that from the force of the water alone, mud from her body was being washed away. It was actually a decent shower.
Hettie handed her a bar of soap and Charlotte had to step out to be able to apply it to herself. She stood on a wooden platform under the cistern and tried to work up a lather with her hands cuffed together. It wasn't easy, and Charlotte felt very embarrassed about doing this in the open.
Hettie shut off the water and watched her. "Do you need any help, child?" she asked.
"No...thanks...I can manage," replied the girl. She was now using
the soap to try to wash her hair. It wasn't an easy job in the best
of times, but her cuffs made it a lot harder.
Still, she was determined to do it alone and was grateful for the chance to clean up at all.
Then she noticed Zack. He was standing by the cabin, a big grin on his face as he stared at her naked, soapy body. Charlotte, tired of his games, tried to ignore him.
"Time to rinse," Hettie said as she started the water again.
Reluctantly, Charlotte stepped back under the water, aware now that she could no longer cover herself. She turned so that the soap could be rinsed off her, and Hettie had her stand there for a couple more minutes before letting her step out again.
Charlotte stood shivering from the cold water, and looked about for a towel. "Is there anything for me to dry myself with?" she asked.
"We'll just let you air dry for a few minutes. You'll be ready in no time," Hettie replied.
Charlotte didn't care for that either, but she stood silently anyway, aware of her nudity, aware of Zack's eyes on her. Once she was dry, Hettie handed her the overalls and Charlotte struggled to pull them on. One of the snaps that held the front up broke, and Charlotte was almost ready for tears.
"You'll be fine without it, child," said Hettie, gathering her things.
Charlotte didn't think so. True, her front was still covered even though one corner of the bib flapped loose across her chest. But it would hardly take anything for one of her breasts to pop out free. Charlotte felt even more naked than when she hadn't had anything on.
She shyly turned away from Zack, who had come up to unlock her chain. Again he only released the end attached to the leg of the cistern, and used it like a leash to pull Charlotte along.
"Hey! Slow down! I'm barefoot you dope!" she growled at him.
Zack half shrugged but he didn't slow, and soon Charlotte was brought around to where the wagon was waiting. Levi was already there, holding the head of the horse. Time hadn't softened his attitude any.
"About time she was ready. Women take too long to get clean, if you want my opinion."
"Your opinion ain't worth a red cent, Levi," said Hettie coming up behind them.
Levi growled and Zack smiled. He pulled Charlotte around to the back of the wagon and locked the chain in place with only a few feet of slack.
Charlotte made as if to climb up on the back of the wagon, but Zack stopped her. He made a sign with his hand which Charlotte could read quite easily.
"You want me to walk?" she asked. "You're crazy! Why should I walk? I'm barefoot and the ground is hard on my feet!
Zachery only shrugged and pushed her back to the extent of her chain, before moving to help Hettie onto the wagon.
Charlotte didn't know if she was supposed to be afraid or insulted. It certainly didn't make much sense to her. She looked up at Hettie as if for an answer, but the old woman was now ignoring her.
Levi and Zack quickly climbed aboard and Zack got the horse moving. Before she knew it, Charlotte found herself being dragged along and there was nothing she could do about it. She decided to feel pissed.
"There's a sign here, Moose," said Red.
"What's it say?"
"Something about a town at the other end of this track. I doubt it's there though, it looks pretty old and this track looks like it hasn't been used in years."
Frank grunted and thought for a moment. "Go get the car, Red," he said. "Let's go check the town out. Even if it is a ghost town, there still might be a place where she could hide from us. If she got there, that is."
"Shall I grab a couple of the boys, Moose?" asked the Russian.
"Nah, we can handle this. We won't be out of range of the radios if we need them."
Temperance, when Charlotte finally saw it, came as a surprise to the girl. It looked old and well used, but it certainly wasn't a ghost town. The track they were following became the single street that passed through the tiny hamlet, and it widened at one point to pass around a small square. The buildings were mostly houses with some businesses mixed in like a hardware store and a butcher, and it all looked like an old cowboy town, which it probably had been when there used to be cowboys. Most of the houses were nothing more than shacks, but several were of a good size and one stood tall on one side of the square. Across from it stood a church surrounded by a small graveyard, and a couple of saloons were nearby. It looked rather odd to someone used to modern architecture. What made it odder though, were the tall stacks of rock surrounding the town, almost looking like a big granite cage, closing in on them. The stacks made their presence felt very strongly. It certainly drew Charlotte's eyes for a moment as she hobbled painfully along behind the wagon.
But her attention soon drifted back to the people, for Temperance wasn't unoccupied. Men, women, and even children of all ages were on the sidewalks or crossing the dirt road. Most stopped for a moment to look at Charlotte as she was pulled along, and the girl blushed at their attention, for although she was wearing something to cover her nakedness, it wasn't doing a very good job. The seat of her pants was so thin as to be practically translucent, the crotch so tight as to dig in uncomfortably where clothes had never gone before, and the broken flap of her overalls had exposed one of her breasts numerous times.
But she was puzzled about there being no outcry about what was happening to her. No one made a move to stop her humiliating trip into town. They simply stared at her until she went past and then went on with what they were doing.
Charlotte didn't know what to make of it. She puzzled over it until
they drew up at their destination and Charlotte was glad for the stop.
Her feet ached from all the sharp stones she had trodden on, and she wanted
desperately to sit down. But it was not to be quite yet.
They had stopped in front of a large building on the square and up close it was very imposing. A fat man wearing a gun belt was standing in the doorway, and Charlotte noted that he wore a silver star on his lapel. Her stomach turned at this appearance of the Law, but she looked to the man for some help.
"Can you help me?" Charlotte asked.
The fat man looked at her for a moment as he came down the steps. "She don't look like much, does she," he said, his voice raspy, "doesn't look very fit."
"She's fit enough, Clay, not that it matters none," Hettie replied from her seat on the wagon. "She has to see the Judge either way."
Clay, the fat man, nodded.
Charlotte was feeling rather desperate by now. "Look," she said, "there has obviously been some sort of mistake. I've done nothing to warrant seeing a Judge. These people have kept me locked up and brought me here against my will. It's THEM who ought to see the Judge, not me!"
Clay looked her over from her feet to her hair and back again. To Charlotte his eyes seemed to bore right into her. "Lady," he said, "until the Judge sees you, I advise you to keep your mouth shut, or I'll shut it for you."
"But..." Charlotte began.
"Shut up," ordered Clay.
"You can't talk to me like that!" Charlotte said angrily, regretting the words the instant they came out.
Clay sighed and moved very quickly for a man his size. In seconds he pulled a leather pouch from a pocket and advanced upon the girl. Charlotte tried to move back but her arms were suddenly gripped by Zack who had crept around behind her.
Charlotte opened her mouth to scream for help and found it quickly stuffed with the leather pouch. It was tied in place with an attached leather cord and Charlotte was effectively gagged. She cried out but only muffled sounds came out. This scared her.
Zachery let go of her and she reached up to pull out the awful tasting thing in her mouth, but Clay grabbed the chain attached to her cuffed hands and pulled down hard, hurting her wrists.
He stuck his face right in front of hers and said, "If I see you touch that thing again, I'm gonna whip your ass. Understood, girl?"
Shocked, Charlotte nodded, and Clay let go of her. He turned to Zachery who couldn't conceal the smirk on his face. "Boy, unlock your end of her leash, and let's bring her inside. The Judge is waiting for her."
Feeling very alone and in desperate trouble, Charlotte let herself be led
into the building, wondering if she was going to come out alive.