Bryce Canyon. A jewel of colour and light, set in a gap in the mountain.
Caroline and River of Stars followed a dirt path through the pines. It was a warm Saturday in summer. Leaving the undergrowth, then going into another pinewood, they came to the edge of a cliff. A wide valley opened wide towards the horizon. A forest of rocks lit up under the sun. It was a huge maze of red, orange, and pink, almost white in places, like the oversized flames of a petrified fire. Bryce Canyon.
They sat on the roots on a pine, at the edge of the chasm and had a picnic. It was impossible to go down. The slope was too steep to afford any holds. They spied a path at the far side, but where did it come from? They didn't know much about it.
A few minutes later, they found themselves peering down and watching a rabbit fleeing across the hillside. There, they saw a backpack below, stopped in its fall by a red chimney of rock. It seemed to have been there for a several days.
"I don't see how we can get it," Caroline said, leaning a little lower. "If we slide down the slope, we'd speed down like we were on a toboggan. We could break an arm or a leg. And we'd never be able to get back up."
"And, really, that backpack doesn't have anything to do with us," River of Stars agreed. "A clumsy hiker probably lost it."
"Your hiker could be at the very bottom," Caroline said. "He'll never get his bag if he's dead."
"I really hope that's not it," River of Stars said, worried. "Come on, let's keep going. If you like, we can come back here next week. If it's still there, that means it doesn't belong to anyone anymore. We can try to get a hold of it."
The two girls were curious and came back the next weekend. They took a long rope with them just in case. At the end of it, they'd attached a hook. They found the spot and saw the backpack. He was in the exact same place.
They tried to go a good five feet down but, to avoid breaking a bone, they went on all fours up to the edge and let the rope slide down.
The recovery operation proved more difficult than expected. Try as they might, the hook refused to catch a shoulder strap. Finally, with a good deal of patience, River of Stars managed to get it hooked. Then the two girls pulled the rope towards them and dragged the bag along the wall until it was within arm's reach.
They went back under the pine trees and sat down against one.
Impatiently, they opened their find. The first thing they found there was a revolver. Sliding the cylinder between her fingers, Caroline noticed that there were only four bullets left.
Inside the backpack were also several small containers. The two friends found gold jewellery set with gemstones, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, and some gold watches.
Finally, they pulled out a wallet stuffed with nearly two thousand dollars. A business card slipped into a fold gave them a name and address.
The two girls, quite sure they'd just discovered the backpack of a thief, started asking themselves some questions. Was the man dead at the bottom of the valley? Did he lose his bag as he tripped over the edge? If not, why didn't he just come and get it back?
They carefully memorized the address in the wallet. They put everything back in the bag.
Before putting the revolver back in, Caroline asked her friend if she wanted to shoot it. She pointed to a can lying on the ground next to a trash can sixty feet away. It could be their target.
"You know how to use a gun?" River of Stars asked.
"Father taught me," Caroline answered. "My father once told me, 'You never know what can happen in life. You should know how to use a gun, my dear. Your mother and I aren't always home, and we live isolated in the hills. You must be able to protect your three little brothers, just in case.'"
River of Stars didn't want to shoot, saying it would be too loud. The girls put the weapon into the backpack and, with the rope and the hook, returned the pack to where they had found it. They fished back the rope and returned home.
On Mondays, just after school, the children had thirty minutes before the buses left and took them back home. They used this half hour to go to the address they had found. They brought their little brothers Timothy and Geoffrey, and also their little sisters Nicole-Chelly and Buttercup.
They got to the end of a street on the outskirts of Blanding. There they saw a house that looked abandoned. The gate was ajar and rested against a badly trimmed hedge. The lawn hadn't been mowed for a long time. A small walkway full to overflowing with plants of the creeping and prickly variety led to the front door, itself almost off its hinges.
The two friends called out as they knocked.
No one answered. They opened the door cautiously and entered the house with hearts pounding. The eldest children told their younger siblings to stay safely on the street.
They wended their way through the different rooms of the deserted house, through the kitchen, living room, dining room, then both bedrooms. Apart from a few cans, a broken bottle, a small child's piggy bank they found on a dirty shelf, the house was empty.
They left, running to catch the school bus, the younger ones in tow. If they'd missed it, it would have been a good two hours to walk home ... or they'd have to spend the night with their terrible Aunt Esther. I told you all about what they thought of her in the first adventure ...
They had to make the best of their lunch hour. The next day Caroline and River of Stars explained their adventure to their teacher and asked her for permission to go to the sheriff's office.
Once there, they didn't have long to wait. Soon they recounted the details of their discovery. Then their visit to the thief's house. The sheriff gave them what for. This had been reckless. The thief could have still been there and hurt them. Then the sheriff phoned the school and said that the two girls would not be back that afternoon. He would take them to get the backpack.
So, in a four-by-four, they headed into the mountains with the sheriff and his deputy. Quite quickly they were back at the small path at the edge of the precipice. The bag was just where they'd left it. They explained how they'd used a rope and hook before. The deputy thought it was a very good idea. They used the winch on the four-by-four and finally the sheriff was able to grab the backpack. He checked the contents and read the name and address of the thief on the card.
"This is him. This is a well-known and dangerous criminal. We've been after him for a while. He's already committed two murders. Of two young girls," explained the sherif. It's a very sad story. The man is married. He has two children, two girls about your age, from what we can understand. They must be very unhappy. A dad like that. He left town without a forwarding address. Now, thanks to you, we have a chance to catch him.
Back at the sheriff's office, Caroline and River of Stars were interviewed by a reporter from the local paper. He took some pictures and wrote a very flattering article. The next day, our two friends were proud to show it to family and friends.
The sheriff also rewarded each of them with the sum of one hundred dollars. It was the reward for precise information directly leading to finding the thief. It was a lot of money for two little girls from families that were far from rich. But both of them gave the money to their parents so they didn't spend it all on toys and candy.
As they returned home, our friends talked about what they'd overheard, a conversation between the sheriff and his deputy as they had been driving back to the town. The two men had been talking about how likely it was that there might be another bag, maybe even two. Caroline and River of Stars thought that, if they discovered them, they might get another reward.
The next Sunday, they set out again for the canyon. They decided to walk along the edge of the precipice. Without risking going down, they looked carefully to see if they could see another bag.
So, in full daylight, they were walking along the edge of the canyon. They didn't know they were being watched from afar by a man with binoculars attached by a leather strap around his neck. He followed the two carefully. At times, he scanned the deserted road.
A little later, Caroline and River of Stars sat down for a picnic. They opened their backpacks and drank from their water bottles.
The thief crept up to them, crawling on his belly. Then he jumped at them, and pointed a gun at them.
"I recognize you. Your picture was on the front page of the paper. I had two bags and now just one. Half my stash is at the police station. Because of you two. Give me the other one."
Our two friends understood right away that they were dealing with the dangerous criminal the sheriff was after.
"Give me the other one back," repeated the murderer. "You think you can keep it for yourselves, you little thieves."
"We haven't found it," Caroline said.
River of Stars, her heart pounding, didn't dare say anything.
"I don't believe you, you little liars," cried the man.
"We don't have your other bag, sir. We're telling you the truth."
"Well, too bad for you, in that case. Stand up. Over to my truck. We're going for a ride. Eventually, you'll talk."
When they arrived at his truck, a pickup, he tied their hands and feet with rope and laid them in the bed of the truck. Then he sped off, racing through the undergrowth.
Neither Caroline nor River of Stars could do anything to save themselves. They were too well tied up. With their feet hobbled, they would've gotten really hurt if they jumped out of the moving truck.
The man drove nearly twenty miles under the trees. Then into the desert. Finally, by evening, they reached a strange place. It was impressive, even ghostly. This place was called "Devils Garden Rock."
In several places, about forty red rocks rose up into the sky, like tall chimneys. The rocks were in rows, sometimes close, sometimes more scattered. This last sort were separated from each other by a wide space. Erosion of a now-dry river caused the rock formation. Now it was a desert, burnt by the sun.
The kidnapper untied the girls and, with a ladder, he took them to the top of one of the loneliest of the rock columns. Once he had them there, he went back down and removed the ladder.
"Now, if you try to jump down or get away, you'll break every bone in your body. You'll stay there until you explain to me where you've hidden my second bag. Only then can you come down and have something to eat and drink."
They cried and pleaded in vain. The man didn't believe them when they said they'd never found it. As he walked away, our friends watched him approach a camper behind some other rocks. Two little girls their age were playing there.
Caroline and River of Stars started to feel the heat, trapped up there as they were on that rock. The sun was scorching. Not a cloud in sight ...
They examined every inch of their prison. Impossible to get down. Even with each other's help, they risked breaking their backs falling on rocks at the bottom. All they could do was wait. They hoped that some help would come. But by evening they hadn't seen any vehicles on the road, not even on the far horizon.
After sundown, the temperature dropped fast. The cold replaced the heat. It was getting chillier and chillier. The kidnapper walked up to the rock the girls were on.
"You'll freeze to death up there tonight. And you must be hungry. You're really not going to tell me where you've hidden my other backpack?"
"But we already told you that we never found it," Caroline shouted down.
"I don't believe you," the man shouted back. "Too bad for you. I'm leaving you up there for the night. I don't recommend you both sleeping at the same time. If one of you rolls in your sleep, that'd be it for you. I'd take turns watching each other sleep."
The kidnapper went back to his camper and sat down to eat with what must have been his wife and two little daughters.
"You're going to leave them up there all night?" the woman asked.
"Why not?" he replied. "They won't be able to get escape from there and turn me in."
"They'll die of cold," said the woman who must have been the mother of the two little girls they saw. "The radio just announced that it's going to freeze tonight."
The man shrugged.
Fifteen minutes later, the kidnapper's daughters slipped into their sleeping bags. They gazed out the small camper window. The moon had just appeared in the starry sky. A little wind moved the few stunted desert trees. They thought of the two little girls their age up there on the rock. They must have been very cold.
Both Caroline and River of Stars were shivering. Caroline only had her shorts and T-shirt. River of Stars, too, was in her overalls and T-shirt. They huddled together to better withstand the cold. On top of that, they were hungry. Sitting on the rock, they wondered how they would get through the night in such cold weather.
Just then, they heard the softest sound and saw a ladder leaning against the rock, right next to them.
"Come," said a barely audible voice. "Quickly. Hurry up."
Without another thought, they climbed down the ladder. At the bottom, they saw the kidnapper's daughters.
"Save yourselves. My sister and me don't want you to die of cold. Save yourselves. Follow the road to the left. Blanding is not quite twenty miles from here. Maybe you can get there tonight. Or else by morning. And if you run, you'll feel the cold less. Good luck."
Caroline and River of Stars thanked them and got themselves out of there.
They walked for almost an hour on what was only the faintest road. Luckily, on the left and on the right, it was bordered either by a ditch or a small ledge. These meant that they wouldn't lose their way.
River of Stars turned to look back. She saw two headlights coming towards them in the distance. Our friends understood right away that the kidnapper was coming to get them in his pickup truck.
Right away, they got off the road. About ten feet away, they found a spot on the rocky and sandy ground. There, they lay down on their bellies behind some prickly plants. They didn't move a muscle.
The truck passed right on by. The man was behind the wheel. In the dark, the girls could just make out his form. They hadn't seen his face but it could only have been him. Then they got back on the road and kept walking.
"We have to be careful, Caroline. He'll probably come back soon," River of Stars said.
Sure enough, an hour later, they spotted headlights cutting through the desert night. Our friends hid again, this time behind a small rock, thirty feet from the road.
They walked all night. When the cold got too much, leaving them shivering, they would run. As soon as they were too tired to run, they would slow to a walk again.
Dawn started breaking on the horizon, little by little throwing its flamboyant colours, red, orange and yellow, into the sky where the stars were disappearing one by one.
The landscape was different now. For as far as they could see, the flat of the desert was over. Our friends crossed a rough area, through a narrow valley. Now, gigantic rocks and trees bordered the road. At this point, they couldn't have been too far from Blanding.
Since the first scare, they'd been turning around every now and then. Now, suddenly, they saw a cloud of dust on the road. It must have been the kidnapper's truck. They hid behind a rock. Once again, the truck went by without slowing.
The girls returned to the road, despite the danger of being seen by the kidnapper. Otherwise, there was the danger of getting lost. Despite the hunger, thirst, and fatigue of a sleepless night, they walked as fast as they could. They were very brave. But they knew they were not far from their parents.
Suddenly, from around a bend in the road, the truck appeared, coming right for them. Too late to hide. They both fled into the forested underbrush. The kidnapper stopped his truck and ran after them.
"He's going to catch us again. We have to split up," River of Stars said as she ran.
"Please, no," Caroline begged. We'll get lost in the forest, and we won't be able to find each other."
"We've really got to split up," River of Stars insisted. "If we stay together, we're both going to be captured. He can't follow both of us at once. If he catches one of us, the other can go to the sheriff. We know the kidnapper's hiding place. Whoever's caught would be free soon."
"Oh, okay, you're right," admitted Caroline between breaths, who couldn't help thinking that it was less scary when the two of them were together.
Under the trees, one went to the left, the other to the right.
Caroline got to a strange place. A field of tall, craggy rocks blocked the path, there, at the foot of a hill with a flat top, a mesa. Probably from a landslide. Without a moment's pause, she slipped into a narrow crack between two rocks.
After two minutes, she saw the kidnapper about sixty feet away. He was looking every which way. He'd just realized he'd lost them both. He made an angry gesture and cursed.
Our friend watched him turn around and go back to his truck. She left her hiding place and followed him from a distance. She heard two doors slam.
Suddenly, she realized that a single person would not slam two doors like that. The sound she'd just heard was more like the sound of a rifle being cocked right before being fired.
The kidnapper came back. He wanted to kill them. He hoped to find their hiding place. This, he must have figured, couldn't be too far from the road. If they went too deep into the forest, they might get lost in the woods and hills.
"Yes, they can't have gone far," the kidnapper muttered to himself between clenched teeth. "I'll find them."
Caroline realized in time. She understood that he was returning to where she had crawled between the rocks. She ran away under the pines along the base of the mesa. The prickly plants scratched her arms and legs but helped hide her.
Soon, she couldn't hear anything. She stopped, out of breath, behind a tree trunk. She listened.
"I made it," she thought as she watched him walk away.
She retraced her steps, but she couldn't find her way back. She realized she had wandered deep into the woods.
Unable to figure out which direction Blanding was in, she tried to climb up onto the mesa. From up there, she might get a glimpse of her town, if she were lucky.
Getting up was quite difficult. It took her almost an hour to reach the flat top of the hill. From up there, perched up on a rock, she saw, on the distant horizon, a few houses that might have been the suburbs.
But, better than that, some six hundred feet from her, on the mesa, she was happy to see River of Stars. She shouted to her but the other girl didn't hear. Caroline quickly got down from her viewpoint and walked over to her friend. She called, shouted again, until finally the two girls were happily back together.
"It's less scary together," said Caroline, smiling.
They got back on their way.
The rest of that day, they walked up and down hills, across dry stream beds, and climbed steep rocks, all the while avoiding the road. Twice their hunger prompted them to try to eat wild berries. Each time, the acidity and odd taste made them spit them out, fearing poison. River of Stars discovered a pool of clear water between a narrow passage of two rocks. They drank there and refreshed themselves, soaking their clothes.
In the evening, they once more found themselves in bushes full of thorns. They must have gotten lost. By this time, they were really and truly exhausted. This adventure was starting to take its toll. They could see no path to follow. They stopped for a moment to catch their breath.
Night had fallen.
"We'll get even more lost when it gets dark," Caroline said, worried.
"No," said River of Stars, reassuring her. "We'll use the sky to guide us. My father taught me how to read it. One star doesn't move all night, the North Star, the Pole Star. We just need to walk towards it. We'll cross a path. We'll stop turning in circles. You'll see. We'll get out of here."
"I'm hungry," Caroline sighed.
"Me too," her friend admitted. "If we don't get our bearings, we'll die here. C'mon, let's go. We'll manage. We'll make it, I'm sure of it."
They walked under the black, starry sky, encouraging each other. Sometimes they would stop for a moment to observe or listen to the night. Finally, they saw lights in the distance. Blanding's glow.
They began to run, encouraged by wild hope. Around midnight, they arrived at the sheriff's office.
While they ate and drank, the police hurried to tell their parents the good news. The parents soon arrived to pick up their daughters.
Then, our two exhausted friends again found the courage to get back on the road and, with their parents, guide the sheriff and his men to the kidnapper's camper. They got there in about two hours. The sheriff's men drove very fast on roads that they knew by heart.
They searched the camper, still hidden behind the stunted trees. Neither the wife nor the little girls were there, nor, unfortunately, was the kidnapper.
But Caroline and River of Stars had managed to memorize the pickup's licence plate number. With a few calls, roadblocks were set up and, after a few hours, the kidnapper was captured with his family. They'd been heading north.
The following week, our two friends ended up in court, in front of a judge. They answered many questions about their terrible adventure. At the end of their testimony, they asked for a favour on behalf of the kidnapper's two daughters.
"Without them," said Caroline, "we would have died on the rock where their father had left us for the night."
The judge sentenced the kidnapper to life imprisonment. His wife and two young daughters moved to another US state. There, they were able to start a new life. The two daughters of the kidnapper went back to school. They no longer lived far from everyone, hidden, in isolation, fearing for tomorrow. They didn't have to change their address every few days.
Caroline and River of Stars never saw them again. They hoped that the new life the girls were making, far from there, was better than what they had before.
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton