The Riddle in the Hills

Sweat dripped from my brow as I raced up the grassy hillside. My lungs burned. But I couldn’t stop. Not when I was this close. Close to what though? That was the maddening mystery.

It all started a week ago. I’m just a small-town park ranger in the hills of Colorado, enjoying my quiet existence among the forests and wildlife. Then a couple reported strange noises near their remote cabin late one night. Screams echoing off the mountainside they said. Folks around here know better than to go wandering the woods at night. But it still gave me chills.

The very next night, old Hank the mailman went missing. His undelivered mail was found scattered near the road through the preserve, his truck still running. We organized search parties to comb the backcountry for days on end. But the only trace we found of Hank was one lone hiking boot near the edge of Miller’s Pond.

By then, panic was spreading through town like wildfire. Next, it was Jenny, a college girl home visiting her family, who disappeared on an afternoon jog. She always stuck to the main trails. But that didn’t seem to matter – it got her anyway. Whatever “it” was.

I couldn’t chalk all this up to mere coincidence. Something sinister lurked in our woods, I was convinced. And it looked like I was on my own to investigate. But I didn’t even know where to start…until the note arrived hidden under a rock on my porch. It contained a riddle leading to an ‘X marks the spot’ somewhere off the South Ridge trail. My heart raced, and finally a real clue!

As I set off into the shadowy forest, I couldn’t shake the prickly feeling of being watched. I paused thinking I heard whispers. Probably just my nerves though, had to press on. The cryptic instructions led me to a small clearing halfway up the ridge. My eyes darted around, alert for any movement. That’s when I spotted it – a tiny scrap of fabric caught in the bushes. I recognized the color and pattern…Hank’s missing flannel shirt! I must be on the right trail after all.

I continued following faint footprint trails and other subtle signs through dense thickets. Up and down smaller ridges until I ended up on the western border where the woods met the cliffs. I stumbled upon the mouth of a dark cave concealed by brush, like something straight out of a horror movie. Every hair on my body screamed turn around. But I couldn’t, not anymore. I had to see this through.

Switching on my flashlight, I took a deep breath and ducked inside. A dank stench overwhelmed me as I crept through the damp cavern tunnels. Dripping water echoed, making me flinch. More winding passageways until finally a faint glow appeared ahead. There, I discovered a horrifying scene that stopped me dead in my tracks.

Four people were chained to the cave walls – Hank, Jenny, and the panicked couple from the cabin. They were bruised and bloody, but still breathing. Rushing over, I checked their wounds and promised help was coming soon. But who could’ve done such an evil thing?

“Willing sacrifices. More will come.” The sudden voice behind me made me whip around so fast that I nearly toppled over. A wild-eyed old man with a scraggly beard stood there cackling. Before I could react, he dashed from the cave with unexpected speed.

I knew I couldn’t leave the prisoners alone to pursue him. Reinforcements would be here soon, I told myself. I led everyone safely back down to the trailhead and directed EMTs to them before grabbing deputies to relay everything. We formed search parties to scour the hills for the madman and eventually caught him trying to snare another hiker that night.

Turns out he was a crazed old hermit named John who lived secretly in the hills for years after retreating from society. He concocted those locked cave chains planning to offer trespassers as some demented sacrifice to the mountain. We still have no clue what set him off suddenly to go on this kidnapping spree. At least he’ll be locked away for good now thanks to the clues that led me through danger right to the riddle in the hills.