All is serene in the mountains of North Carolina’s Nantahala National Forest, where autumn has cast a mantle of russet and gold. Then, in a small clearing on a rugged slope, the leaves rustle, the branches part, and suddenly a bloodhound pops into . view, followed by a dozen federal agents. The men are armed with assault weapons, dressed in camouflage and moving as quietly as they can. “We’re looking for signs,” explains National Parks Service ranger Pat Patten, 40, lead tracker in one of the most intense criminal manhunts in recent memory. “Footprints. Broken tree limbs. Trash. Signs of where the fugitive is or where he’s been.”

Since July, a small army of some 250 searchers have crisscrossed thousands of square miles of forest, combed ravines and used ropes to drop, sometimes hundreds of feet, into a honeycomb of mines and caverns so deep and remote that the temperature inside remains a steady 57 degrees year-round. The work is dirty, dangerous—”I’ve heard there are rattlesnakes back there that could swallow half-grown deer,” says Macon County sheriff Homer Holbrooks—and, so far, fruitless.

In fact, it has been nine months since the searchers’ quarry, Eric Robert Rudolph, 32, an avid out-doorsman with an intimate knowledge of Nantahala, vanished into the forest after being named a material witness in the Jan. 29, 1998, bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., abortion clinic that killed an off-duty police-man and seriously wounded a nurse. Rudolph was subsequently indicted for the attack as well as for three additional bombings in Atlanta, including the blast during the 1996 Olympic Games that killed Albany, Ga., snack shop owner Alice Hawthorne, 44, and injured more than a hundred at a crowded downtown park.

“This is a person who strikes indiscriminately and doesn’t care who the victims are,” said FBI inspector Terry Turchie when announcing the Atlanta indictments in Andrews, N.C., not far from where investigators believe Rudolph abandoned his gray Nissan pickup truck and slipped into the woods. “We simply cannot have that kind of activity in a free nation.”

But so far, Rudolph has eluded capture, though agents have uncovered clues that he is still in the region, including evidence of campsites. In addition, a number of dogs in the area have been found poisoned, and investigators believe the fugitive may have killed them to silence their telltale barking.

The last known sighting of Rudolph was on July 7, when he reportedly appeared at the Nantahala house of an acquaintance, George Nordmann, 71, to ask for supplies. Nordmann (who refused to be interviewed by PEOPLE) owns an herb-and-vitamin store in Andrews. He would later tell police that his pickup truck and a large supply of food were stolen two days after Rudolph’s visit. But Nordmann waited more than 24 hours to notify police of the alleged theft—despite a $ 1 million federal bounty for information leading to Rudolph’s arrest.

A number of Macon County natives have come to regard their former neighbor as a sort of folk hero—a homegrown renegade whose backwoods savvy has allowed him to outwit the high-tech FBI. “It’s like David versus Goliath,” says accountant Ron Trammel, 42, who grew up in the area. Adds his cousin Mike, 32: “A lot of people, they take pride in these mountains, and they take pride in the mountain people.” Indeed, in a macabre show of apparent family solidarity, Rudolph’s older brother Daniel, a 38-year-old carpenter, cut off his left hand with a circular saw last March and sent a videotape of the self-mutilation to law enforcement officials. (The hand has since been surgically reattached.)

Yet to many people outside the mountains, Eric Rudolph seems miscast in the role of hero or roving marauder. Until his disappearance, the clean-cut carpenter had rarely strayed for long from the insular world created by his mother, Patricia, a former Catholic nun and an artist, with whom Eric shared a home until two years ago. “Eric has always been shy—I don’t know why,” Patricia Rudolph, who insists her son is innocent, told PEOPLE.

Patricia and her late husband, Robert, a mechanic for TWA, met while working as social workers in New York City during the ’50s. They eventually settled in Homestead, Fla., where they raised a family of six children. After Robert’s death from cancer in 1981, Patricia took the advice of a friend and moved with four of her sons—Eric, Daniel, Joel, now 36, a roofer, and Jamie, 29, a New York City techno musician—to a six-acre spread on Partridge Creek in remote Nantahala. (Two other children had already left home.)

With the move to North Carolina, the family grew closer. “It’s an ideal place for young boys,” says Patricia, no longer Catholic, who is committed to herbal remedies and back-to-the-land living. Together, Eric and his brothers hunted, hiked and probably explored the hundreds of caves and abandoned mines in the area. They grew their own vegetables and sold crafts at county fairs. Yet they remained aloof from the locals. “We were considered foreigners,” says Patricia, who thought the schools so backward that she taught Eric at home after ninth grade.

The Rudolphs did have one reliable friend: their next-door neighbor Tom Branham, who Patricia says became a father figure to her teenage son—and may have exposed him to radical ideas. As early as 1981, Eric surprised his teacher at Nantahala’s K-12 Union School with an essay claiming the Holocaust was a hoax. (Branham declined to be interviewed.)

Years later, Patricia and her sons Eric and Jamie visited the Schell, Mo., compound of the Church of Israel—an organization with doctrinal links to the racist Christian Identity movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremist groups. The Rudolphs ended up staying there for several months. They left, says Patricia, because “I’m not into the white man being supreme. I believe in all the races.”

Back in Nantahala, Eric earned his GED and briefly enrolled at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee in 1985, eventually returning to live with his mother on Partridge Creek, where he worked as a carpenter. By all accounts, Rudolph was shy, well-mannered and handsome. Says Debra McGrady, 32, a clerk at Plaza Video in Murphy, where Rudolph rented up to three dramas and action adventures a week: “He had baby blues to die for.”

In retrospect, though, there were signs that Rudolph was less than content. In May 1996, plumber Frank Sauer stayed with the family for several days while finalizing his purchase of the Rudolphs’ one-story wooden house on Partridge, Creek for $65,000. Each day, he recalls, Eric would work out for hours with a punching bag behind the house. “I know he wasn’t fond of Atlanta,” Sauer says. “He wasn’t fond of blacks, [and] he thought Jews were pulling all the strings in Washington.”

Rudolph’s last known residence was a trailer in Marble, N.C., where he had paid his rent through last February. By then, the FBI had already begun to investigate the Jan. 29 attack at Birmingham’s New Woman All Women Health Care clinic. The bomb planted there, an antipersonnel device packed with nails and hidden under a flowerpot, had exploded as Emily Lyons, now 42, and Robert Sanderson, a Birmingham policeman who worked part-time as a security guard, walked toward the clinic’s glass front door.

Sanderson, 34, the son of a Pentecostal minister, didn’t believe in abortion but needed some extra income to support his wife and two young sons. He was killed instantly. Lyons survived, but was blinded in one eye and suffered severe face, abdominal and leg injuries from the shower of nails. “I miss my life,” says Lyons, who is walking again after undergoing 11 rounds of surgery and has begun to see a therapist to help cope emotionally with her ordeal. “It’s actually gotten harder,” says her husband, Jeff, 41, a soft-. ware executive. “In the beginning there were all these miracles: ‘Emily can see light. Emily can move her hand.’ Now things are pretty much the way they are going to be.”

Birmingham police who were investigating the crime got one lucky break. “There was a witness at the scene who saw a man on foot coming from the area,” says deputy police chief George Cooley. The witness had reportedly seen a man wearing a blond wig get into a truck and drive away. After tracing the license number, police identified Rudolph as a suspect and focused their search on western North Carolina, where they found the abandoned truck nine days later. Near the pickup, Cooley says, police found strands of fake blond hair. They also discovered a shovel with soil samples matching the dirt in which the bomb had been planted under the flowerpot.

With that, the manhunt began. Investigators have remained tight-lipped about the evidence allegedly linking Rudolph to the blasts in Atlanta, two of which—one at a family planning clinic, the other at a gay bar—were followed by secondary explosions apparently intended to kill rescue workers and police. But one victim, Fallon Stubbs, is anxious to know the details of the government’s case. Now 16, she will never forget the night she and her mother, Alice Hawthorne, drove from their home in Albany, Ga., to take part in the Olympic celebration in Atlanta. Within hours of arriving, Hawthorne was killed by the bomb in Olympic Centennial Park, and Stubbs was seriously injured. “All this stuff with Eric Rudolph has brought it back up,” says Fallon, a high school junior who works weekends at a McDonald’s near the home she shares with her father in Cordele, Ga. “It would help if they found him, and it turned out he was the right person. At least I could say, ‘That’s the end.’ ”

Meanwhile, in Nantahala National Forest, a federal and state task force has intensified the manhunt to take advantage of winter’s approach by bringing in helicopters with heat-seeking infrared detection devices which will soon be able to penetrate the forest canopy. “When the leaves are gone, it’s going to be a different ball game,” says Cherokee County sheriff Jack Thompson.

Yet for every advantage that autumn brings the searchers—snow, cold and Rudolph’s hunger among them—there are disadvantages too. The sound of search crews will carry farther through the bare woods, and a carpet of leaves may make the steep terrain even more treacherous. But perhaps even more daunting are the skills of the fugitive, who, whether found guilty or innocent, has already proved a master of evasion. “A needle in a haystack would be easier to find,” says FBI special agent Brian Kensel. “We’ve got to pace ourselves for a marathon, not a sprint.”

Patrick Rogers

Amy Laughinghouse in Nantahala and Gail Wescott in Atlanta

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