My breathing was a little ragged, my heart was jackhammering in my chest, and my shirt was soaked with sweat and plastered to my back when we finally rounded the bend and the dirt road gave way to pavement.
Never liked prolonged runs. More of a sprinter.
We came to a stop just before the tree cover ended and ducked behind a thick patch of foilage on the side of the road.
Kyle, Tina, and Cutter were bent over, hands on their knees, sucking in air.
I was just breathing hard.
Mouse was crouched next to me, face glistening with sweat, but she was breathing evenly, not even winded.
I popped my optic clock: 17:07:31.
"We have a little over fifty minutes," I said. "We need to get to them before all hell breaks loose." I looked at Kyle. "Any chance there's a car or something left here we can use? Something they didn't take with them?"
He frowned. "Maybe."
"We'd better look," said Mouse. "And fast."
I nodded. "Split up and check around. Fire two shots if you find something."
* * *
I found the sand-colored Humvee with the roof-mounted machine gun five minutes later.
It was parked next to a shabby, one-story, reddish-brown building boasting half an awning, two windows minus glass, and a sign in front of the roof with faded white block letters that read: FRENCH GULCH GENERAL STORE U.S. POST OFFICE. The Humvee's driver side door was open and a Claw member stood half-in, half-out, one hand on top of the door frame, looking toward the back of the building. Another sat in the passenger side, also looking backward.
Then two more Claw members jogged out from behind the building at a trot, rifles slung over their shoulders.
The driver slapped the Humvee's roof twice. "Move it!" he said. "We're late!"
I stood in the middle of the street, drew Bonnie, aimed at the store/post office, and fired two shots.
The driver whirled so fast he tumbled out of the door and fell ass-first on the pavement. The two Claw members outside the vehicle skidded to a stop, nearly crashing into each other, fumbled for their rifles, finally swung them at me.
Lowered Bonnie and held up my left hand, palm out. "Easy, boys," I said. "I just want to use your car."
The driver scrambled to his feet, a pistol in a two-handed grip leveled at me. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Somebody trying to save your ass," I said. "Your people are walking into a trap."
"What are you talking about?" he said.
The passenger had gotten out and now joined the two other Claw members on the left side of the Humvee, their rifles trained on me.
"Forget talking," one of them said. "Let's just shoot her ass."
"Stand down!" a voice said from somewhere behind me.
Then the sound of running feet.
The Humvee group turned their heads to look past me and confusion played across their faces.
The driver lowered his pistol, frowning. "Kyle? What the fuck is going on? I thought you were already at the plant?"
"Dylan sold us out," Kyle said, coming to a stop near me.
He gave them the short version of the story.
Mouse, Cutter, and Tina, arrived a few moments later.
"That little shit," the driver said after Kyle finished.
"Then you're gonna help," I said.
He nodded. So did the others.
"How long ago did they leave?"
"Five, six minutes ago," said the driver.
"We're taking the Humvee," I said.
I motioned to Mouse and Cutter and they headed for the vehicle.
"I'm driving," Kyle said and followed them.
"What about us?" the driver said.
"Stay here," I said. "We've got this."
"Your Bison here?" Tina said to the driver.
"I'm borrowing it." She turned to me. "You said he was at the Airpark Cafe, right? Dylan and that other guy."
"Yeah," I said. "Why?"
"You need proof," Tina said.
"Was planning on forcing Dylan's hand."
She smiled. "I can get backup. Just in case."
She nodded. "Solid backup."
"Do it," I said, turned, and ran toward the waiting Humvee.
* * *
The Humvee left the road leading toward French Gulch, scream-slid across the highway intersection nearly taking out the faded green Highway 299/Redding/Weaverville sign, and roared east toward Redding.
"Shit!" Cutter said from his seat in the back.
"Alive," I said to Kyle from my spot in the passenger seat, gripping the dashboard in front of me, cool air blowing in from the two air vents. "We want to get there alive."
"What's your plan?" said Kyle, expertly negotiating the curves ahead.
Shrubs, trees, and the guardrails zipped past us in a green-gray blur and the Humvee's engine whined with speed.
"Catch up with them as soon as possible," I said. "Best if we can keep them from getting to the plant."
"There's a turn from the highway," Kyle said. "Iron Mountain Road. Takes them up toward the plant."
"Can you get there before they do?"
"They've got a five minute head start. Short answer, no."
"Got an idea," Mouse said. "Gimme your walkie talkie."
Kyle unclipped it from his gear belt and passed it back to her.
"What channel is everybody on?"
Kyle told her.
"Leave it to me," said Mouse.
"Punch it," I said to Kyle.
A moment later, I heard Mouse say: "Dylan's fucking you all in the butt."
I choked back a snorted laugh.
And Kyle almost drove off the road.
(to be continued...)