Two hours later the afternoon was wearing on and they were still sitting just inside the trees at the dirt turn out. Rachel had always been a confident woman, but the one area she was weak was in making a decision. She knew this about herself and had worked on it all her adult life, but all too often she tended towards inaction as a way to avoid making a decision that could potentially be the wrong one. She was sitting in the dirt, Dog at her feet and Betty sitting beside her. Nora was still watching the rear and every time Rachel checked she was alert and ready to defend them if any threat appeared. Rachel was really starting to like this young woman.
“There’s not been a car the whole time we’ve been here.” Betty observed.
“You think it’s ok to head down the road?” Rachel asked, hoping for Betty to make the decision for her.
“I don’t know, honey. But we can’t keep sitting here. Eventually someone or something is going to find us. I’m not sure which would be worse at this point, but we need to start moving soon before it gets dark.”
Rachel thought about that and slowly nodded her head. She asked herself, for the hundredth time, what John would do if he was here. Actually, she knew they’d already have been down the road and found the camp, but the voice of doubt kept plaguing her thoughts. Finally Rachel got mad. She got mad at the Chinese for having attacked America and starting this. She got mad at John for running around the forest like Rambo and getting himself captured. She got mad at the people that had captured him, but mostly she got mad at herself for sitting in the trees like a frightened lamb. She had stayed with John since the day of the attacks and had fought by his side, saving him at least as many times as he had saved her. What the hell was she doing sitting here and wasting time? Had she already waited too long to save him?
“Let’s move,” Rachel said to Betty, bouncing to her feet. She extended her hand and helped Betty off the ground then turned and got the kids up and ready to move with a few terse commands.
Sensing the tension that comes before action, Dog was on his feet with his tail held stiffly at alert. He was ready. A minute later the group emerged from the trees and headed west on the pavement. They hugged the shoulder and Rachel had cautioned each kid to be ready to dive into the brush if they heard a vehicle approaching. Walking in single file, Rachel and Dog led the way with Nora bringing up the rear.
Now that Rachel had made a decision her adrenaline was pumping and she moved with long, fast strides. She started outdistancing the group as Betty couldn’t move as fast so she had to reign herself in. She knew she should conserve her energy as much as possible for the impending fight so she forced herself to slow down. Dog wasn’t so pragmatic and kept trotting a few yards ahead before turning and trotting back to Rachel, then repeating himself. He was primed for a fight.
They started passing the impaled heads that lined the road, Betty and the kids staring at them in horror, and close to 45 minutes later they reached the site of the ambush that had put her and John on foot. The road was littered with spent shell casings, brass glittering in the late afternoon sunlight, and their Humvee along with several civilian vehicles had been pushed off the road into a drainage ditch. As they walked past the Humvee Rachel glanced over at the machine gun and was amazed to see the barrel was now curved downwards. Not a lot, but enough to be noticeable and also to render the weapon useless she imagined. Remembering what John had told her about melting the barrel she was still amazed it had actually happened. Part of her had thought he was being dramatic even though she believed he knew what he was talking about.
200 yards beyond the far edge of the ambush they discovered a muddy track that cut off the asphalt and disappeared into the forest over a rise. The track appeared to be well traveled as it was churned up from the passage of aggressive off-road tires, and all the disturbances appeared to be fresh. Turning onto the path Rachel slowed her pace and whispered to Betty to remind the kids to stay absolutely quiet. Walking down the path they crested the rise and kept going as it wound its way through the trees and underbrush. Rachel didn’t see anyone, but it wasn’t long before she started smelling meat cooking and her stomach gave an involuntary rumble. Coming to a stop she waved the group off the path into the trees and melded into the forest with them.
They moved a few dozen yards away from the track and came across a narrow game trail cutting through the forest in the same direction as the path. Stepping onto it Rachel led the group at a decent pace for another ten minutes until the game path took a sharp bend to the right. This was opposite the direction they needed to travel to stay with the track and Rachel abandoned the trail and pushed back into the woods in the direction the smell of the cooking fires was coming from. Dog easily moved through the heavy underbrush, but Rachel had to slow as she pushed through, careful to not make any more noise than absolutely necessary.
Finally the brush thinned and they reached the edge of the trees. In front of them was a large clearing, at least two acres, and much of it was occupied with camping tents. Directly in front of them was the track that led from the road which ended to the right in a large area where dozens of all different types of vehicles were haphazardly parked. At the far edge of the camp Rachel could see several larger tents that looked like they were probably military surplus and had once been command tents. Set amongst them a large cross towered over the camp. People were moving everywhere in the camp. Normal looking people, going about their business. Cooking food. Fetching buckets of water from the small creek that ran along the edge of the camp. Children playing. Children. Rachel’s resolve weakened at the thought that children might get hurt during John’s rescue.
“Oh my God!” Rachel turned and saw Nora looking at the camp through the rifle scope. “Oh my God!” She repeated, eye glued to whatever she was seeing.
“What?” Rachel and Betty asked at the same time, staring at the young girl.
“Look at the cross,” she answered, her voice shaky.
Rachel raised her rifle, but the scope she had did not have any magnification, only a red dot for aiming. She called the boy over that was carrying John’s pack and dug through it until she found a pair of binoculars. Raising them to her eyes it took her a moment to find the cross, then another moment to focus the glasses. When they came into focus she said exactly what Nora was still repeating. She had found John and he had been nailed to a cross that was standing amongst a small forest of impaled heads. She was unable to tell if he was still alive. Several emotions blasted through Rachel at that moment, everything from disgust to pity to rage. Rage won out. The kind of rage that made her want to wipe out every living soul in the camp. She now understood how John could do the things he did and still sleep at night.
The sun was low on the horizon and soon they would have the cover of darkness to move around. Rachel didn’t know yet how she was going to rescue John, but she was working on it. Her biggest fear at the moment was that he was too severely injured to be able to move and they would have to carry him. She knew from experience just how big he was and knew there wasn’t anyone in the group that could carry him. Maybe four of the kids working together, but they would need to be able to move fast. This thought coincided with her looking at the parking area as she scanned the camp with the binoculars. Parked off to the side of the area was a short bus, painted white with hand lettering along the side that read Primitive Baptist Church.
“Betty, you said you were a bus driver. Right?”
“Do you know how to hot wire one if the keys aren’t available?” Rachel answered the question with a question.
“I don’t, no. But young Mr. Hillman over there had a bit of trouble with the police this past spring and I expect he can.” Rachel lowered the binoculars and looked at the kid Betty was pointing at. The boy was scrawny and had kept to himself as much as possible since Rachel had joined the group, but she had caught him stealing longing glances at Nora who studiously ignored him. He maintained a perpetual scowl on his face and was glaring back at them, knowing he was being talked about but unaware of what the conversation was. Rachel stood up, staying in a crouch, and moved over to squat in the dirt next to him.
“Hi,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Jared Hillman.” He answered. “What do you want?” The anger and attitude the boy carried with him was evident in his tone and in his expression.
“We need your help. Do you know how to hot wire a bus?” Rachel stared at his eyes and saw the look of surprise cross his face before he shut it down in favor of the scowl.
“I can start anything with a motor,” he said, sitting up straighter and puffing out his chest.
“Good!” Rachel beamed and put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to need you soon. Don’t go anywhere.” The kid smiled for the first time and nodded his head. Working through more of the plan in her head Rachel went back to sit next to Betty and lifted the binoculars back to her eyes. After seeing what she needed to see she motioned the Hillman kid over to her.
“Alright, Jared. You and I are going to sneak through the brush and into that parking lot. See that white bus off to the side?” Rachel asked, pointing and handing the binoculars to the kid. When he nodded she continued. “I’m going to get you into that bus, but I don’t want you to do anything other than hide for now. Sometime later you’ll hear gunfire, and that’s when I want you to get it started and have it ready to go. Can you do that?”
“Damn straight!” He answered, cracking a smile and glancing around to see if Nora had noticed that his help was needed.
“Is there anything you need to break in or get it started?”
The kid reached into his pocket and pulled out a multi-tool that had everything from a knife blade to pliers to a screwdriver. “Got all I need right here.”
“Good. Let’s go.” Rachel patted Dog on the head, telling him to stay and set off through the brush with the kid close behind her. It didn’t take them long to reach the edge of the parking area and they worked their way across by moving from vehicle to vehicle. The bus was parked at the edge of the lot closest to the camp and there was a good 40 yards of open space between it and the closest vehicle. Pausing, Rachel looked at the open ground and at the movement in the camp just on the other side of the bus.
“What’s wrong?” The kid asked.
“I don’t know how were going to sneak into the bus without anyone seeing us.” Rachel answered, doubt creeping into her mind over the decision to hide the kid in the bus.
“I’ll just walk over,” he said. “The trick is to look like you belong and know what you’re doing.” Before Rachel could say anything Jared stood fully erect and started strolling across the dirt lot to the bus. He moved slowly and casually, head down and feet dragging with each step, just like you’d expect a sullen teenager to move. Several of the people moving around in the camp glanced his way but ignored him and went on about their business.
Mouth hanging open in surprise, Rachel watched as he walked right up to the bus like he had all the reason in the world to be there. The multi-tool was already in his hand and in less than 15 seconds he had jimmied the door lock. Climbing into the bus he pulled the doors closed behind him, moved towards the back of the bus and waved at Rachel through one of the side windows before disappearing from view. Rachel stared in surprise for a few moments before she smiled and started making her way back across the lot to the edge of the brush where the group waited, but paused when a thought struck her. Even if they did get John away from the camp, made it into the bus and drove off what would keep the people in the camp from pursuing them.
Looking around the lot with an evil smile Rachel kneeled down and pulled her T-Shirt over her head and started tearing it into long strips. With a handful of strips she moved through the parked vehicles and randomly stuffed a strip of fabric into the gas tanks of more than a dozen of the trucks. Task completed she worked her way back to the group, greeted by the thumping of Dog’s tail and the appreciative stares of all the teenage boys. Digging a spare shirt out of her pack she worked it over her head then looked around the group and asked if anyone had a lighter. Two of the boys quickly dug disposable butane lighters out of their pockets and held them out towards Rachel. Taking both lighters she selected one of the boys, the one who had blushed when she overhead his comment about her breasts earlier, and brought him over to the edge of the brush. His job was to wait for explosions and gunfire, then he would run through the parking area, setting fire to each of the strips of fabric Rachel had placed in the fuel tanks on his way to the bus where he would wait with Jared for the rest of the group. She had him repeat her instructions and satisfied he understood she marshalled the swiftly dwindling group and started off through the brush.
They spent the next 20 minutes moving around the perimeter of the camp, getting closer to where John was nailed to the cross. Rachel could picture how she wanted this to go, but her plan fell apart just as they reached an area that was close to the cross. As they watched two men walked up to the cross, removed a couple of bolts from the base and let it fall backwards to the ground, John still attached. They then removed the nails from his hands with a large hammer and cut the ropes that were binding him to the rough wood. While this was going on people started assembling in a rough circle to his rear and it looked like the entire camp was in attendance. Again, Rachel experienced some doubt, but the rage she had felt earlier returned as she watched the two men drag John inside the circle made by the people and hold him there while a giant man started talking about God and how God had found John guilty.
Thinking hard, Rachel turned and was momentarily distracted by the heavy bag tied to the side of her pack swinging and banging into her arm. It was the bag John had told her to fill with grenades when they were bailing out of the Humvee. Grabbing it she spilled the contents on the ground and counted 10 grenades. Gingerly picking one of them up she inspected it and quickly saw how it worked. There were six kids remaining in the group after having left Jared in the bus and the other boy ready to start the fires. She wanted to keep Nora available on the rifle which left five. Gathering them into a tight group she quickly explained what she wanted and looked closely at them, getting an acknowledgement from each that they could do it. Handing two grenades to each kid she sent them on their way, telling them to hurry.
What was she forgetting? Something nagged at the back of her head, but she couldn’t pull it out so dismissed the distraction and turned her attention back to the assembly just as several men were uncovering a large pit in the ground and setting torches into the dirt around its perimeter. The people were chanting ‘Pit’ at the tops of their lungs and as she watched the giant strode up directly behind John and using both hands shoved him forward to disappear into the pit.