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    C James
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

In Memory of Ed Wooton

For the Love - 37. Lock and Load

All hell broke loose as soon as the sheriff's call ended. Frantic explanations were given, and equally frantic phone calls made. Our first call was to Officer Jacobs, the only Lonesome Valley deputy on duty. Still crippled by his wounded leg, he was unable to help, but he promised that he'd get the state police moving immediately. The bad news; he expected nothing from them for several hours, due to their nearest units being in Phoenix: there was no way we could get help before the sheriff's deadline expired.

While I'd been on the phone to Officer Jacobs, Steve had given Chad and the others a quick rundown on the situation, being as gentle as possible, and from what I could hear, omitting a few details, such as Veronica's ongoing assault. Chad, understandably, was frantic, pacing around the room like a caged tiger. Glancing at my watch, I said, "Twenty-seven minutes remaining. If we're going to do something, it has to be now."

Sweeping up Betty's SKS from the corner, Steve cradled it in his arms, checking the clip before chambering a round. Looking up at me, his eyes afire with cold fury, he said simply, "Lock and load."

We were out of time and out of options, and I knew Steve was right, there was no other way. We couldn't leave our friends and family to die.

Dex stated the obvious, "The scrap yard will be a trap. He is unlikely to be there; the site we investigated yesterday would be my best guess, but there are no guarantees."

Storming to the door with Veronica's twelve-gauge under his arm, a box of ammo in his hand, Chad yelled, "Just tell me where; there's no time, they're going to kill her and the others too. Just tell me where to go."

We followed him out to the front yard, Dex surprising us by taking the lead. "There is no time to explain. We need the aircraft and gear from my van. Help me load it into Chris' Jeep. That's the only vehicle we can take, nothing else would make it without a lengthy detour via Piedmont."

"Dex," I barked, "Take along a copy of the data the sheriff wants, just in case we need a bargaining chip."

"I have a copy on my laptop," Dex replied, as he dashed for his van.

With a speed I'd have never thought possible, we loaded Dex's gear into my Jeep, including his Makerov nine millimeter pistol- a Russian-made automatic. With twenty-four minutes remaining, we were ready to go. Chad jumped in the back, crouching behind the seat with the shotgun, Steve clambering in on the passenger side seat with Betty's SKS. I jumped in, calling out to Betty, "We can't all go, there's no room. Stay here and answer the phone. I've got my cell on, so call if there's any news."

Making a dash for Dex, Betty locked onto his arm, pulling him back before he could climb into my Jeep. Dex stood firmly, taking Betty in his arms as he said, "I'll be coming back. I promise, but I am the only one who can work the gear."

Betty nodded, fear on her face, handing Dex her Ladysmith revolver. Tucking the revolver into his waistband, he jumped in as I hit the gas, burning rubber out of Veronica's driveway, with twenty-three minutes remaining.

Racing for the dirt road we'd been on with Dex the previous day, I shouted over the wind noise, "How the hell do we get there? The road we were on yesterday doesn't go through."

Steve grabbed the map, struggling to open it in the furious wind as I accelerated towards ninety miles an hour on the residential street. Forcing the map down on his lap, he studied if for a moment. "Take the road through to the one that goes to where Eric hid the data stick. It looks like there's a fork to the north just past there, and it goes back down the hills towards the old mine site we saw yesterday."

"I remember a fork up there; I saw it when the sheriff was chasing me. I can find it," I replied, yelling.

I slammed on the brakes as we approached the first arroyo, the one where I'd broken down. Skidding over the top, we lurched down the drop, and I floored it, catching air on the other side. Slowing down a little, I put the Jeep in four-wheel dive, before flooring it again.

Shouting over the noise, Steve struggled to make himself heard, "Remember Thaddeus' car being there? That probably means Eric's got a part in this, that fucking asshole..."

A feeling of cold metal against my arm startled me, and I looked down to see Dex's Makarov. Mumbling "Thanks," I shoved the pistol between my legs as I slammed the Jeep through another desert wash, hitting redial on my cell to fill Officer Jacobs in on our plan. He wished us luck, and promised to do everything he could to get the state police moving faster, though warning us that he'd already had confirmation; they'd never make it in time.

Driving like lunatics, we tore across the desert, Dex and Chad holding onto my roll bar for dear life, Chad's face a swirl of anger and fear. Upon reaching the junction, I swerved to the right, slowing down only when we reached Make-out Rock. I threw the Jeep into low range in order to negotiate the long stretch of rock-strewn streambed, taking it as fast as I could, framing out half a dozen times.

As I wheeled the Jeep out of the creek bed, following the road up the band to the base of the long hill climb, I glanced back, and saw Dex struggling to assemble his aircraft. I had no idea what he had planned, so I shouted, "Where do you need to be to use that, and what's it for?"

"I should have it ready soon. It was already refueled. All I need is a vehicle speed of over forty miles an hour and we can launch from the Jeep. Chad will have to do it; I will need to be on the controls. It's for the cell tower; the sheriff must be in communication with his people in Piedmont via cell; radio would be unlikely to work due to the terrain. If he hears that you two are not approaching the scrap yard, he may act. Therefore, I knew we would need to take out his communications."

Checking my watch, I cringed to see just twelve minutes remaining. I just hoped that the sheriff would extend his deadline...

We roared past the data stick's hiding place, bouncing up the road so fast that I was barely in control. The last time I'd come this way, I'd been shot at, and I had little doubt that we'd be facing gunfire again. This time though, we had guns of our own, and better yet, the element of surprise; with any luck, the sheriff would think we were heading for Piedmont, not his hideout. What we'd do when we got there was an open question; I had no idea, and I don't think anyone else did, either.

I yelled back to Dex;"Wait to launch until we're closer to the hideout; then take one pass with your camera over the site. We need all the information we can get."

Taking the fork to the north, we crested the hill, giving us a vista of a wide desert valley. In the middle distance, a couple of miles ahead, I could see the roofs of three buildings; our target, partially obscured by the hill between them and us.

Finding the road down to be steep and rough, forcing me to slow down to twenty miles an hour, I said over my shoulder, "Get ready to launch, I'll try and pick up some speed when I can, we're nearly there."

Hearing the whirr of the plane's engine, I glanced in my rearview mirror, catching glimpses of Chad struggling to stand up while being tossed around by my wildly pitching Jeep. I looked back to see that he'd stood up, hanging onto my roll bar for all he was worth. The road smoothed out as we neared the base of the hill, allowing me to pick up speed. The wing of the plane bumped me on the head, and I ducked forward, trying to give Dex and Chad room.

Looking back, I saw Chad holding the plane, facing forward, struggling to keep it steady. Dex yelled, "Throw it at a twenty degree up angle, now."

Splitting my attention between the road and the roaring propeller over my head, I watched the launch with a series of glances. Placing his hands behind the wings, Chad heaved sending the plane upwards over our heads. The whine of the engine receded above our heads, as the plane climbed away, falling behind us, but my attention was on Chad; stumbling backwards, I saw him making a grab for the roll bar to regain his footing, but his fingers only brushed it as he fell away. Dex spun around, his hand snatching the waistband of Chad's jeans as Chad teetered over the back, his arms flailing in the wind. I tapped the brake, causing Chad to stumble forward, giving Dex a chance to haul him down. Chad sat down with a thud, as Dex returned his attention to the plane, which by now was above and behind us, due to our faster ground speed.

I raced ahead, making the best time that I could. I glanced up to see Dex's aircraft, no longer climbing, pulling ahead of us as it picked up speed.

With the hideout two miles ahead, shielded by the low hill, I told Steve, "I'm going to call and tell the sheriff we're on our way to the scrap yard, ask for a few more minutes." Slowing to a crawl, I flipped open my phone and speed-dialed Mr. William's number. I hit the brakes as the call went through, coming to a stop as someone answered.

Cursing as I realized it was his voicemail and jamming my foot on the gas, I heard Dex say, "I've got a visual on the site from about three hundred feet above ground. I see no obvious sentries... Wait, I see one, in the shade at the entrance to the mineshaft. No others in sight from this angle. There are several vehicles, including the Sheriff's Department 4x4, a large truck, and a small bulldozer near a pit that wasn't there yesterday. Want me to take another pass, or head for the cell tower?"

Checking my watch to see only a few minutes remaining, I yelled, "Do your Kamikaze run now. We won't make it in time otherwise."

"The aircraft is on course for the tower now, running flat-out. It will take about four minutes to reach the tower."

I checked my watch; that would be past the deadline by one minute. I just hoped the sheriff wasn't punctual.

Pulling to a halt behind a low ridge, I said, "It's right over the rise; if I drive any further we'll be spotted. Anyone have any ideas, or do we just go in and open fire?"

Steve cradled the SKS. "I think I can take out the guy at the shaft entrance from fifty yards, but closer would be better. They could be holding Veronica, Sheriff Buchanan, and my father in there, or one of the buildings, or separately, but my guess is the place with the guard would be the place to look. If we can get closer, I'll take him out, then we can charge in. Everybody listen; we've only got one chance at this. If somebody's hit, don't stop for 'em, keep going 'till its over."

It wasn't much of a plan, but it was all we had.

As we scrambled out, Dex, hunched over his computer screen, announced, "Got it. I hit the antenna array at the top. This sector, at least, should be off the air."

A quick check of my cell confirmed it; no signal. I chambered a round in Dex's Makarov, taking the safety off as I saw Steve take the safety off the SKS.

Chad took the lead with a hushed cry of "Let's get 'em."

Single-file, jogging up a shallow brush-choked draw that led up the gentle slope, we crested the rise, taking shelter behind some boulders as we surveyed the scene: The three buildings, one near the mineshaft, the other two a few yards away, and a bulldozer next to the pit a hundred yards into the desert. "There's a ravine to the left," I whispered, "It looks like it comes out behind the building that's next to the mineshaft. There's still just the one guard; I don't see anyone else."

Chad whispered back, "When you heard Veronica on the phone, they couldn't have been in the mineshaft; he couldn't have made a call from in there, the rock would block the signal."

Dex nodded in agreement, so I replied, "Chad, when we get to the base of the ravine, see if you can get to the back of the building on the right, and look in. I'll take the center, and Dex takes the left. Steve, go with Dex and get in position to take out that guard. Even if it's a building we need to attack, we sure as hell can't have that guard behind us. If anyone spots our people, hand-signal, and everyone but Steve head for that building, then when we're in position, Steve takes out that guard and we kick in the door as fast as we can. If nobody sees anything, join up with Steve and we'll storm the mineshaft."

As we began to file down the ravine, moving as silently as possible, our shoes crunching on the sand and gravel sounded louder than a bullhorn. Sweat began beading on my forehead, more from nerves than the desert heat; I kept pushing the pace, mindful that our friends and family were running out of time.

Proceeding down the ravine, with Chad in the lead and Steve bringing up the rear, my hands began to sweat; I knew there was a good chance that some, or all, of us wouldn't be coming out alive.

We slowed to a cautious pace as we approached the end of the ravine, the back wall of the old mine building coming into view just a dozen feet away. Steve headed left towards the mineshaft at a crouch, SKS at the ready, as Chad and I angled to the right, and Dex moved towards the building's dusty rear window. So far, so good...

The sickening thunkfrom behind caused me to spin around, only to see Steve fall backwards, the plank that had slammed him in the forehead still held by the sheriff.

I raised my Makarov as the sheriff aimed his pistol at Steve's head. The sudden blast of a shotgun behind me was the only thing that stopped me from pulling the trigger.

"Drop 'em, or I'll kill him, then my boys'll kill you," said the Sheriff of Piedmont County with a self-assured leer.

Freezing because I didn't know what to do, I only hesitated a moment, but a moment too long. The sudden blow to the back of my head sent me reeling, the pistol flying from my hands. In a daze, I fell forward, rough hands grabbing me, slamming handcuffs on my wrists as my arms were pinned behind my back.

Recovering my senses a moment later in spite of the throbbing pain, I saw that Chad and Dex were down, also being handcuffed. The sheriff kicked Steve over, cuffing him before scooping up the SKS and slinging it over his shoulder. It was all over, so fast I couldn't believe it. The sheriff chuckled, "Did you yokels really think you could go up against my trained men? Y'all took the obvious line of approach, and were damn easy to spot. All we had to do was wait around the corners and get the drop on ya. You sure made it easy."

The Sheriff shoved the barrel of his revolver against Steve's head. "You have three seconds to hand over my data. One..."

"It's on a laptop in my Jeep, just over the rise," I blurted out. The sheriff paused, raising his pistol just a few inches, nodding towards one of our attackers. The man left to re-trace our route, heading up the ravine. Glancing around, I took note of the two remaining men. All but the sheriff were in plain clothes, and looked to be carrying only shotguns. The sheriff growled, "If that stuff ain't there, I'll kill you all."

Nodding to another man, the one standing over Dex and Chad, the sheriff barked an order. "Take those two into the storage building. We'll have computer boy show us the data, and keep his pal handy so we'll have someone to shoot, just in case he needs a little extra motivation."

Grabbing me by my arms, the man behind me hauled me to my feet, shoving me towards Steve. Steve, groaning, still lay on the ground, his wrists cuffed behind his back, a streak of red blood in his hair. The sheriff yanked him upright, dragging him by one arm, Steve barely stumbling across the barren dirt. I caught a glimpse of the man behind me; recognizing him as the deputy who'd grilled us in the Piedmont Sheriff's Station. With the deputy shoving me to follow, they took us towards the gaping mouth of the mineshaft, under the watchful eyes of the guard at its entrance.

Entering the mineshaft, I felt the air change to a cold, oppressive stillness. Fifty feet into the old shaft, lit only by an occasional bare bulb strung along a single cable from the shaft mouth, we passed a gallery full of pipes and beakers, a stench like cat urine filling the air. Shoving me backwards against an old support timber beside some machines, the deputy ran a length of old chain between my arms, circling it around the timber, and I heard a lock click shut. The deputy took Steve from the sheriff, slamming my bleeding boyfriend up against another timber. Slumping forward, Steve dropped to the ground, no longer moving.

Looking at Steve in horror, I yanked against the unyielding chains, the cuffs digging into my wrists, saying the first thing that I could think of. "Where are the others?"

The sheriff laughed, "That's no concern of yours. They're still breathing, but that's all you need to know."

Glancing around, I saw more bottles, more crates, and the machines, which I assumed would make the fake credit cards. They looked like card readers, just bigger. The chemical smell was bad, and it dawned on me that we were in the sheriff's meth lab.

"Sheriff, you've got the data, please let me help Steve, he's hurt bad," I pleaded, knowing it was pointless.

The sheriff laughed, "Not half as bad as he's gonna be. Once I've got the data, I sure don't need any of you, and judging by your response I'll have good news here real soon."

There was one thing I could try, so I gave it a shot, "Sheriff, the state police are on their way. If they get here and find dead bodies, there'll be a manhunt like you wouldn't believe."

My guts turned to ice as the sheriff smiled, "Nobody's on their way, kid. You'd be surprised what an officer facing termination for an on-the-job injury and a lifetime scraping by on disability pay might do for fifty grand, a cut of my business, and the chance to become the next Sheriff of Lonesome Valley."

The feeling of shock from the betrayal by a man whose life I'd helped save must have shown on my face, because the sheriff laughed, "I'll bet you thought it was Thaddeus or my damn nephew who doctored the donuts at Reverend Mike's picnic, huh? You think it was a coincidence we were expecting you? It was Jacobs, and he's going to be a hero; he'll be the only survivor from his department when he, Sergeant Williams, and Sheriff Buchanan, on a joint operation with my department, get in a shootout with the drug dealers running this here meth lab who, despite our heroic efforts, get away. You and your friends will turn up dead in the pit, double-crossed by the drug dealers you've been working with, and it'll turn out that you were trying to frame me to take the heat off. Jacobs will come out of it a hero and be a shoe-in for sheriff. That'll solve my legal problems, or close enough, all in one neat little package." The sheriff's self-satisfied grin was colder than the subterranean air.

We stood in silence, the moments seeming like years, until a voice came echoing down the shaft;"We've got the laptop, and the data's on it, unencrypted."

A pleasant smile lit the sheriff's face. Turning to yell up the tunnel, he replied, "Keep those two under wraps for a few minutes. Might as well get this over with; I'll do these two first, then them, then our other guests."

Raising his gun in my direction, the sheriff paused, muttering to his deputy, "We'll use their own guns, so there's no ballistics fuss from any investigation. Chain up the hurt one, and we'll take this one to the pit."

The deputy glanced around, placing the Makarov against my head as he moved to unlock me. "Bring the other one here; I don't have anymore chain."

Grabbing Steve, the sheriff hauled him towards me, Steve's eyes fluttering open. "No," Steve said with a loud groan, hurling himself sideways at the sheriff. Sidestepping, the sheriff brought the butt of his revolver down on Steve's neck, as I strained against my cuffs, helpless. The deputy rushed at Steve, who was no longer moving, kicking him as he lay at his feet.

"Is that one secure?" the sheriff asked, indicating me.

"He ain't going nowhere," replied the deputy, slugging me in the gut, knocking the wind out of me as I doubled over in pain.

The sheriff hauled Steve up by the arm, "Fine, I'll go do this one first. Keep that asshole covered until I get back; I want both of us on him when we take him out, he's pretty damn slippery. If he gives you any trouble, use your knife if you can, and shoot him with this," he said as he handed the deputy the SKS in return for the Makarov, "as a last resort, but make damn sure you don't put a bullet in any of our gear or supplies, or this place'll go up like a volcano." The sheriff turned, dragging Steve towards the tunnel mouth.

Regaining my breath, seeing Steve being dragged away, I screamed for the sheriff to come back, to wait, but he never turned, never paused, and my heart died a little as they disappeared from sight. Turning to the deputy, I begged, "Please, don't do this..."

With a casual shrug, as if discussing the weather, he replied, "Why the hell not? There's not much difference between kidnapping and murder, when it comes to sentencing. I'm in way too deep to get out now."

"No, wait," I pleaded, "You can't get away. We phoned the state police ourselves, they'll be here any minute. If you save Steve, they'll go easy on you..."

He didn't believe my lie. With a laugh, he rammed the butt of the SKS into my gut, doubling me over as he replied, "Yeah, right. You just called Jacobs, then came charging out here. Don't worry about your buddy; you'll be joining him in the pit next. I think I'll have me another poke at that little ladyfriend of yours before we do her; she's a wildcat, that one."

The pain ripping through my stomach made me cry out, gasping for air, reeling at what I'd heard, and terrified of what was about to happen to Steve. I looked up, trying to think of something I could say, only to see the deputy draw his long hunting knife, "It might look better if you've got some knife wounds. It'll save us having any trouble with ya when we take you out, too."

Gleaming even in the poor light, the blade approached, the deputy wielding it underhand, aiming for my gut. I watched it, but my mind was on Steve and what must be happening to him. Looking up, away from the knife and towards the point of daylight marking the mineshaft's mouth, I saw a flicker of bright blue. The lights went out, plunging us into darkness, a thick gloom lit for a bare moment by a shower of sparks coming from where the flash had been, and then only by the sliver of daylight from the mouth of the shaft.

The daylight flickered, something blocking it for a moment, until the glare of the deputy's flashlight hit me full in the face. Squinting against the glare, I caught sight of him sliding the knife back into its sheath, and then unslinging the SKS, training it on me one handed, holding his flashlight on me with the other.

With his attention focusing on me, he never seemed to notice the scurrying footsteps. I barely saw the rock approaching the back of his head, impacting a split-second later with a wet-sounding thud.

The sound of the SKS skittering down the sloping tunnel behind me accompanied by a crunch and the deputy fell beside his dropped flashlight. The light went out as it hit, plunging us into near-total darkness, as I heaved against the cuffs on my wrists. A spark, followed by a tiny flickering flame penetrated the darkness, illuminating the side of the fallen deputy, along with my rescuer's arm diving into the deputy's pockets. I heard the tinkle of keys as the flame, which I could now see came from a lighter, flickering as it moved behind me, the light never revealing a face. I heard a metallic click, the chain suddenly loosening, allowing me to pull free of the post. Whispering, a male voice said, "The sheriff must have the handcuff keys. I'll pick the lock."

There wasn't time, for that or anything. Bursting into a frantic run, careening up the black tunnel, I aimed for the distant square of daylight denoting its end. Charging for the entrance, barely keeping my balance with my wrists cuffed behind me, I neared the mouth of the tunnel. The guard at the tunnel entrance stood facing outwards, turning and beginning to raise his revolver as he heard my footsteps. Approaching out of the darkness, I lowered my shoulder, slamming into him at a full run, sending us both sprawling. Skidding to a halt on my side, I saw his head near my feet. Drawing my leg up, grunting from the effort, I slammed heel into the bridge of his nose. I felt something break, and gave him another kick before struggling to my feet.

His revolver lay on the ground, but there was no time, and nothing I could do with it anyway. I just ran as hard as I could, aiming for where I'd seen the pit.

I'd gone barely twenty yards when I saw them through the mesquite bushes. My first sight was of Steve, kneeling by the pit, his head lolling on his shoulders, giving me one last glimpse of his face before slumping forward. Standing next to him was the sheriff, holding Steve up by the arm with one hand, pointing the Makarov at Steve's head with the other.

Rounding a bush, coming into full view, I screamed for the sheriff to stop, but I was still fifty feet away. The sheriff looked me in the eye, his gun never budging from Steve's head, "Stop right where you are and kneel."

I saw him tensing on the trigger, so I skidded to a halt, falling forward, slamming into the ground on my shoulder, still thirty feet from them. Looking up, staring at the dark gun pointing at Steve's head, I tried to think of something to say, anything... but the sheriff didn't give me a chance, "I don't know how the hell you got loose, but all you've done is save me a trip. At least this way, you can watch..."

Everything slowed down, my body feeling like it was trapped in quicksand, just trying to move my mouth seeming to take forever, the distance ahead seeming to grow and contract at the same time, the futile cry from my lungs crossing the distance, echoing off the stark and lonely hills. I watched the sheriff's head turning towards Steve, a fraction of an inch at a time, feeling my own heart beat once, then again.

My eyes, fixing on the sheriff's gun hand, watched in exquisite detail as his muscles flexed, his trigger finger beginning to move, the barrel of the gun still centered on Steve's blood-streaked head.

The crashing rapport of the gunshot ripped through me, fast-forwarded my world; my vision shifting, my heart shattering as I caught one last fleeting glimpse of Steve's body, covered with fresh blood and gore, tumbling lifelessly to the barren desert dirt.

©Copyright 2007 C James; All Rights Reserved.
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Please let me know what you think; good, bad, or indifferent.  The feedback thread for this story is in my Forum. Please stop by and say "Hi!"

Many thanks to Conner for editing, support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions on this chapter.
Many thanks also to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions (and for thinking up a title!).

Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading and advice, and for putting up with me.
Any remaining errors are mine alone.

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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I’m not sure who could have shown up at the last minute to help. I hope it’s the cop Chris helped and that he was undercover rather than an actual traitor because to be led to your death by a guy who’s life worked to save is horrible. I have my doubts though that’s the case but I can hope it is.

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Not sure I believe Jacobs would be tempted by $50,000. I'm hoping the gun shot was aimed at the evil sheriff and the gore is his.  I thing the person who helped Chris in the mine shaft was the one doing the shooting.

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