A lone sheriff’s department vehicle showed up just ahead of the Harmon-Dominguez trucks. The firefight had been over for just over an hour. There were fire-trucks and ambulances just behind the sheriff’s vehicle. The deputy pulled up, got out, took a look around at us, walked over to the shattered cars and trucks full of bloating MS-13 corpses, and went back to his car without a word. The other first-responders went to deal with the overturned semi. The wrecker was half an hour behind the ambulances, who ended up just bagging up the bodies and driving away.

When the Harmon-Dominguez convoy finally got there, they slowed way down and hesitated for close to five minutes, hanging back a good hundred yards from the scene. When they finally crept forward to the crashed box truck, they were slow, hesitant, and gave off the appearance of staring fearfully at the sheriff’s department vehicle. I just shook my head.

We’d been contracted because some of the people Renton works with thought that Harmon-Dominguez was a front company for Mexican cartel interests. They wanted some inside reconnaissance, and we were it. And maybe my perception was colored by that knowledge. But these guys just seemed extra nervous around law enforcement, as they carefully backed up to Harold’s truck and opened the back doors of the new box truck.

Of course, if the sheriff’s deputies noticed, they didn’t budge out of their white-and-green car to do anything about it.

It took a while to get the cargo transferred. Harold got in the new box truck, but the original driver stayed with the wreck to get it towed away. The rest of us were already in the two new trucks that had come to pick us up.

Harold came over to my vehicle. “Okay, we’re loaded back up,” he said. “We can get back on track now. We’ll have to move quickly to make up lost time.”

I just shook my head. “No, we’re going back to Tucson,” I said. “After what just happened, we need to reset.”

The Devil You Don't Know Chapter 1

Read Next: The Devil You Don't Know Chapter 1

He got a little bit of that panicked look in his eyes. “We can’t afford the time,” he said.

“I don’t care,” I replied. “We just got fucking ambushed. Your schedule is dead. We were hired to ensure your safety, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’ve got to take the time to re-examine our plan, possibly re-route, and take additional measures to lower our profile and harden ourselves as a target.”

Harold was fidgeting now. “I’m telling you, we have a very strict time-schedule!” he insisted. “We have to get back on track!”

“Better that it gets there intact than doesn’t get there at all because it got intercepted by MS-13, now isn’t it?” I asked. I motioned toward the border to the south. “If you are really that intent on going, go. You won’t have an escort, though, because we’ll quit before we’ll half-ass security for the sake of your timeline.”

That made him look positively sick. The prospect scared him badly enough that he seemed to crumple right in front of my eyes. He slumped back to the box truck without another word.

Of course, I was bluffing. I just had to delay our departure to the south until we could get our toys from The Ranch, and link up with Renton.

I made eye contact with Jim, who would be leading the way back north, and nodded. He waved, and we started back to Tucson.

The drive was short and quiet. Larry and I were thinking over the implications of what had just happened, and we didn’t know the Harmon-Dominguez driver who’d brought the truck down, so there wasn’t much conversation. He didn’t need to know any more than Harold could tell him.

So there I was: My first bad day as a volunteer firefighter

Read Next: So there I was: My first bad day as a volunteer firefighter

When we got to the Harmon-Dominguez warehouse on the north side of Tucson, we pulled our trucks up and retreated into the little side office we’d annexed as a “security office.” We didn’t do much more than re-stock ammunition and recharge radio batteries; there wasn’t much to do right away. We did spread out the map and start looking for other options route-wise; the I-19 to Nogales was apparently compromised. Unfortunately, there wasn’t another legal crossing short of Yuma, and going the sneaky way wasn’t going to go over well with Harmon-Dominguez.

We’d been there all of about two hours when my phone rang. It was Clyde. “Jeff, we just touched down in Tucson. Got all your goodies. We’ll be by the private aviation terminal when you’re ready.”

“Good deal,” I replied. “Hang tight for the moment. The Godfather’s on the way and we’ve still got to figure out just how things have changed and how we’re going to handle this.”

“I’ll be here,” he answered. I dropped the phone on the table and went back to the maps and imagery.

Renton must have set records. He was on the ground in Tucson three and a half hours after we’d spoken on the phone. He got to the warehouse less than an hour after that.

I met him at the gate, in order to forestall awkward questions from the rent-a-cops guarding the warehouse. He was dressed as nondescriptly as ever, with a laptop and a thick manila envelope under his arm. He simply nodded to me and followed me inside, not saying a word until we were in the office and the door was closed.

“I’m assuming that your ’employers’ are champing at the bit to get moving, so I’ll make this as concise as I can,” he said. He laid the laptop on the table and fired it up. After fiddling with it for a moment, he brought up a picture. We crowded around to get a better look.

Calling the image blurry was being charitable. The face of the man on the screen was little more than a smudge. “I take it you gentlemen have heard of a character known as ‘El Duque,’” Renton said. It wasn’t really a question. Eyebrows went up all around the table.

El Duque had been in the news since the bombings in Houston a year before. We’d missed most of that ruckus, having been in the Middle East at the time, but there was plenty of talk about the explosives having come from Mexico, used by Caliphate terrorists. The name “El Duque” then began floating around; he was supposed to have been the facilitator who got the Mexican gangs and the Islamist terrorists together, and got the explosives across the border. Some said he was Columbian, a former FARC revolutionary, others that he was former Cuban DGI. Still others maintained that he was a Mexican capo who had gone truly international.

He was High Value Target Number One. Everybody wanted him. CIA was reportedly after him, the FBI and DHS was watching for him at every port of entry. If half the stories about him were true, he was Osama Bin Laden, Carlos the Jackal, and Viktor Bout all rolled into one.

“Yeah, we’ve heard of him,” I replied.

“We’ve even heard of the army of Caliphate shock troops he’s amassing in Juarez,” Jack put in sarcastically. “Or was it Tijuana this week?”

“Wait, really?” Nick asked. “Caliphate shock troops?”

Jack smirked. “Yeah, that was the actual wording. I just about spat whiskey all over the TV when I heard that one.”

Renton rolled his eyes. “Typical. Trying to conflate every threat into one, to make it easier to comprehend. Meanwhile, the real problems get ignored.

“El Duque is a serious concern. We don’t know who he is; he’s been very protective of his identity. We have the pseudonym, and these few, very low-quality, photos. Besides that, all we have is a pattern of activity.”

The image on the computer screen changed to show a number of red spots scattered across the Western Hemisphere. “He’s known to have ties with just about every revolutionary, guerrilla, and transnational criminal group on this side of the Atlantic, and quite a few on the other side. He’s a ‘super facilitator,’ a fixer for anything that will spread chaos. He deals in weapons, drugs, explosives, information, mercenaries, assassinations, you name it. He’s an agent of chaos. And he’s one that, so far, no one can seem to find.”

I narrowed my eyes as I looked at the screen. “I take it El Duque’s the target.” It wasn’t really a question. “Are you thinking that Reyes is El Duque?”

Renton shook his head. “Reyes is too easily accounted for and he doesn’t fit the description. He’s also taken great pains to keep his hands clean. Of course, some of his connections? Not so much.” He tapped the touchpad. A picture came up of two men smiling and shaking hands. One was short, thickset, and black-haired, wearing what looked like a red silk shirt and a gold chain around his neck. The other was tall, spare, and balding. He had a thin mustache and was wearing an expensive suit. He had a hand on the red-shirted man’s shoulder as they shook hands. “The bald guy is Reyes,” Renton said. “Redshirt there is Joaquin Adolfo Mendez. Mendez is an old-school Sinaloan gangster. He’s been whispered about as the next ‘Chapo’ Guzman.” Another picture. This one showed Reyes sitting at a table with a man in a dark suit and neatly trimmed beard. “This guy is Ahmad Ali Drisawi.”

“That sounds Iranian,” Little Bob commented.

“It is,” Renton said, without looking up from the laptop. “He’s Qods Force. He’s officially persona-non-grata in Mexico, but he keeps showing up in Mexico City, Tijuana, and Cuidad Juarez, and nobody ever rolls him up. He appears to be an IRGC facilitator for non-official Hezbollah and Qods Force operations in Mexico and the Southwest. And, as you can see here, gets along famously with the upstanding businessman Reyes.”

“So you think that Reyes is either connected with El Duque directly, or through one of these characters?” I asked.

“Oh, we’re fairly certain it’s direct,” he said. He clicked again, and an audio player came up. The conversation that proceeded to play was all in Spanish, and my Spanish is worse than my Arabic, so I wasn’t able to follow most of it. But I did catch the name “El Duque” repeated a couple of times.

“That was Reyes and a close personal friend of his, Francisco Salazar, who also happens to be a high-ranking member of the Venezuelan Popular Defense Units, and a known member of the Cartel de los Soles. For those who can’t follow the Spanish, they are discussing a deal for support from Reyes’ Guatemalan business interests for some of the PDUs, and that they’ll have to deal with El Duque to make sure it’s kept under the radar. So yes, we know that Reyes is connected to El Duque.

“If Reyes does in fact know who El Duque is, or even can lead to another link in the chain, then we may finally have a shot at this guy.”

“This is going to require a lot of support, you know,” I said. “And a lot more time to plan and prepare than last minute before going down into Mexico. That country isn’t exactly permissive for this kind of thing, at least not when gringos are doing it.”

“I realize it’s short notice,” Renton said. “But this is why we gave you the list of names of interest in the first place. Harmon-Dominguez has enough outside interests involved in it that if it was dirty, it was bound to cross paths with one of El Duque’s connections eventually. Apparently, it has.”

“There’s another unanswered question here,” Jim put in. Jim didn’t often say much, even in his spot as my assistant team leader, but when he did, people generally shut up and listened. He was one of the oldest of us, with a pair of gray stripes through his thick beard that made him somewhat resemble a badger. He sometimes had the temperament of one, too. “MS-13 is out to hijack this cargo, for whatever reason. Do we have any idea why? Especially if this is somehow connected to El Duque, that would make the stakes a little higher for them than just a cash score.”

“Assuming they actually know about the connection,” Renton pointed out. “The underworld is increasingly networked, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily always mean that everybody is read in on what everybody else is doing. These are loose networks; they fluctuate with the loyalties and feuds of the moment, not to mention sheer bloody opportunism. Under the circumstances, I suspect that whoever launched that ambush probably only knew that there was money to be made.”

There was silence around the table. None of us really bought it. That had been a professional ambush, not a neighborhood gang drive-by.

“Maybe Juarez knows,” Ben suggested. Ben was one of the newer guys. Short, stocky, and blond, he was a solid performer in training, but hadn’t quite found his niche yet. “Let’s ask him.”

“You really think he knows jack shit about what’s going on?” Bryan asked.

“Maybe,” Ben replied. “I mean, you saw the relief crew when they came to pick up the cargo from the crashed truck. They were nervous as fuck around that sheriff’s car. Even if they don’t know specifics, they know something sketchy’s going on. Maybe Juarez knows more.”

“And if he keeps his mouth shut?” I asked quietly. “This isn’t Iraq. We can’t lean on him here the way we might have over there.”

“There are ways,” Renton said quietly. “Though I don’t think he knows anything. Not anything immediately useful, anyway.”

I eyed him skeptically. “You’ve already checked him out, haven’t you?”

He nodded unapologetically. “Of course. We’ve suspected Harmon-Dominguez of being dirty for a while. Naturally we were going to check out the people in managerial positions.”

“So he’s just a dupe?” I asked. “Or a ‘see no evil’ type?”

He shrugged. “A little from Column A, a little from Column B.”

I thought about it for a moment. “Can you give us a minute?” I asked Renton.

“Sure,” he said. He left the laptop on the table. As soon as he was gone, I looked around at the rest of the team.

“Thoughts?” I may have been the team leader, but this wasn’t the military, and these guys weren’t boots. Even the new guys were seasoned, and nobody can see every angle, regardless of what his billet is.

“I think we’re getting into another East Africa,” Larry said, folding his arms across his barrel of a chest. “Don’t take that the wrong way, I’m in, but really? We’ve got a nom de guerre, a couple of blurry photos, and a legend, and that’s it.” He pointed to the dot-covered map on the screen. “That’s one hell of a spread of activity, and we’ve got no pattern of life to go off of. Nobody even knows the guy’s name, much less where he hides out.”

“That’s why we’re going after Reyes first,” Eric said reasonably. “If nobody on our side knows where the target is, roll up the ones on the other side who do.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Jim said. “Let’s assume that we are going to take the job.” That was kind of a given at this point; after close to a year on the bench, a challenge was past due. Going after HVT Number One was a challenge that I don’t think any of us could have passed up at that point. Of course, some of us were more gunshy than others, having faced more than a few hasty, relatively un-supported missions in the last few years. The clients rarely had all the ducks in a row, and we usually ended up holding the short end of the stick because of it. “Short term, let’s bring Harold in here and see what insights he can offer.”

There wasn’t any disagreement. I pulled out my phone and called Harold’s cell. He answered quickly, probably hoping we were ready to get back on the road immediately. I was about to disappoint him. “Can you come to the security office?” I asked. “We’ve got some questions that you might be able to answer.”

Harold looked pretty hesitant when he came in; he hadn’t been too happy about my request, but he realized that we had him over a barrel. He wasn’t going to be able to find another security company to escort his trucks south in time to fit his time schedule. He was stuck with us, and he wasn’t about to try to take those trucks into Mexico—or outside the warehouse compound, for that matter—without an escort.

The eleven of us, including Renton, were spread around the small meeting room, watching Harold when he walked in. He looked around like a man contemplating bolting; he wasn’t comfortable. Considering he was half a head shorter than Jack, who was the shortest of us by a couple inches, I can’t necessarily say I blame him. He was like a more personable version of the State people we’d dealt with, albeit peripherally, in Iraq the year before. He wasn’t a meat-eater, and he was a little scared of us, even though we were there to ensure his safety and that of his cargo.

“What is it?” he asked, looking around from face to face.

“We need to know why MS-13 is after your cargo,” I said flatly.

He looked like I’d slapped him. “I don’t know. I don’t know why they want it, and I don’t know how they found out we would be on that route at that time.” He looked down, then back up at me. He looked kind of lost and scared. If he hadn’t been a grown man working for an international company suspected of doing business with transnational mafias and terrorists, I’d almost have felt sorry for him. “None of this was supposed to happen. It was supposed to be a simple delivery, to an agent in Mazatlan. There wasn’t any mention of threats of violence or any of this.”

I frowned at him. “But your company hired us to protect the shipment. You do know what we do for a living, right?”

He looked confused. “I know you’re a security company.”

Renton chuckled from where he was leaning against the wall, next to the door. Harold jerked his head around to look at him; I don’t think he’d realized the spook was even there until then. “Most people aren’t all that aware of Praetorian’s rep, Jeff,” he said. “They might have heard your name in conjunction with the shootout in Kismayo a couple years ago, but you’ve been good enough at keeping a low profile since that, outside of certain circles, you just kind of fade into the background.” He chuckled again. “Don’t take that the wrong way; it’s a good thing. It just means that Mr. Juarez here has no idea what you’re really capable of, or why we hooked you up with this contract.”

“Who is this?” Harold stammered. “I haven’t seen you before.”

Renton surprised me a little. “That’s because I haven’t been around here before. Consider me something of a facilitator, who is going to help with your little security problem. Come on, let’s talk while these guys get prepped to get moving again. I can fill you in on the details.” He opened the door, holding out a hand to invite Harold to go with him, and looked at me. “All the information I’ve been able to scrounge up on this business is on that laptop. The password is in the envelope; I’d suggest memorizing it and then getting rid of the paper. But be sure you memorize it right; three wrong entries and the laptop wipes itself.” He ushered Harold out and closed the door after him.

Jack squinted suspiciously at the closed door. “That was convenient,” he said. “What does Juarez know that Renton doesn’t want us to hear?”

Jim shook his head. “I don’t think he knows shit. Renton was getting him out of our hair so we can finish planning and prepping without him pestering us about his timeline every five minutes.”

“Agreed,” I said. “Let’s get down to it.”

There was definitely more planning to do. I wanted to take a different route, but the best bet was going to be San Luis, just southwest of Yuma, and that was a long way out of our way. We were fine with the extra mileage, but there was no way we were going to bully Harold into accepting a four-hundred-plus-mile detour. It would add an entire day, and, from what little we’d gotten from Harold, that would end up defeating the purpose of the trip in the first place. The agent was apparently not willing to wait that long. So, Nogales it was. I wanted hardened vehicles, but there weren’t any to be had. I also wanted all the firepower we had in that mission package, which Ben and Nick went to retrieve from the airport, but that wasn’t going to fly going through a legal border crossing, either. We’d even put compartments in the security vehicles to stash our pistols, shotguns, and ammo, just in case the papers didn’t get us across without problems. There was no way we were going to get battle rifles, sniper rifles, 7.62 NATO and .338 Lapua ammo, grenades, night vision, and hardened comms across the Nogales border crossing.

Of course, we had no intention of leaving any of that behind. If we were going after HVT Number One, you’d better believe we’d have every tool we needed, however we had to get it. So Nick and Ben were going to break away and take the rest of the package over the border on 4-wheeler ATVs, about forty miles to the east, near Sierra Vista. That mountainous region of the border hadn’t been well-patrolled in years, in spite of the US Army’s primary intel base, Fort Huachuca, being right there.

We didn’t tell Harold about that part. I don’t think he noticed the fact that we were down two bodies when we loaded back up; he was a bit nervous and distracted. I don’t know what Renton had told him, and the spook had been gone by the time Harold showed back up at the security office, wondering when we’d be ready to go. But he seemed even more fidgety than he had been before.

It was getting close to sunset when we finally got down to Nogales. We were all keyed up and on the alert for an ambush all the way from Tucson to the border. I was really, really wishing for my M1A, but Nick had that on an all-terrain trailer behind his ATV, and was probably getting ready to cross over into Mexico at about that time. But nothing materialized. There were a couple of vehicles that we thought might be surveillance vehicles, but they didn’t do anything froggy, and, while they continued to pace us all the way into Nogales, they gave us no further indications that they were bad guys. We got to the border crossing unmolested.

There was a surprising amount of traffic. Even as the sky turned a mix of purple, red, and orange over the hills, there were cars and trucks backed up at the border crossing for hundred yards, across five lanes. It had been a lot more, once upon a time, but there was still plenty of commerce going north and south. A good chunk of it was legitimate. Some of it was legitimate on the surface, and shady underneath. I had heard that a lot of the cash going south from drug deals in El Norte was hidden in legit vehicles making the crossing.

I realized that we were probably in the middle of one such transfer, albeit rather larger than a hundred thousand dollars stuffed in the ceiling of an F-150. I was also keenly aware that we were likely to be denied if we got caught. We’d disappear into either the US or Mexican prison systems, just some more hired guns for narco thugs. We’d show up in some news story like the Iraq vet-turned-narco assassin who’d named himself, of all things, Rambo, a few years back.

We waited in the line of vehicles, lit up by actinic white floodlights, watching every vehicle around us, expecting a shitstorm to erupt at any moment. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention to us, not that we could really see very much. The cars were dark on the inside, brightly lit by the floods, and so the windows may as well have been opaque in most cases. Meanwhile, we crept closer to the border crossing, one car-length at a time.

I opened up the compartment at my feet, slid my Browning and my 870 into it, then took Larry’s and slid them in along with them. Making sure we didn’t have any extra ammo where it might be found, I closed the compartment, mag-locked it (we didn’t want the covers rattling when somebody stomped on them), and slid the dirty rubber floor mat over it. Unless they tore the SUV apart, they’d never find the weapons. Harold had insisted that the papers we carried included a special arrangement with the Mexican authorities, but I had familiarized myself with the security situation down there enough that I didn’t trust that the border guards wouldn’t be playing both ends against the middle.

Finally, we came to the checkpoint. The green-uniformed US Border Patrol agents didn’t even really look at us; the majority of them were concerned with the other lanes, the ones going north. These two were more there for form’s sake than anything else. It was the Mexican border guards we had to worry about.

Two of the men in dark blue uniforms and black combat vests stepped up to the Yukon. I couldn’t see the driver’s side, especially with Harold’s box truck between us and the lead vehicle, but Larry could.

“Bryan’s handed over the papers, and the border guard’s looking at them,” he said, leaning his head a little to get a better view. “Everybody still looks nice and relaxed.”

I kept watching the two border policemen on the passenger side. They were looking over the vehicle, but hadn’t made a move otherwise. Both were wearing black combat vests and carrying M16s. Even in a relatively low-threat post like guarding the US border into Mexico, they had their faces covered.

Larry let out a deep sigh. “They’re waving them through.”

I didn’t relax, exactly, but I got slightly less tense. I still didn’t move to pull the weapons out; that could wait until we were well clear. I did have our copy of the clearance papers, just in case.

The box truck had to stop. They got waved through almost as quickly as Bryan’s Yukon had. Then it was our turn.

Larry rolled down the window and I offered the papers. The border guard skimmed them quickly, then handed them back. It looked like he’d checked for the signature and that was about it. “Bienvenidos,” he said. Larry nodded to him, and we rolled forward.

“That was too easy,” I said, as we passed under the big, white arch over the checkpoint and continued down the road into the Mexican side of Nogales. I was still scanning. While whoever was gunning for us might not be stupid enough to hit us right at the border control checkpoint, I fully expected there to be surveillance of some sort.

If it was there, it was too dark to see it.

“Maybe they weren’t bullshitting about the authorizations,” Larry suggested. “Maybe things really have gotten bad enough down here that the government’s willing to let even gringos go armed.”

“More likely the right amount of money got passed to the right people,” I said, still staring out the window. The Mexican side didn’t look much different from the American side. The roads were still paved, the lights were still on, and the architecture was all the same. A lot of the signs were still in English, even, though just as many on the Arizona side of the border were in Spanish. There were, of course, the tin shacks of the border market hawkers lining the road from the checkpoint, but they were presently abandoned. Apparently it wasn’t a good idea to try to sell junk to tourists in Nogales after dark these days.

“You’re a cynic,” he remarked.

I turned to look at him. He was still watching the road, but I could see a little bit of a smirk inside that tangle of beard. “No shit,” I replied. “When did you figure that out?”

He laughed. “About five minutes after I met you,” he answered. “So, lets see…about nine, ten years ago?”

I just shook my head with a grin and went back to looking for threats.

The border police didn’t hassle either the other box truck, or Jim’s vehicle. We didn’t linger in Nogales. We were already behind schedule, and I didn’t want to stay in one spot where we were already expected to be. I wanted to get clear as quickly as possible. We sped past Embarcadero Hill and headed south.

In a few minutes, Nogales was behind us, and we were moving through hilly scrub grassland. There wasn’t much more traffic on the road, besides the occasional semi. Our headlights illuminated the trees and bushes alongside the road, but the rest of the landscape disappeared into the dark. I dug the shotguns and pistols out of the compartment under our feet.

It took about half an hour to reach the designated rendezvous point, just north of Rancho Agua Zarca, a Sonoran horse ranch. We exited off the highway at the Agua Zarca overpass, and took a dirt road up into the hills to the east. I could almost hear Harold wondering what the hell we were doing. I was sure I was going to hear it once we stopped.

When I was sure we were in the right place, I radioed Bryan. “Right here.” The convoy stopped, dust billowing in the headlights until we switched them off. The box truck drivers were slow turning their lights off; they didn’t know what was going on.

I waited until all the trucks were dark before opening the door and getting out. I had my 870 in my hands. I wasn’t expecting trouble; our suspected tails had faded into the Nogales night behind us. We were alone. But I was never really one to take chances.

Harold had his window down. “Stone?” he called. “What’s going on?”

“A little housekeeping,” I told him. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll be on the way soon enough.” I keyed my radio again. “Key-Lock, Hillbilly. We are at the RV. What’s your ETA?”

“This is Key-Lock,” Nick replied. “We’re still about two klicks out. Terrain is slowing us down a little.”

“Roger. We’ll be here.” I stepped forward to join Ben and Little Bob, who had gotten out of the Yukon. “Another ten, fifteen minutes,” I told them.

“What is going on?” Harold asked again, insistently. He still hadn’t gotten out.

“Nothing you need to worry about, Harold,” I told him. “Now be quiet.”

Apparently, he decided against asking further questions, when the three men standing in front of his truck, waiting for something, were all carrying shotguns, because he didn’t press the issue.

For a while, the only sound was the faint whisper of the wind in the trees and bushes, the occasional roar of a car or truck going by on the nearby highway, and the low hum of the engines. Then, I could just make out the buzzing whine of an ATV. Then, as the noise got louder, I started to be able to make out two. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little green thumb-light. Nick and Jack had all the NVGs, so we’d have to go with visible light.

The buzz stopped, replaced by a low putter from up on the hill above us. They were up there, on the firebreak, waiting. I flashed the little green LED three times, aiming it uphill. After a moment, I got two back. It was them.

It took longer than you might expect for them to get down to us. If they’d just had ATVs, they could have been at the trucks in a couple of minutes. But towing the little trailers made negotiating the steep slope, even on the firebreak, rather treacherous. Finally, though, they got down to the bottom of the hill and we moved forward to collect the gear bags.

There wasn’t any talking. We’d all done this before. Nobody needed to be reminded to keep things low-profile. The rifles and basic loadouts got carefully stashed and covered in the cabs, and the rest got strategically buried under more innocuous luggage in the backs of the vehicles. I could almost feel Harold’s nervous fidgeting as he watched us unload, even though I couldn’t see him. He started to get out of the truck as I walked back to my Expedition, but I didn’t look at him. “We should get moving,” I said, for his benefit. “This isn’t where we want to spend the night.”

The discussion when we finally stopped was going to be interesting.