Its engine raced as the levers and springs of the vehicle's clutch operated only inches above their faces. The headlights and amber running lights flicked on. Diesel exhaust swirled around Lyons and Blancanales and Ricardo where they lay trapped under the bus.
Lyons threw himself onto his back, the muzzle of his slung Atchisson digging into the mud. The hot exhaust pipe touched his soaked sleeve with a hiss of steam. He glanced at the double rear wheels, judging their path.
Ricardo attempted to crawl clear. Blancanales jerked him back, shoved him sideways to lie next to Lyons. Lyons grabbed Ricardo's muddy shirt to hold him still. Blancanales gave the teenager quick instructions in Spanish as he positioned himself.
The wheels had settled into the mud. Gunning the engine, the driver rocked the bus forward. The gears clanked as the driver shifted into reverse. As the bus rolled back, the engine roared to make torque.
Put it in forward, go straight ahead, Lyons screamed silently. I don't want to die tonight, because I don't want to leave Unomundo alive.
The gears clashed again and the bus lurched forward. The wheels rolled through the ruts, splashing water and mud. Lyons and Blancanales prepared to grab the rear bumper. Ricardo stared around him, panicked, his left hand in the mud, his right shielding his face from the hot exhaust blasting into his face. Lyons elbowed Ricardo, jerked his left arm up. He held the boy's wrist as the undercarriage moved over them. Lyons felt a tire brush his shoulder.
Rain struck their faces as the rear bumper cleared them. Lyons slapped Ricardo's hand onto the slick steel of the bumper, then clawed for his own handhold. His fingers hooked around the sharp inside edge. The bus pulled him to a sitting position and he stood.
In the red glow of the taillights, Lyons saw that the bus had two roof access ladders, one on each side of the rear emergency door. He grabbed a ladder and stepped onto the bumper. He stayed low, below the level of the rear windows. The clouding diesel smoke swirled red in the rain.
Blancanales moved as quickly, grabbing first the bumper, then climbing hand over hand up the first three rungs of the ladder.
But Ricardo desperately held the bumper. He let the bus drag him. Lyons hooked an arm through the rungs of the roof ladder and reached down to grab Ricardo's left wrist again. As soon as Blancanales had secured his own handhold, he took Ricardo's other arm. The two men jerked the youth up and steadied him until he braced his sneakers on the bumper.
Whining in first gear, the bus rocked over the cornfield. The three uninvited passengers clung to the rain-slick ladders.
Hundreds of meters down the road, the taillights of the troop trucks disappeared around a mountainside.
Lyons looked over to Blancanales and pointed up. Blancanales shook his head no. The Puerto Rican held up a hand and made the Mexican gesture of "wait a moment," his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. Lyons nodded.
The bus turned onto the road, dropping down a slight embankment with a final violent swaying on its springs. They heard equipment on the bus roof crash from one side to the other. Straightening the wheels, the driver shifted and accelerated over the flooded road, the bus throwing waves of muddy rainwater into the fields.
Blancanales made a thumbs-up gesture. Lyons pointed to himself, then pointed out. He wiped his palms clean of mud as best he could before easing his head up to the window.
Inside the bus, soaked militiamen sprawled in the seats. Several cigarettes created a gray pall. Lyons saw the beak-nosed youth and another man standing at the front, examining a map by the light of an electric lantern. They talked with one another and the driver.
Mist formed on the window. Lyons noticed a drop of condensation coursing down the inside of the glass. The sweating men, in their soaked uniforms and boots, had heated the interior with their bodies. The superhumid air condensed on the rain-cooled windows.
Lyons eased down. He signaled Blancanales with the Mexican "wait a moment" hand gesture. Blancanales nodded. For another minute or two, they squatted on the bumper, swaying as the bus low-geared through mud and flowing streams. Ricardo crouched, stricken with fear, close to the ladder that held Blancanales.
In the light from the bus headlights, Lyons watched the roadsides. They passed burned-out shacks and the ruins of small farms. Unharvested corn and vegetables rotted in the fields. A cluster of small whitewashed crosses had been placed in front of a charred house.
A dead family, Lyons thought. Maybe they made the mistake of talking democracy, maybe they talked socialism. Maybe they didn't talk at all. Maybe they only wanted to live and work their fields without ideology. So they died.
As the pathetic vignette of tragedy returned to the night, Lyons eased his head up again. He saw the window had fogged over. He signaled Blancanales. Lyons checked his nightsuit and bandoliers for any loose gear that might strike the ladder's steel rungs. Then he went up, his neoprene-soled boots squeaking faintly on the slick steel.
He crawled onto the roof, forcing himself to move slowly, to distribute his weight on the sheet metal without the roof buckling or popping. He turned slowly and looked down to Blancanales and Ricardo. Blancanales whispered a last instruction to the teenager, then prodded him up.
Ricardo moved quickly and silently, his teeth clenched now with determined courage. He scrambled onto the roof. Lyons motioned him flat. The teenager obeyed instantly. As the bus swayed, he sideslipped down the rain-slick enamel of the roof. He reached out with a hand and a foot and braced himself against the cargo rack's side rail.
A moment later, Blancanales followed.
"No problems?" Lyons whispered.
"I had my ear against the bus. No noise, no questions."
"All right! We're on our way." Lyons crept across the roof to bundles of gear. He checked the bundles by touch. He felt plastic and cloth in one. Tents? Camouflage tarps for the bus? His hands found heavy boxes — perhaps boxes of ammunition. Leaning against the bundles, he hooked his boots around the cargo rail.
Loosing the sling, he eased his Atchisson off his back. He checked the safety, then dropped out the magazine and pocketed it. He pulled back the actuator to eject the chambered shell into his hand. The action locked back. He put a finger in the chamber and felt gritty mud.
He turned the autoshotgun muzzle down and shook it. A plug of mud plopped out of the barrel. Hinging the weapon open, he held the receiver group to the sky, letting the rain wash the mechanism. Then he turned the chamber upward. With his cupped hand, he funneled rainwater into the chamber. Rain poured into the barrel and flowed out the muzzle.
In instants of lightning white, Blancanales watched, smiling. "Not the way to clean a weapon, mister."
"Then pass me your cleaning rod."
"Didn't bring one."
"I suggest you check your own barrel for obstructions."
"Next time you go for a roll in the mud," Blancanales instructed his partner in a whisper, "use a rubber band to secure a bit of cellophane or plastic over the barrel. Trick I learned in the monsoons."
"You got cellophane over the barrel of your two-oh-three?"
In a flash of lightning, he saw Blancanales cleaning mud out of his M-203 grenade launcher.
With a low laugh, Lyons snapped the Atchisson closed. He slipped the shell into the chamber and eased the bolt closed. Slapping in the magazine, he slung the autoshotgun over his shoulder and checked the auto-Colt and Colt Python. He continued his preparation by touch-checking his bandolier of ammunition and the grenades in his pockets.
When they went through the gates of the plantation-fortress, he would need all his firepower. No doubt about it.
Beside him, he heard Blancanales whispering into his hand-radio, "Wizard. Wizard. Political here."
Lyons monitored the transmission on his own radio.
He heard Blancanales's voice. But only snatches of static answered. Blancanales tried key code.
Static-distorted clicks answered. Blancanales keyed out a series of clicks. A series of clicks answered.
"The mountain and the electrical storm are breaking up the signal," Blancanales explained. "But he knows we're okay."
"What happens when we go in?" Lyons asked.
"You suggested this. Don't you have a plan?"
"Haven't had the time to think that far ahead."
Blancanales laughed softly. "Then give it some thought. You're running out of time."
"The radio down there. This is the gang the Wizard monitored, right?"
"So I figure their radio's the same as the black box we found in the jeep. We'll send out a call to Gadgets and the lieutenant. They'll monitor it on the jeep's radio."
"But if it's like the one we captured, it has a coded digital lock."
"Oh, yeah… Ah, I don't know what..."
"Face it, Carl. We'll be on our own. Consider that before you open fire."
"Yeah, yeah. But this ride is our ticket into the plantation. We got the chance to grab Quesada and drag him out."
"Remember what the lieutenant told us. Concentric rings of defenses, electronic security, mines, bodyguards and militia on the inside, army react-units on call. Against two of us."
"All those defenses face out," Lyons said pointedly. "We're going in quiet. If we can take Quesada, they won't know what's happening until it's too late."
"We… shall… see…" Blancanales pronounced.
Taillights flashed ahead. Simultaneously, Lyons and Blancanales went flat, pressing themselves against the bundles of cargo. Brakes squealed.
The bus sounded its airhorn. Soldiers shouted back. Downshifting with a lurch, the bus slowed to a crawl. Lyons looked over the side.
A rush of black water surged against the side of the bus. Branches and forest flotsam struck the sheet metal. The engine revved and the bus tilted upward. The tail-lights lit a wash of rocks and broken concrete.
With a roar of engines, the troop trucks ahead picked up speed. The clouds of diesel soot stank even in the continuing downpour. The bus driver floored the accelerator and slammed through the gears.
Bouncing and shuddering on the flooded road, the bus raced the trucks. Lights appeared to one side. Lyons saw a lantern on the steps of a turquoise cantina. Headlights revealed whitewashed buildings and a narrow street paved with stones.
The bus swerved and accelerated. Lyons pressed himself to the roof and watched with one eye as the bus paralleled the troop trucks.
Quesada's assassins shouted from the bus windows, laughing and jeering at the soldiers. In the backs of the open trucks, with only plastic tarps around their shoulders to shelter them from the storm, the soldiers returned the jeers. Like two competing sports teams, the militiamen and the soldiers cursed one another and urged their drivers faster. The bus passed one truck, then the other.
Headlights illuminated the back of the bus. Belching diesel smoke, the bus pulled ahead of the trucks. The bus shook and rattled as it hurtled downhill. The tires sprayed mud higher than the windows. Careering through curves, the bus left the trucks far behind.
But other taillights appeared. Lyons raised himself to look ahead. In the headlights of the bus, he saw a jeep with M-60 machine guns mounted on pedestals, one in the front seat aiming forward, the other in the back. Four soldiers rode in the jeep.
The jeep's brake lights flashed. The bus slowed. The jeep whipped through a turn, the bus following a moment later. Now the vehicles traveled on a paved road.
Kilometers away, the lights of a small city shimmered through the rain and wind. Lyons heard rumbling and squeaking. He looked back to see the troop trucks pass the turnoff without slowing. He nudged Blancanales to rise.
"Can't be San Francisco Gotera," Blancanales told him. "The town hasn't had electricity for years."
"Ricardo!" Lyons hissed.
The teenager spoke quickly to Blancanales. Blancanales turned to Lyons.
"That's the plantation," he said. "What happened back there on the road?"
"They had a race. That's a jeep up front there. I think it's the army officers. The troop trucks went straight. Going back to the garrison, I guess."
"Like at the farmhouse." Blancanales considered what he had observed. "The soldiers stay in the trucks, the officers work with the militia leaders. Perhaps the officers will be meeting with Quesada."
On the paved road, the jeep and bus maintained a steady hundred kilometers per hour. Only a few minutes after they left the mountain road, they saw the lights of a guard tower. The jeep slowed. Taking a last look, the two men of Able Team saw a sentry open a chain link gate topped with razor wire.
Praying that the guard in the watchtower could not distinguish their forms among the bundles and boxes of gear, Lyons and Blancanales and the teenage Ricardo pressed themselves flat on the roof of the bus. The vehicle slowed to a crawl as it lurched over a series of speed bumps. Voices called out, then the bus accelerated again, following a hundred meters behind the jeep.
They sped through the defenses of the Quesada family. When distance reduced the lights of the watchtower to a smear in the rain, Lyons moved to the edge of the roof. Below, the rain-polished asphalt blurred past at a hundred kilometers per hour.
"Pol! Ready to jump? First chance we get."
Blancanales spoke quickly with Ricardo. The teenager crawled to the edge and looked down. He looked at the two North Americans. "Este es loco…"
"Si, mucho loco," Blancanales answered. "Pero no hay otro cosa a hacer."
Mercury-arc lights on poles lit the road. Chain link and barbed-wire fences flashed past. Beyond the fences, a few lights shone from the shanties of lumber and tar paper that housed the plantation's field workers. Aluminum prefabs sheltered the overseers guarding the campesinos. But none of the miltiamen in the guard posts braved the storm.
On the other side of the road, rows of coffee bushes extended to the distance. Lyons pointed to the coffee fields.
"If you jump now," Blancanales warned him, "with those lights, at this speed, you're dead twice."
"They've got to slow down sometime. First time there's enough darkness to cover us…"
The jeep and the bus continued at a hundred kilometers per hour on the brightly lit service road. Ahead, they saw a cluster of prefab buildings. Lights blazed over an asphalted area crowded with parked trucks and farm equipment.
Lyons cursed. "Slow down! Give us some shadows!" he hissed.
As if the driver had heard, the bus slowed. Lyons braced himself to jump. Blancanales pulled him back, and down.
Two militiamen in yellow raincoats opened the chain link and razor-wire gates to the vehicle yard. The jeep went through the gate. The bus slowed, but too late. It entered the vehicle yard.
The three intruders on the cargo rack went flat. Around them, they saw garages and parked trucks. Sentries paced the asphalt. The hammering of an air ratchet stopped as mechanics watched the returning squad from open-sided service buildings. In the brilliance of thousand-watt lights, nothing in the vehicle yard went unobserved.
As the bus slowed to a stop, men from the death squad stepped out of the passenger door. They called out to the militiamen. The army officers in the jeep drove on to one of the prefabs.
Lyons and Blancanales and Ricardo waited. The militiamen had stowed equipment on the bus roof. The militiamen would unload the equipment.
Flat on their bellies, Lyons and Blancanales unslung their assault weapons. They waited for the sound of boots on the steel rungs of the ladders.