The laden trailers slowed them down, which suited Cleve just fine. They stuck to the side of the road, using bike lanes or sidewalks where available. The drivers of the pickups seemed happy to share the road, but nobody wanted to listen to the constant invitations. The late-morning sun was warm, and the four of them worked up a sweat in a hurry. Everyone kept an eye out for other riders, but Tim guessed that between the head start and their load, whoever had passed by Sunlover’s was long gone.
Sara waved them to a stop shortly before Pleasant Hill. “Listen! Is that a dog barking?”
“Sounds like two, maybe more,” Johnny said, hefting his carbine. “Safeties off?”
“Not yet,” Cleve said, peering down the highway, “but let’s move slow enough where we can stop quick. Don’t worry about kickstands, just let the bikes fall over if we have to. Sara, you sure you don’t want a gun?”
“I’d just shoot myself or one of you.” She unhooked the air pump from its mount. “If I have to, I’ll whack ’em on the nose. That might slow ’em down enough for one of you to rescue me.”
They moved slowly, crossing Pleasant Hill behind a few trucks (who treated all major intersections as a four-way stop). The barking grew louder, then they saw movement up ahead. “Safeties off now,” Cleve said, stopping long enough for all of them to comply, and they hurried forward.
Up ahead, a woman faced two large dogs in a church parking lot, backed up against a truck. She had positioned her bike so the two dogs facing her could only come at her from one direction, and she had her air pump in hand. A third dog lay in the road; the occasional thump-thump of a pickup rolling over it suggested the dogs had crossed the highway to attack.
“Back off!” Cleve shouted at the dogs, who turned to face the newcomers; the woman looked up as well. They barked and darted forward, but did not close. Tim waved at the woman to get out of the way; she picked up her bike and slipped around the white pickup, as quiet as possible. One of the dogs turned back to her, but too late — Johnny fired four times as soon as he had a clear shot. Both dogs dropped to the pavement, twitching for a few moments, then lay still. The woman slumped to the pavement behind the truck, and Sara ran to her.
“Are you all right?”
The woman looked up at Sara. She was dark, nearly as dark as Sara herself; she had her long straight black hair pulled back into a tail and tucked into the collar of her shirt. A cap lay on the pavement nearby. “I think so. They didn’t bite me.” Tears ran down the rider’s eyes. “What will you do with me?” There was a lilt to her voice, an accent Sara couldn’t quite place.
“You can come with us, if you like,” Sara said. “We live a ways north of here.”
“This is why we don’t travel alone, and we don’t travel unarmed,” Cleve said, a little winded from running to catch Sara. “I guess you’ve been lucky so far.” Tim and Johnny joined them.
“Lucky? I suppose.”
Sara shook her head at Cleve. “I’m Sara Karsten. This is Johnny Latimer, Tim Petro, and Cleve Isaacs. We live… a little north of here.”
“I’m Rita Diaz. And thank you all for coming when you did.”
Tim asked, “Were you who I saw about an hour ago, riding up the highway?”
Rita nodded. “I was alone. I thought if I couldn’t find other people, I might find a farmhouse somewhere in the country where I could grow my own food. My parents used to tell me about the way they lived in Mexico; I thought if they could do it, perhaps I could too. I stopped at a gas station a ways back to rest and get a few water bottles. If you hadn’t come along… when I saw the dogs, I thought I could get into this church and claim sanctuary, but they came too fast. So perhaps God sent some angels instead?”
Johnny laughed. “We’re no angels, but we’re not bad folks either. We live in a fenced-in subdivision, and some of us are already turning it into a big ol’ lawns-to-gardens project. The trucks are all outside the fence, so I guess that makes it a little slice of Heaven. Shoot… maybe we are angels, then.” He laughed, and Rita joined him.
“May I ask… what are you carrying?”
“Solar panels, control boxes, spools of wire, batteries, all that junk,” Cleve said. “Some of us gotta have our creature comforts, you know.”
“Very resourceful. I should have thought of that myself,” Rita said. “Maybe I didn’t think things through as much as I should have. Being out in the country would make it hard to scavenge while waiting for the harvest.”
“You think we’re resourceful?” Tim laughed. “You haven’t met Cody yet!”
“I’d be glad to learn from him, and the rest of you. If you’ll have me.”
“Sure,” Cleve said. “There ain’t enough of us to worry about crowding, any time soon.”
“Thank you so much,” Rita said. “For saving me, and for taking me in. How far do we have to go?”
“Ten miles, maybe?”
“I’ll try not to slow you down. I’m not used to bicycling everywhere yet. Could we stop by a medical clinic on the way?”
“Why?” Cleve asked. “Are you hurt?” Tim caught Cleve’s suspicious look that said: or are you a druggie?
“No… I want to pick up some supplies. I’m a nurse-practitioner, so I thought it might be useful to have some things around in case they’re needed.”
Nobody said anything for several moments. “Well, you’re an answered prayer, then,” Tim said. “You sure you’re not the angel?”
to be continued…