We lapsed into silence. I was scared I said too much, but Ritch was focused on driving. We left the freeway a few miles back the way we’d come, but now we were heading into hills. I folded up the map and tucked it between the seats.
I rolled down the window and leaned back in my seat. The air was scented with sunshine, warm dirt, and the scent of living things. It relaxed me. We turned off the main road and gravel crunched under the tires. Ritch dropped back so we could avoid the cloud of dust coming from Christian’s SUV.
“How much farther?” Ritch asked.
“Well, the elevation map showed this peak going up a few hundred feet. I’m not sure where we’re going to camp, but I’m sure there’s plenty of spots around here.”
“Good thing we brought camping gear.” Ritch maneuvered the car around a few deep potholes. “It’s been a while, but I used to camp all the time.”
“Me too. My usual campsites are basically bare bones, but we brought along more in terms of luxury than what I usually carry, since we have the cars. If we have to hike out, that might change.”
Ritch shrugged. “I can handle it, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I’m sure you know how to make do.” That didn’t mean I didn’t feel the urge to make sure he didn’t have to. After this was over, and I had all the determination in the world we were going to stop these bastards, I was going to make sure Ritch’s life was nothing but easy. “Looks like Christian might have found a spot.”
We followed him off the primitive road and onto something that could barely be called a track. Our car threatened to bottom out several times, but we were finally behind the screen of trees that lined the road.
Everyone got out and stretched. We’d had an early start, halfway through the night, and we’d been traveling long enough to be stiff and tired of being cooped up. “Let’s set up camp before we start making plans.”
My individual tent was quick to pop up, but Ritch wouldn’t let me do it. Ritch didn’t have any trouble putting his up either. Our sleeping bags and packs fit inside snugly. We had a few camp stools, which I put in the center of our clearing. Even without discussing it, the tents created a ring. A fire would be too risky, and the smoke would cling to us and our gear, but I’d packed a camp stove that I placed on some flat rocks I laid side-by-side.
“What are you setting up?” I asked Landon. The eagle had a small table filled with electronics.
“GPS. I have tags for everyone so I can track the teams. Coms.” He pointed at a small plastic container. “They send and receive. I’m also going to set up my laptop with a mobile hot spot so I can get to work hacking the DMV. We need to know more about that car.” His talons clacked against the keys of his laptop.
I put a hand on his shoulder, surprised as always by the bulk of his muscles since he looked so lean. “Good.”
The rest of the group centered around the camp stove. I straddled my stool. “We don’t have much to do today. I want everyone to get some rest after last night. I’m still healing. Landon is going to track down as much information as possible, and then Christian and Ritch will head back toward town and see what they can find out from the locals. Keep it subtle,” I warned them.
“The rest of us will make sure our gear is ready. Weapons, communications, an exit plan. It all needs to be ready. We’re either going to have to hike out from this area or, if we’re lucky, we might be able to drive closer to cut miles off our travel time.”
“What about me?” The wolf pointed at his nose. “This is what I’m here for.”
“You’ll get your chance. Once we have a general idea of the area, we’re going to have to pinpoint the exact location. That will require your tracking.” I gestured toward him and the panther. “Both of yours.”
“We’re going to need your strength and size,” I said to the bear and buffalo. “And their speed.” I gestured toward the gator and horse. “Everyone has a role, and we’re going to have to work together. Right now, I think we should rest. Take some time to yourself if you need some privacy, but don’t wander too far. Staying in pairs still applies, make sure you’re armed if you go outside of camp, and no fighting.” I spread a warning glare over everyone equally.
I could see the others giving Ritch some looks. I suppressed a growl. “Want to go for a walk?” I asked him.
The air was cool, and Ritch shivered. “Not used to the cold?”
He shook his head. “The herd stuck to the lowlands even if we had some decent hills on the southern edge of our territory, and the alpha’s streak didn’t travel outside their territory. I like it up here.” Birds chirped and something skittered up a tree. Somewhere close, a woodpecker pounded holes into the bark looking for food.
“Well, when we get back I’ll take you out on patrol with me.”
Ritch shoved his hands in his pockets. “Really?” He looked down at the ground. “I sorta thought, when all this was over… I’d just be given a menial job somewhere so I could find my own place, get out of your hair.”
I stopped him. “Have you been worrying about that?” I cursed. I’d tried to keep my feelings quiet to help reassure him, but he was still afraid of his future. He needed something solid.
More next week! Meanwhile, enjoy these other updates.