CHAPTER 20 – Pursuit
NORTH OF MUIR BEACH
Emmie grabbed Erin’s hand still gripping the door and hauled her into the back seat. The door slammed closed as the car shot forward in a surge of acceleration. In his mirrors, Jason could catch only glimpses of the road behind and the two-tone Bronco coming up fast now less than a quarter of a mile away.
Back and forth the swaying car swung with Jason fighting to hold it on the road. As they skidded around curves and fishtailed on short straight-aways, the rough sandstone and granite cliffs flashed past the side windows with only inches to spare. The left side wheels threw stones and dust up from the roadside berm whenever they careened around a right turn and where the downward tilted land on the left with its sweeping view of the ocean far below seemed to draw him ever toward the edge like a bottomless gravity well.
They rounded a hill in a tight, sweeping curve and looked down on Bolinas Bay. A two-mile-long strip of beach curved away westward. The winding road traversing the steep hillsides didn’t reach beach level until it entered the town of Stinson Beach half a mile past the southern end of the beach. North of the town and enclosed by the strip of town-covered beach lay Bolinas Lagoon, whose narrow inlet crossed the beach at the north end. Beyond that, wooded hills mounded up inland and swept seaward to a point of land another mile past the north end of the beach.
The first impression of normality evaporated with their descent to the town. Long before they reached level ground, the general state of chaos and desolation in the beach town became apparent. Black remains of trees bordered shells of gutted houses. Like headstones in a graveyard, the few buildings still standing protruded here and there from powdery ash swirling on soft eddies of sea breeze. The place could have evoked memories of some winter wonderland if not for the few survivors roaming amid the devastation like aimless zombies.
Jason fought to negotiate through and around the rubble littering the street. Ash, dust, and debris flew into the air from impacts of his spinning wheels.
Accompanying a distant boom and a loud peppering of something against the car’s body, the rear window suddenly spider-webbed around a pencil-sized hole as a matching hole appeared in the center of the windshield.
Nate spun around to check the nearness of the Bronco as Jason swerved the car back and forth a couple of times. After they slid around a pair of cars all but blocking an intersection, Nate said, “That was buckshot, but it was scattered. They’re too far back for a shotgun unless they get lucky.”
“Too much stuff on the road, and I don’t know the way.” Jason whipped the wheel over then back to slip the car past the crumbling remains of a wall that had collapsed into the street. He continued, “If I stack it up, they’ll be on us before anyone can even get clear.”
Nate ducked down at the sound of another load of buckshot striking the car, but none hit a window. He glanced out the rear window and saw the Bronco smash through a pile of rubble half a block back.
Erin and Emmie hunched down low in the back seat with their arms wrapped about each other.
Nate turned his concentration back to the road ahead. He said, “Okay, we’re just about out of town. The road isn’t straight, but almost. Ignore any roads going left; just keep bearing right. It’ll be level for a time, but it snakes back and forth along the shoreline of the lagoon over there on your left. There shouldn’t be any building wreckage out there; it’s just open road. The next...”
Nate kept Jason apprised of the upcoming terrain and the course of the road through dense groves of trees, up winding hillsides in double curving switchbacks, down long straight-aways with murderous, hidden curves waiting at the ends for the unwary. More than once they had to cut it even sharper in order to miss a wreck that hadn’t made it. And, all the while, the Bronco hung on their tail like the Grim Reaper reaching to touch them with its shadow.
They passed through beautifully wooded countryside with thick forests of pines and cedars and redwoods. Tall eucalyptus trees lined sections of the road. Oaks and willows accented luscious meadows of tall grass and bubbling brooks. They hardly noticed. They passed red barns and whitewashed fences with clean-limbed horses in corrals and pastures, ivy and rose-covered homes among huge elms. It was enough to make Jason wonder if those places had, indeed, escaped the holocaust, or if they were all merely a mirage of a not-so-distant past. A glance in the mirror showing the cracked and holed rear window and the black Bronco with the white top careening around a curve too close behind was enough to assure him that the dream—the nightmare—was real.
Jason was becoming accustomed to the handling characteristics of the car and settled down to put some distance between them and the Bronco. With Nate’s navigational help, he anticipated curves just over the crests of small hills and several unexpected tight turns after long straight-aways. Mostly, the road was straight and in good repair. Other than the few tight curves, both vehicles seldom dropped below eighty, and occasionally hit ninety and a hundred. Occasional single and multi-car wrecks gave them brief scares, but they so brief with the speed with which they passed, they hardly noticed. By the time they reached the little town of Point Reyes, fifteen miles up the coast from Stinson Beach, the Bronco had fallen a quarter mile behind.
Jason muttered, “Now if I can just find an alley to duck into or something to hide behind....”
They came to the first street in the town, a road to the left, five-hundred feet after crossing Lagunitas Creek. However, a semi-truck and trailer sitting crossways blocked the road shoulder to shoulder—an obvious deliberate blockage that had taken a bit of maneuvering to get it into such a position. Several buildings blocked the view of what lay beyond either side at the next intersection, but straight ahead appeared to end after a block, and he couldn’t see what the one to the right did, but it didn’t look like much more than a wide driveway. A sign pointed left for the highway’s route.
He whipped the wheel hard left to broadside around the corner and looked straight down the middle of a typical small town main street. But even discounting the oddity of no traffic on the road or people on the sidewalks, it was clear that Armageddon had found its way here, too. A makeshift barricade stretched across the road a hundred feet ahead. Four men stood behind it, and each one held a rifle. One of them held a hand towards the careening car. As the car barreled closer to the blockade, the waves of the man’s hands gained desperation and speed. At the same time, the other men raised their weapons to their shoulders.
Erin screamed, and Nate swore and slammed his hands against the dash to brace for the impending crash.
Jason ground his teeth, the muscles pulsing below his temples, and his mind sped through possibilities. The men at the barrier might be reasonable if he could speak to them and explain their plight. Or they might not. They may be men desperate to protect their homes and families from invaders, whoever those invaders may be or in whatever manner of travel they may come. If Jason could take the time to approach them slowly and let them see that he and his companions were merely refugees seeking safety, those men might open their doors and their hearts to them. But with Vince barreling in on them—the Bronco would be rounding the corner at any moment—there was only one choice.
Jason eyed the barrier for a almost two seconds. Along with some two-by-fours and other boards, a heavy looking, ornately carved, wooden door stood on its side between two fifty-five-gallon drums on one side and a stack of several bales of hay on the other. With hopes that nothing too unyielding hid behind it, he stomped his foot on the gas pedal again and whipped the wheel around until the hood ornament lined up with the center of the door.
The men standing sentry tossed their guns aside and dove after them.
The front bumper smashed into the horizontal door, just brushing the nearest drum, which spun away like an off-balance, kid’s top, and strands of hay flew from toppling bales on the other side. The door slammed down flat on the ground, and the wheels clattered over it. With just a couple of swishing fishtails, Jason got the car under control and sped away.
There was a crack of a single rifle shot in answer to the thud against the outside of the car and the whine of a ricochet.
Jason glanced into the rear-view mirror as the men at the barricade recovered themselves. One of them was in a firing position on one knee, but his rifle drooped from his shoulder as the shooter watched his target diminishing in the distance. The others still scrambled around after their discarded weapons.
As they approached the turn at the end of the three-block-long business district where a sign pointed to the right for Highway 1, Jason glanced in his mirror. The Bronco had burst through the all but destroyed barricade and was fishtailing away from it amid a fusillade of lead. Whoever was driving had the rear wheels smoking and the back end swaying until it careened off the roadway and slammed into the front of the post office. He hoped it was enough to take them out of the chase, but the continuing gunfire that included the boom of a shotgun indicated that Vince and his army were at least still able to put up a fight. Jason cranked the wheel and fought the car around the corner and onto the road heading toward the other end of town.
Less than half a mile up the road Jason spotted a highway sign at a fast approaching “Y” intersection that declared the northbound route of Highway 1 went left while a right turn led to Petaluma.
If only… Jason though.
But before he could make to the turn to Petaluma and get out of view from behind, Nate yelled, “Here they come! Hit it!”
But as soon as they made the turn they faced another barricade a hundred yards up that road. This time the armed sentries, two of them, were on their side of the barrier which face out of town, and they must have heard them coming after all the gunshots in town, because they were waiting with weapons brought up to ready. One of them held what looked like a walky-talky to his ear. If he was getting a report of cars bursting through the other barricade, it was doubtful they would just wave them on through.
The barricade utilized stacked bales of hay, on both ends this time, but the middle was a jumble of rusty iron that appeared to be a mixture of ancient farm tractors and plows. He wasn’t going to go bursting through it, not and keep going on the other side. It was set up in the middle of a wide curve to the left and stretched from near the left edge of the pavement to the right edge. Beyond the right edge was a wide shoulder pull-out, but that was where they had their own vehicle, a big, flatbed farm truck parked crossways and completing the blockage.
With mere seconds to evaluate the situation, and as the unbreachable barrier loomed ever closer, he made his decision. With hopes that the sentries weren’t going to open up on them, Jason continued to hold the gas pedal to the floor as he swerved left. The ground beyond the road edge sloped ten feet upward to a fence, a slope of maybe thirty degrees. It appeared to be fairly smooth beneath knee-high grass, but it could as easily be a bed of bowling ball-size rocks. Aiming for the space just above the last hay bales, he cranked the wheel hard right as the front wheels slammed into the hill and tilted the car like a banking airplane. Before anyone even had a chance to scream, the front end slammed back onto pavement, and the rear end was digging for traction through the grass. By the second bounce, they were accelerating away.
The sentries didn’t bother shooting at them, probably since they were leaving town, not arriving. Plus, apparently, from the way they both turned with rifles raised to face the other direction, they probably heard the Bronco coming. Maybe what they heard on their walky-talky had to do more with the havoc the Bronco had wrought.
Jason pushed it as far as the first curve another half a mile out, but then backed off half way through it when a heavy clunking came from somewhere up front.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Nate said, cringing. “How’s it feel?”
With both hands on the wheel showing white knuckles, Jason answered, “Not sure…kinda wobbly. I’d say something broke, but I think it’s still good to go.”
At the sound of several distant gunshots, they all ducked, and everyone but Jason spun to look back out the rear window.
“Don’t see ’em,” Nate said. “I’d say that was Vince discussing things back at the barricade.”
Gunfire from a variety of guns echoed across the surrounding hills.
Nate said, “And that could mean they got through, or they didn’t. Better push it as much as you can.”
The road went up a winding, narrow valley with a tree-shrouded brook running along the right side. Soon, hills rose up on both sides, and there were no side roads. The valley soon closed in to form a canyon the creek continued to carve in its timeless passage. The road was far from straight, but the curves weren’t too severe. Jason held the speed down, especially on the curves, but the ominous clunking hadn’t repeated. He was beginning to think it had just been a rock they had picked up when they climbed halfway up the hillside beside the barricade, and it had dislodged, banging on something on its way out. Still, he took it as easy as he dared with the threat behind them probably still there.
After a tense three miles, the road leveled and straightened out even more as it skirted the north shore of Lake Nicasio. Past the lake, the road began a gentle, mile long climb up the next hill.
Half a mile past the lake Emmie, who was looking back at the reflection of sky on the water, suddenly stiffened and said in a shaky voice, “I think I see ’em.”
Erin and Nate both spun to look. It was Erin that confirmed it, that Vince must have somehow talked, forced, or shot his way through the barricade. Even at that distance, there was no mistaking the black and white boxy Bronco barreling toward them.
Jason pushed their speed well beyond sanity, but with no other choice, he merely clinched his jaws and his grip on the wheel. In the second curve as they wended through the woody summit a familiar clunk caused him to jerk his foot off the gas pedal, but only for a moment. They didn’t have the luxury to slow down. Even if they smashed into a tree, it was no worse than what would happen if Vince caught them.
Down the other side they flew, the front end occasionally trying to head off in another direction as they wound through a grassy vale between forested hillsides that widened out into a pastoral valley. By the time they had covered the three miles to where the road rose for the next hill, Jason had pushed the speed up to near ninety. The long, straight but steep incline had little effect in reducing the speed against the powerful V-8 and the car’s momentum.
As they neared the crest and spotted a fast approaching 35 MPH sign, Nate thrust his hand out to the dash and shouted, “Slow down!”
Without questioning, Jason started pumping the brake pedal, hard, but not enough to lock up the wheels. The car seemed to float as it sailed over the top and settled slowly back to the asphalt, and Jason soon saw the reason for Nate’s sudden panic. The road went down the other side in a constant series of tighter and tighter S-turns. The hill fell away on the right side to a deep, wooded, narrow valley. After they had swept around the first couple of curves to the sounds of heavy clunking from underneath the front end of the car, they could look down onto the picture-postcard view of a white fenced ranch far below.
Jason’s hopes that Vince might not slow down were dashed when he remembered Vince had grown up in these parts and had, no doubt, traveled this back way into Petaluma many times. Half a mile back, the Bronco crested the hill at an even slower speed than Jason had managed.
The next half a mile was as hair-raising as any portion of the pursuit up to that point, and worse than most. With the ability to steer the damaged car often reduced to somewhere between an educated guess and wishful thinking, the precipitous drop on the right side was, by far, the greater danger until they made the final, tire-squealing, clunk-causing, car-leaning curve onto a more sensible grade through hilly and wooded pastureland. Jason risked taking his eyes off the road ahead to check his mirror for the Bronco, and the field of view was empty of all but summer golden fields and stately valley oaks. Then the hateful, two-toned shape appeared from beyond the curve, and the chase continued.
The punishing descent on the winding road must have worsened the damage to the front suspension or steering because it was noticeably harder to keep the car going in a straight line—or to turn to a new course of his choosing—and the clunking was more frequent and louder. Forced to back off their speed even as Vince amped up his own. When the Bronco drew within a couple hundred feet, the gunshots began again. At least the swerving of the car made it a hard target.
Twice, the Bronco made a move to power past, during which they would be both easy targets and easily pushed off the road, but Jason countered by swerving into them to the grinding sound of crumpling fenders. It looked like it going to be a contest of which vehicle fell apart first. He didn’t have a lot of faith that the old sedan would stand up well against the SUV.
The rear window had gone early with two blasts from the shotgun. Fortunately, even at the closer range, the buckshot couldn’t penetrate the car’s body at the high angle presented, so all they had to do was stay crouching below the windows. Unfortunately, Jason couldn’t.
As the chase entered a long, sweeping curve to the right, the Bronco made its move. First, it made the cut around the right side of the sedan on the inside of the curve. While lined up with the car’s interior though the missing rear window, the shotgun fired a tight spread of shot. The blast wiped out the left half of the windshield, and it felt like a hot branding iron when one of the pellets ripped through Jason’s right ear lobe. He flinched and ducked left, whipping the wheel with him just as the Bronco swerved to go around him on the outside of the curve. Jason heard a hard clunk as the same time he felt a heavy thud through the floor. Before he could conjure up images of the car falling apart beneath him, the sedan’s left rear slammed the Bronco’s right front with enough force to push the Bronco off the edge of the road.
The verge on the outside of the curving road was a narrow belt of sloped ground overgrown with a variety of knee-high weeds, pretty much the same as where Jason had banked around the second barricade when leaving Point Reyes. The surface beneath the weeds was mostly rough-smooth—except for a single granite boulder protruding almost two feet above the ground.
The front of the Bronco grazed the granite as it went over, but from there on it was pure destruction. The impact of the front bumper lifted the front of the Bronco up just enough to clear the front of the frame beneath the radiator, but when it came down, it was the oil pan that landed on the boulder. The Bronco was still moving forward with sufficient force that the immovable spur of exposed granite bedrock ripped out pretty much everything from there on back. The Bronco bounced back down to the road and came to a rest, its engine stopped and beginning to tick-tick as it cooled while hot oil spread across the asphalt beneath it.
The sedan continued to make horrendous clunking sounds as it barreled on out of that curve and into the next. Jason fought to hold the careening car on the pavement, resisting the urge to check on the Bronco in his mirrors lest a moment’s inattention to the car brought disaster.
Then, “Daddy! Look! They’re stopping!”
Jason couldn’t help but glance up at the mirror, even if it was for only an instant. Just before they lost sight of the Bronco when they went around the next curve, he saw the thing at an angle in the road and rocking to a stop.
“Hot damn!” Nate said. “Must have broke more than we did. That one wouldn’t just give up.”
“Whatever the reason, I’ll take it,” Jason said. “I don’t think we’ve got many more miles ahead of us either.” He pointed to the gas gauge and continued. “Besides falling apart, we’ve been on empty for awhile, now. We’ve gotta be running on fumes.” Another series of clunks hit so heavily they could feel it through the floor.
“Fumes and a prayer!” Erin quipped, elated that they were, again, leaving Vince behind.
As he began to ease off on the gas, Jason said, “We’ll keep going as long as we can. I’d like to have a couple of states between us and them, but I’ll settle for a couple of hills.”
“We’re about out of hills. Petaluma is just another curve away,” Nate said. “It should be about over this next rise.”
“Yeah, I recognize it.” Jason said. “I’ve been out this way a couple of times. It’s far enough out of the bay area, maybe the place is still in one piece.”
With his knuckles turning white on the steering wheel and his foot still jammed down on the now useless gas pedal, Vince watched the car disappear around the next curve. He hunched over the wheel, not speaking.
His roiling mind flashed images of Vic and his dying, of the bitch and her helpers killing him, murdering him, strangling him slowly so his suffering went on and on. Now they were getting away, possibly forever, and all he could do was sit and watch Vic’s murderers go. His jaw muscles knotted and bunched in mock cadence with the tic-tic-tic of the cooling engine.
Carl knew Vince well enough to know better than to say anything at his moment of failure. But Cappy White didn’t have that advantage. Caught up in the excitement of the chase, he allowed himself to assume the familiarity with his companions that a common goal lost to adversity would normally bring. “Ah, shit, Vince!” he said with a friendly slap to his leader’s back. “You lost ’em!”
When the words of the remark sunk in on Carl, he looked back at White in disbelief. Logan also appeared shocked by the naïve impudence of his friend, but he said nothing. In fact, his full attention was suddenly captured by something of great significance, even though it did seem to be invisible, in the grassy field outside his window.
Carl searched White’s face for some indication that the man realized the seriousness of his indiscretion. White had been sitting forward on the rear seat, tightly gripping the back of the driver’s seat like the rider of a roller coaster. The sparkle in his eyes gradually faded as he loosened his grip and allowed his suddenly drained body to fall back into his own seat. But the grin on his face remained as broad as before.
Carl noticed Vince’s eyes when his old friend turned to face the back seat, but he was unable to interpret what he saw. It could have been sadness, or hate, or mild irritation. Carl suspected it was something else, something beyond sanity.
Vince’s arm reached towards White, his hand, palm up, curled the fingers in a come-hither gesture. White watched the hand’s movement with eyes opened wide, held by the gently waving extremities like an oblivious rabbit mesmerized by the captivating glare of a python. Enlightenment appeared to creep into his mind and his grin faded away as the skin of his face tightened in a rigid grip. The hand summoned again, and he obeyed.
He leaned forward just the few inches that it took for him to come within reach. Vince’s hand shot out and clamped around White’s pulsating throat; the fingertips curled inwards like the talons of a great bird of prey and bit deeply into the flesh on either side of his windpipe. With muscles powered by insane rage, Vince’s hand crushed the fragile structure and continued to squeeze.
Silently, Rachel closed her eyes and cupped her hands over her ears to shield her senses from the spectacle of a man being murdered only a couple of feet away.
Mandy continued to stare straight ahead out the windshield.
Logan closely followed the progress of a caterpillar nearing the end of a broken branch of a bush not far from his window. It required a lot of concentration to ignore his dying friend’s thrashing arms and legs slamming against his own side and back.
Vince held his grip until White’s limp body sagged, then he threw it against Logan and growled, “Get rid of this.”
Logan sat up and swung open the door against which he had hunkered. He scrambled out and dragged White’s body after him. He dragged it over to the ditch next to the shoulder and let it roll and slide into the trickle of water at the bottom. He had known old Cappy since moving in next-door eight years ago, and they had become friends. Now, he left his friend in a coverless grave without so much as a pause for a silent farewell. Cappy was beyond caring, so why take a chance on angering Vince further? He turned and joined the others gathering at the side of the Bronco.
As Vince buckled the collar with the chain about Rachel’s neck he was telling Carl, “...evenly between us. I’ll carry the machete, the Python and White’s pistol. You keep the shotgun. Divide up the rest. We’ll walk until we catch them. All right, now, everyone keep up.”
PART III – HOPE OF REFUGE