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The bus had ground into motion now, moving out of the school driveway, slowly turning into the street. It lurched a little and swung wide to avoid the Drive SlowlySchool Zone sign which marked the middle line, and it seemed to straighten with an effort. To Dexter, who was always conscious of mechanics, it was immediately apparent that something was not as usual. He turned his gaze from the window and straightened in his seat, trying to see to the front. Glenn Kirtland's head blocked him, and he pulled himself higher.
"What are you looking at?" asked the girl next to him.
"The driver," Dexter told her shortly.
"Is something the matter with him?"
"He's different. He's not the guy who usually drives us."
"Oh? I hadn't noticed." Now she, too, rose, leaning out into the aisle to gain a better view. "You're right, he is different. A young fellow. Say, he's cute. Look at those shoulders!"
Ignoring the comment, Dexter sank back into his seat.
"I wonder if he's gong to be our regular driver from now on or if he's just a substitute." The girl looked at Dexter inquiringly.
When she received no answer, she flushed a little and looked ahead again.
"He is cute," she murmured, and her friend across the aisle giggled in agreement.
"All that red hair"
"A positive movie star, worth riding the old school bus for."
"Hey," one of the smaller boys near the front of the bus said suddenly. "Hey, mister, you missed our stop! That was it back there at the corner of Rosemont!"
"Sorry, kid, I guess I just overshot it. I'm new on this route." The driver lowered the stop signal on the side of the bus and slowed it to a quivering halt in the middle of the block. "You'll have to walk back to it."
For the first time since the bus had left the schoolyard, general attention was centered upon the driver.
"How about one of you kids sitting up front with me," suggested the driver, "to tell me where the stops are? Somebody who lives at the end of the route and knows where everybody else gets off?"
There was a moment's silence, and then Bruce Kirtland said, "I will. I live at Valley Gardens. That's the last stop."
"That's fine then." The driver had opened the door by now, and the first group of students descended, stretching and grumbling about the short walk back to the bus stop.
The door closed again, and with a grinding of gears, the bus lurched forward.
"He doesn't seem to know much about handling a bus," Glenn remarked in a low voice, regarding the driver with curios eyes.
"He's just a substitute," Marianne reminded him. "Perhaps he hasn't had experience driving one."
"Even substitutes have to have special licenses. They pass tests. You can't pull in just anybody to substitute driving a school bus."
The bus stopped, started, stopped. More students got out. Now there were only five of them left, five and the driver.
We're almost there, thought Jesse. In a few moments they would turn south on the road that led into the Valley Gardens area, down behind the country club.
Valley Gardens, she thought, keeping her eyes on her book, not really reading, but concentrating on the neat white margins in order to keep from having to make conversation with the boy across the aisle who kept staring at her so rudely.
Because her eyes were on the book, she was not the one to notice first that the bus had passed the turnoff. It was Bruce's voice that brought it to her attention.
"Hey we've come too far! Back there is where I told you to turn, back by the sign to the country club. You can pull right through the gates into the Gardens, and we all get off there."
"That's okay." The driver hardly seemed to notice him. I'm taking the long way 'round. I have to stop and pick up a friend of mine."
"Pick somebody up? With the school bus?" Bruce was surprised.
In her own seat Marianne echoed his reaction. "That's funny. Whom would he pick up with the bus? And why? It's not as though it were public transportation or something."
"Well, we'll see in a minute. He's slowing down." Glen leaned past her to gaze out the window with curiosity. "I guess that's the friend he's stopping for. It sure does seem peculiar."
The bus door opened, and a swarthy man in a leather jacket climbed aboard. The door closed quickly behind him, and the bus started up again. The man glanced about the interior of the bus and said to the driver, "Is this all of them?"
"These are the kids from the Gardens area." The driver spoke over his shoulder, his eyes on the road ahead.
"But there are only five. I thought we figured on at least eight." The new passenger spoke with a marked Mexican accent, not unusual in this part of the country. "Only five. Geez, Buck, it's hardly worth the risk of it."
"We'll make it worth it," the driver told him.
The bus turned now and started north, directly away from Valley Gardens. Dexter, who had been staring in bewilderment, came to with a start.
"Hey, you can't do this! Who are you anyway? Where do you think you're taking us?"
The man in the leather jacket was still standing with his back against the door. Now he took a step forward.
"I think you had better move," he said, "behind those other two up there. And you, girl"he nodded to Jesse "you move up with him. I want you all together where I can keep tabs on you."
"What the devil..." Dexter began. And then he saw the pistol.
The bus turned again now, off the highway onto one of the dirt roads that led along the river.
"Where are we going?" Jesse asked numbly.
"Move forward," the man with the jacket told her, and she did so, closing her book carefully first, automatically slipping a bit of paper in to mark her place, too stunned even to attempt to grasp the significance of what was happening.
Perched at the front of the bus, Bruce stared back at them all like a small, startled owl.
"Whatwhat's happening?" he asked shakily. "Glenn, do you understand?"
His brother's handsome face was incredulous. He drew a long breath.
"It looks," he said in a strange flat voice, "as though we are being kidnapped."