Sometimes you get caught so unprepared that there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. The spotlight was from up the slope and slightly to the side, in the area Rachel was supposed to be watching but far enough off to the side that if she wasn’t scanning through 180 degrees continuously she would have missed them. I should have been clearer in my instructions when I put her on rear guard. I had a bloody Kukri in my right hand, my incapacitated rifle was laying on the ground where I’d left it, and the spotlight was far enough away and bright enough that I couldn’t tell if there was one man or one hundred in the darkness behind it. Dog growled and started to move towards the light but I stopped him with a firm hand on his back. Rachel looked over her shoulder at me, the terror on her face plain to see. I didn’t have a move at the moment and decided to play it cool and bide my time. Bending slowly I wiped the Kukri blade clean on the carpet of leaves, sheathed it and stood back up with my hands held out at my sides and faced the light.
“That was an impressive display,” a voice called out from behind the light and I couldn’t have been more surprised to hear a woman’s voice. I stood mute and noticed Rachel stand up in my peripheral vision.
“Honey, you don’t need that rifle. If we wanted to hurt you we’d have already done that.”
Rachel looked over at me and I nodded for her to keep the rifle pointed at the ground. Apparently satisfied with the situation the speaker stepped into the light and came down the slope to stand in front of us. She was not what I expected. The woman was at least in her mid-fifties and despite being dressed for the forest she didn’t look like she had spent a lot of time outdoors. Middle aged spread had definitely set in, her ass was as wide as my shoulders, and grey hair framed a face set off by gold rimmed glasses. Bright blue eyes studied me in the light. For all the world she looked like what I remembered my 3rd grade teacher looking like.
“If there’s more infected around that light is going to draw them in,” I said, keeping my hands in plain sight. I didn’t know if she had rifles behind the light pointed at us and wasn’t ready to find out the hard way.
“That’s what you call them? Hmmm. Fits, I suppose. Are you really Army?” She asked, a few moments later as she studied my clothing and the Oak Leaf on my chest.
“Yes, ma’am. I am. Major John Chase,” I introduced myself, figuring a little good old fashioned courtesy couldn’t hurt.
“And who’s she?” She asked, looking over at Rachel.
“She is his travelling companion, and her name is Rachel,” Rachel answered, apparently not appreciating being talked about like she wasn’t there.
The woman turned and looked at Rachel, for all the world appearing like she could assess her character just by looking at her. After almost a minute she made a ‘humphing’ sound in her throat, turned her head and called over her shoulder.
“Turn off the light.” A long moment later it shut off and I was as blind as a bat, night vision completely destroyed by several minutes of the light shining in my eyes.
“Thank you,” I said. “Who are you, and what are you doing out here?”
“I think the more pressing question is what are you doing out here?” I couldn’t see her face, but I knew she was still intently watching me. Trusting my gut instincts about this woman I told her an abbreviated version of the truth, starting with the night of the attacks when I was in Atlanta. I debated holding back the part about the ambushers that had forced us into the forest, but if she was mixed up with that group we would likely have already been shot.
“OK, now you know who we are. What about you?”
She started to answer but was cut off before she could speak a word by the scream of a female infected that sounded way too close. My night vision was coming back and I saw the flash of fear wash across her face before she turned and motioned towards where the light had been. Grabbing my rifle off the ground I watched as half a dozen teenagers, two boys and four girls, dashed forward and huddled around her. They were armed with sticks, rocks, a couple of pocket knives and a big ass battery powered spotlight.
Rachel had already raised her rifle and I grabbed mine off the ground. Dropping the magazine I cycled the bolt and ejected the round that had failed to fire. Skills from a day gone by guided my fingers as I quickly separated the lower and upper sections of the rifle, extracted the bolt and checked it by feel. Everything felt as it should. Next I stuck a finger into the chamber and could feel part of a shell casing jammed in there. Apparently the last successfully fired round had come from a shell that was weak and had separated, leaving part of the brass casing stuck in the chamber. It took some force but I got it out, reassembled the rifle and loaded up with a fresh magazine. All of this had taken less than a minute. Again I was thankful for the instructors that had beaten lessons into us, sometimes literally. I had been taught to field strip and assemble rifles while wearing a blindfold. Once I could do that the instructors had added blows to the head, neck and back from a baton during the process. If it took longer than a minute to complete they would start hitting below the waist. It didn’t take long to learn to do it in less than a minute.
Rifle ready I raised it and sighted through the scope, scanning the surrounding terrain. Sprinting along the valley floor and quickly closing on us were three females. They were moving fast, even for the females, and as I watched they hurtled and dodged obstacles like an NFL running back. As I was tracking them another scream sounded from behind us, much too close, and I heard Dog growl and scramble up the slope to meet the infected.
“Rachel?” I asked.
“Got it,” she said, and I kept my attention on the three fast approaching threats.
Behind me there was another scream immediately drowned out by Dog’s snarling and the sound of bodies hitting the ground in a struggle. Dog’s snarling rose in pitch then it was quiet, a moment later his furry head back by my side.
“Good boy,” I muttered, then pulled the trigger and dropped one of the females.
The other two kept coming, not slowing or showing any indication that they cared their sister had just gone down. Tracking, I shot the second one as she leapt over a fallen tree, her body going limp in the air and crashing to the forest floor in a tangle of limbs and coming to rest against the trunk of a massive oak tree. The last female was the fastest and was weaving her way through the trees, now no more than 50 yards away. I waited a moment until she started up the slope to where I was standing then pulled the trigger twice. One round to the heart, one to the head. The body slammed to the ground and lay still.
Raising the rifle back up I scanned left, right, left quickly, didn’t see any threats, and then did a slower scan to make sure I wasn’t missing something. Satisfied for the moment I spun and checked behind me, glad to see Rachel scanning through a full 180 degrees with her scoped rifle, but double checked her. Again, all clear. Letting out a big breath I let the rifle hang on its sling and turned back to the old woman and kids. The kids looked terrified, the boys trying to look tough through their fear. The woman looked like this was something she saw every day. Perhaps she did.
“I’m going to guess the camp down the valley with all the camp fires is yours,” I said.
“Yes, that’s us,” she answered, some of the certainty in her bearing that had been there earlier was now gone.
“Those fires are attracting the infected and they’re also going to bring in the guys that ambushed us earlier.” I didn’t like what I was thinking, but didn’t have much choice.
“Rachel, you and Dog get them to their camp and get those damn fires put out. I’m going for our packs and will meet you there.” I waited for Rachel to nod and took off at a run, back in the direction we had come from. I didn’t like the idea of sending them off alone, but I really didn’t like the idea of losing the extra ammo, food, medical supplies and all the other equipment that was in our packs.
Settling into a fast trot I moved through the forest and for a moment flashed back to running through a dark Central American jungle with Soviet military advisors – read Spetznaz – in hot pursuit. Forcing my attention back to the present I touch checked the readiness of my rifle as I ran. I was making a little noise, but less than most people would have and was able to hear the shambling feet dragging along through dead leaves before I could see the infected. Raising the rifle I spotted the target and shot it without breaking stride, dodging around the body and quickly leaving it behind.
Earlier we had been moving slowly as we tracked the herd and even though we’d spent a lot of time walking we hadn’t gone very far. In less than fifteen minutes I was at the shallow cave and hoisting my pack onto my back. With it in place I lifted Rachel’s and put it on backwards so that it was resting on my chest. Between the two packs I now had almost 180 pounds hanging on my upper body and I had also blocked my access to spare magazines. Oh well, I’d just better be careful. Taking a moment to scan the surrounding forest I didn’t see any threats, but thought I could hear voices in the distance. Standing perfectly still and calming my breathing I listened intently and was sure I could hear something back in the direction of the ambush, but couldn’t tell what I was hearing. Whatever I was hearing almost sounded like chanting, but it was still a long way off and I didn’t have time to worry about it until it became a threat. Turning back towards the direction of the camp I started a slow jog which was all I could manage with this much weight.
Half an hour later I was approaching where I knew the camp had to be. I had killed three more infected males with the Kukri as I jogged down the valley and I was thankful that I hadn’t run into any more females. Coming to a stop I raised the rifle and scanned, finding no threats. Keeping the rifle up across my chest I proceeded, now at a walking pace. After another hundred yards I stopped and scanned again, spotting two more infected males off to my right. They hadn’t detected me and I didn’t want to leave them lose behind me. I moved their way, used a tree to lean on to steady my aim and dropped them both with two quick shots. Another scan and back to a fast walk. Five minutes later I started smelling a recently extinguished fire and knew I was close to the camp. Slowing further I moved into some deeper brush and scanned the forest again. Ahead, probably about 50 yards, a small group of figures huddled in the dark. A dog sat to the side of the group looking off to his side into the forest. Dog smelled me about the same time I spotted him and he came running, tail wagging.
Rachel had the old woman and the kids huddled with their backs against a sheer rock face that soared up into the night. There were two more boys and a girl that hadn’t been with the group when we’d encountered them earlier. Not comfortable staying in the area where the camp had been so visible I told the woman we were moving farther down the valley. Two of the girls started to complain but she shushed them and got everyone on their feet. Putting Rachel and Dog at the back of the group I took point and we moved a slow mile. I had started us off at a good pace but the kids made so much noise in the forest that I had to slow our pace. Towards the front of the group two of the boys were talking to each other and after the first time I gestured for them to be quiet I had to call a halt and get in their faces to get the message across. Finally reaching a smaller valley that branched off to the north and had a small stream trickling through it we followed the water until finding a wide, flat spot on the valley floor that was heavily forested. Moving the group into the thick brush I settled them down with warnings to stay quiet and went to find out their story from the woman.