“How did you wind up here?” I asked in a quiet voice. Rachel was seated on the other side of Betty listening to the story. The kids had formed up into a tight group and huddled a few feet away from us. Dog had found nine new friends and was soaking up the petting and attention he was getting from them. Watching them I was reminded of a news story I had once read about pets being used to help kids deal with post traumatic shock. It certainly looked like Dog was a welcome addition.
“We drove for a few hours. Those crazy women just kept attacking the bus and the men just stood in the road. I had to run so many of them over because they won’t move. I tried to get to the interstate but we got trapped in a gridlock of wrecked and abandoned cars. We waited for two days for the police or the Army, or anyone to come help us. When no one showed up and there weren’t any of those things prowling around we finally left the bus and started walking. My family is from around here and when we came to Wallace Creek I knew where we were and we left the road and started cutting through the country.”
“You and these kids have been on foot for two weeks?” Rachel asked in surprise.
“That’s right, sweetie.” Betty looked at her and smiled. “Like I said, my family is from around here and I know the area, but I also grew up a tom boy and I know how to live in the woods. This is Tennessee after all, not Atlanta.”
“But what have you been eating?” Rachel was amazed. I was kind of proud of the old woman. Again I was reminded never to judge a book by its cover.
“Darling, if you know where to look there’s plenty of food in these woods. Maybe not McDonalds, but a body can do just fine on roots and berries, and trapping squirrel and rabbit sure ain’t rocket science. Kind of good for me, actually. I think I’ve lost some weight.” Betty said the last with a chuckle as she patted her ample hips.
“What were you doing away from your camp when you found us?” I asked, taking a moment to raise the rifle and scan the woods.
“We heard the gunfire and thought maybe it was the police or the Army. Well, I guess it was the Army since it was you we heard.” It was too dark to see, but I imagined there was a twinkle in her eye when she said this. “Gotta be careful. Letting an old woman and a bunch of kids get the drop on you like that.”
I grinned, both in embarrassment and agreement.
“One thing about that,” I said, my tone gentle. “You’re very fortunate my rifle was out of commission. If it had been in my hands I would likely have opened up on that spotlight.”
“Don’t you think I knew that, young man?” Betty softened the rebuke by reaching out and patting my forearm.
Properly chastised I sat back and thought about our next move. Now that I had gotten involved I couldn’t just walk away from Betty and her kids, but at the same time I was really feeling the internal pressure to get to Arizona and find Katie. It would be nice if I could get them to Nashville and be on my way, but after the recent additional outbreaks I didn’t know if Nashville was still a safe place. There was also the massive herd of infected moving towards the area that Max had talked about on the radio and I no longer had much confidence that the Army was in any shape to hold them at the border. The other option, dragging them along with me all the way to Arizona was not one I was willing to entertain.
“Betty, how far are we from Nashville?” I asked, raising the rifle and scanning the surrounding woods again.
She thought for a minute before answering, “If we follow the creek north it will take us up to Murfreesboro, then it’s just a few miles up 24 to get into Nashville. What are you thinking?”
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “I’m trying like hell to get to Arizona to find my wife, but I’m also not going to go off and leave you and these kids to fend for yourselves. I want to see all of you to safety and getting you out of these woods and at least as far as Murfreesboro is what I need to do.”
“Young man, we’ve survived for two weeks in ‘these woods’ and have been just fine. We don’t need your help.” I could tell by the tone of her voice that I had offended her. Time for some stark reality and a little diplomacy.
“Betty, no offense, but how many infected have you had to fight off? What about other survivors? There’s been a second outbreak and things are pretty bad and headed to worse. You’ve done an absolutely amazing job of keeping these kids safe up to now, but things are getting worse and like it or not, if you want to continue keeping these kids safe you need my, our, help.”
Betty was quiet for a long time, digesting my words. “We haven’t had to fight any of the infected, and you’re the first survivors that we’ve come across.”
Rachel reached out and took Betty’s hand in hers and started talking, relaying first the story of the men who had tried to ambush us at the outfitter store we’d raided in Atlanta, then moving on to her abduction aboard the cabin cruiser. While Rachel talked I stood and moved a few yards out into the brush to do another check of the area. I was on my second slow scan when movement caught my attention. Focusing on the area I was able to see what looked to be at least 20 figures moving up the smaller valley, following our path. There was one figure out in front, the remainder bunched up together behind it, and they only moved when it moved. These weren’t infected. These were men following a tracker who was on our trail. Holy hell couldn’t we catch a break? I moved quickly and quietly back to the area where everyone was sitting and called Dog to me with a soft pat on my leg. He jumped to his feet and trotted over, staying at my side as I moved. Betty was hugging Rachel when I walked up to them but I didn’t have time to be sensitive to the moment.
“We’ve got trouble,” I said, interrupting them. Rachel wiped her eyes and got on her feet, then helped Betty rise as well.
“We’ve got about 20 men coming up the valley, following our trail. I suspect they’re part of the group that ambushed Rachel and I, looking for some payback. Betty, get the kids on their feet and make sure they are absolutely quiet. No talking. Rachel, stay with them and get them moving farther up the valley. I’m going to set up some surprises for our guests then I’ll catch up.”
Each of the women nodded and I shouldered my pack and trotted off towards the approaching group, Dog on my heels. I stopped and told him to stay with Rachel, pointing back the way we had come from. If he was human he would have complained as he turned around and ran off to find her. I did a quick check through the rifle scope and saw that the group had covered very little ground and estimated I still had almost ten minutes before they reached me. Moving further towards them I was careful to control my noise. Fifty yards closer to them I stopped, knelt and dug through my pack. Supplies in hand I left the pack on the ground and started working quickly.
Less than five minutes later I was done, grabbed the pack and moved into the brush and climbed the slope away from the valley floor. Finding a spot I was happy with I placed the pack on the ground and lay on my belly, using the pack as a rifle rest and sighted in on the area of the valley floor where I had set up a little surprise for our pursuers. I had taken advantage of their lack of tactical knowledge which was evident by the way they bunched up when they moved. I had picked two trees on either side of the trail, about 20 feet apart and fairly well obscured by vines. On the side of each trunk facing the trail I had duct taped three fragmentation grenades about four feet up from the ground. Straightening out each grenade’s pin so it would pull easily I had linked all of the pins together with a thin, black nylon cord. The cord stretched around a couple of anchoring sticks I had jammed into the ground and was taut across the path at about six inches of height and 30 feet farther down the path from where the grenades were waiting. My plan was that as the tracker moved down the path he would walk into the trip wire which would then pull all six pins. With the bulk of the group nicely bunched up about thirty to forty feet behind him the grenades should do some nasty damage.
Grenades were not ideal for this type of trap. Once the pins pulled there was a five second delay in the fuse before they detonated. Five seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but if the tracker realizes what he just walked into when he trips the wire and warns the group, it’s enough time for many of them to get to a safe distance. Ideally I’d have seriously considered giving up my left nut for a couple of Claymore mines to use in my trap. A Claymore is packed with C4 and 700 steel ball bearings that will absolutely shred anything in the blast zone of 50 meters. And Claymores don’t have time delay fuses. Oh well. Once again I reminded myself of the old adage that you fight with what you have.
I was settled into the rifle stock and watching through the scope when the tracker approached the trip wire I had set up. Behind him about 25 feet were 19 men, all armed, and though they were bunched up the narrow path forced them into a formation only two bodies wide so they stretched back another 20 feet. Perfect, as long as the tracker didn’t warn them in time for them to scatter to safety. Slowly the tracker advanced, walking with his head down, occasionally pausing to reach down and touch the path. How was he seeing the ground well enough to track us? That thought hadn’t even gone through my head until now, and as I peered through the scope I could make out the IR flashlight and goggles he was using. Shit! Would he spot the black cord before tripping it with his feet? I now regretted having set up a trip wire rather than running a line up to my location so I could pull the pins at precisely the right moment.
Scanning the group I was glad to see that all of their attention was on the tracker. They weren’t paying any attention to the environment around them and I could probably have been standing on the edge of the trail and they wouldn’t have noticed me if the tracker didn’t point me out. That was fine. I shifted my aim back to the tracker and saw him pause by the two trees where I had taped the grenades. I had intentionally not pushed into the brush at this point, not wanting to leave a trace that could be detected, but something had caught his attention at the edge of the path. Bending down he touched the ground, looked off to the side directly at one of the grenade clusters for a moment, but apparently didn’t spot them as he finally resumed moving forward. I let out a long breath that I hadn’t realized I was holding.
A long minute later he was at the point where I’d strung the trip wire across the path. I quickly checked and the group following him was nicely centered on the two trees. Back to the tracker I watched him stop and hold up a fist. The group stopped, but not after bunching up a little tighter. I felt a small thrill of exhilaration. It looked like my trap was going to work. A moment later I was dismayed to see the tracker drop to one knee and closely examine the trip wire, then turn his head first to the right then left to see where it went. Making a snap decision I sighted on his head, exhaled and pulled the trigger. He was on his knees and leaning forward over the line to look at it and my bullet struck his left temple and blew out the right side of his head, the plume of blood and brains visible in the night vision scope. The body collapsed instantly, falling onto the trip wire. I couldn’t tell if the pressure on the line that pushed it down six inches to the ground was enough to pull the grenade pins. I’d find out in five seconds.
Moving my aim back to the group I saw them tense up and all start trying to move at the same time as they reacted to their tracker going down. Fortunately for me they were standing so close together that all they initially succeeded in doing was to bump into each other as there was no coordinated direction of movement. One guy at the very back had the right idea and turned to run, but I dropped him in his tracks with a well-placed shot. Quickly shifting back to the front of the group I shot the lead man, then pulled the trigger on another as my mental count reached five. A heartbeat later a ripple of explosions tore through the forest where they were still standing and I lost sight of all of them from the dust and debris that six grenades blasted into the air. Both trees were blown in half at the point where the grenades had been attached and toppled to the forest floor, throwing more dust and debris into the air.
Before the dust cleared I started hearing the screams of the wounded. I’ve known guys that couldn’t handle hearing those screams, finally opting out of the military to get away from them, but they were music to my ears. Hearing the screams of your enemy means you’re still alive and have inflicted more damage than you’ve taken. Hopefully. Unless you’re hurt too bad to scream. I kept watching through the scope but there was no breeze in the valley and it was taking a long time for the dust to settle. Movement at the back of the dust cloud drew my attention as two men supporting each other made a break back down the path. I shot both of them before they made it ten yards.
Finally the dust started to thin and I was able to make out the carnage I had wrought. Bodies and parts of bodies were scattered along the path. In one of those scenes from battle that will always stick with you as clear as the moment you saw it I spotted a human arm dangling from a shattered tree branch, swinging slightly like it was waving at me. Not letting myself get distracted I kept scanning and started counting bodies, running out of corpses when I reached 17. Three unaccounted for. I took a moment to scan and count a second time, but the number didn’t change. Leaving the pack where it was I first moved laterally then descended towards the path, keeping to the heaviest brush. I heard number 18 before I saw him. He was sobbing and moaning and when I angled around a large tree that had blocked my view of him I could see him sitting on the ground with his back against the trunk. His hands were clasped across his belly in a futile attempt to hold in the intestines that had spilled out when the blast had ripped him open. I showed him the only mercy I was in the mood for by shooting him in the head.
Moving closer to the trail I kept a constant scan going for 19 and 20, finally spotting movement back down the path as a figure broke from the trees and started running. I was a blink away from pulling the trigger on him when a body crashed into my left side, knocking the rifle off aim and me to the ground. Grunting with the impact of the body and the ground I rolled to get my hands up and between us but this guy had been in a few tussles and knew what I was trying to do. When we had landed he came down on top of me and was using his not inconsiderable body weight to pin my legs as he controlled my upper body with a hand locked into my vest while he pounded my head with his fist. Feeling his weight shift I knew what was coming and got my hips turned just in time to take the knee that was intended for my balls on the side of my thigh. It still hurt like hell, but at least wasn’t incapacitating like a shot to the boys would have been.
I stopped trying to fight against his pressure and instead rolled on the ground in the direction he was pushing. This caught him by surprise and with his arm pinned against my chest he had to roll with me and we wound up on our backs with me on top. He tried to wrap me in a bear hug but I broke the embrace and started rocketing elbows behind me into his ribs. The second elbow I threw hit perfectly and I felt at least two of his ribs snap. One more elbow in the same spot brought a grunt of pain from him then I raised my head and smashed it back into his face as hard as I could. For a moment his grip on me went slack and I rolled off and leapt to my feet five feet away, drawing the Kukri as I rose into a crouch. He started to fumble for a holstered pistol and I lunged in and buried all 12 inches of the blade in his guts and cut upwards until the blade stopped against his breastbone.