Hacking and slashing through the brush I arrived at the point where the group’s trail had come up to a sharp drop off that formed the waterfall. They had angled towards the valley wall on that side and had made their way down in a zig-zag pattern. The waterfall only dropped about 50 feet and at the edge of the drop off I could see down to the flat valley floor below. The group was huddled tightly, backs against the large pool the waterfall spilled into. Rachel, Dog and Betty stood at the edge of the group protecting the kids from a large pack of infected males.
Dropping to my stomach I looked through the rifle scope. 14 males were shambling towards the group. Six infected bodies lay on the ground, apparently having been shot by Rachel. As I watched I saw her struggling with the rifle and realized she had experienced a malfunction of some kind. The kids were screaming and pushing away from the infected, the back rank of the group standing in water up to their knees. The infected were about 150 yards away from my position. Not a terribly difficult shot, but not a slam dunk either, especially at night. Taking a deep breath I slowly exhaled and calmed my body as I sighted on the male closest to the group.
I fired and his head nearly exploded as the body dropped to the wet ground. Finding my next target I fired, then kept finding targets and firing as soon as I saw the result of my shot in the scope. When I ran out of targets I was surprised, which is a good thing. I had been ‘in the zone’ and so focused on finding and eliminating targets that I wasn’t thinking about counting how many I had dropped. 14 infected down with 14 shots, 150 yards downhill at night. Not too shabby. Moving the rifle I looked at Rachel and the group through the night vision. They were all looking in my direction, but I knew they couldn’t see me. Standing up I waved and started following their path down the steep drop. Dog met me half way down the incline, happy to see me. I couldn’t progress until I stopped and scratched his head, then he was content to lead me the rest of the way down to the valley floor.
Walking up to the group Rachel greeted me with a smile and an extended rifle. I took it, turned sideways so she could observe and quickly cleared the misfire. A round had failed to seat fully and wouldn’t let the rifle cycle as it was just far enough out of position that the extractor couldn’t grab it when Rachel pulled the charging handle. I showed her the forward assist knob and gave her a 15 second tutorial on how to clear the weapon. I didn’t ask but guessed that her training on the firing range back at Arnold had been limited to marksmanship and they hadn’t had a chance to go over the nuances of the design of the M4.
I spent another few minutes getting the group rallied and held a brief discussion and tutorial with the kids about dragging their feet. A couple of them got it, but most just looked at me like I was from Mars. Finally in exasperation I had them stand in a large circle and watch me walk across it, then had them try to find my footprints. Then I had them get back in the circle and picked one of the more sullen kids, a slightly overweight boy who was always the last to start moving and first to sit down, and had him walk the same path. As I knew he would he didn’t pick his feet up and left a mark on the ground with each step he took. When I had the kids move in and look I saw the light come on for most of them. That was when I noticed there were only eight kids.
“You lost one?” I asked Betty in a low voice the kids couldn’t hear.
She nodded. “Jessica Hunt. She went into the bushes to pee when we stopped and that group of infected took her before we even knew they were there.” She gestured at the bodies littering the ground.
I looked around at all the bodies, shaking my head. Then I relayed to Rachel and Betty what I had encountered with the females. Betty absorbed it, but hadn’t fought the infected like Rachel and I had so it didn’t register with her how much this might change the game.
“All of them?” Rachel asked, worry creasing her forehead.
“Don’t know,” I said. “Two, for sure. The five that were tracking you above the waterfall, I just can’t say. I didn’t really see any sign of it, but then I never gave any of them an opportunity so I don’t know.”
“We’re fucked,” she said.
“We’ve been fucked for a while now,” I responded with a grin, not wanting her to go into a funk. Depression was the last thing we could afford at the moment. I got a half assed grin in return.
“Betty, where does this valley go?” I asked.
“This is the Little Chambers River,” she replied. “It ends up winding around and emptying into the Cumberland just south of Nashville. But if we follow this valley for a few more miles we’ll come to a little county road we can follow into Murfreesboro.”
“OK,” I said after a moment. “You two get these kids moving again. I had to leave my pack behind, again, and I’m going to go back and check our rear and get my pack. I’ll catch up.”
Betty reached out and placed her hand on my arm. “Young man, is that the best idea? If you hadn’t been here that group would have finished us off.”
I looked at her for a moment, then Rachel and finally at the group of kids sitting huddled by the water. “That pack has ammunition, food and medical supplies we need,” I said. “And if I hadn’t been behind you there would have been five females attacking from one side while we fought off the males. We need our rear checked and we need the supplies. I’ll be back as fast as I can. Keep the kids quiet, remind them to pick up their damn feet and I’ll see you before you know it.”
Betty kept her hand on my arm for another moment then finally nodded her head and walked away. Rachel reached out and placed her hand on my chest for a brief time then followed Betty to get the kids up and on the move. Dog stood beside me with an expectant look on his face, but Rachel and the group needed him more than I did. I kneeled next to him and wrapped my arm around his thick neck and scratched his chest. I was rewarded with a tail wag and a big wet lick across the face. The tail stopped wagging when I told him to stay with Rachel. With a wave I headed back up the valley, quickly climbing the steep slope to the top of the waterfall where I stopped and scanned ahead of me. All clear at the moment.
I had dropped my pack when I’d started tracking the infected females and it was just up at the head of the valley I was in. Moving quietly through the forest I was close in about 20 minutes. I didn’t go right up to the pack, rather moved up the valley wall on my right and set up in a stand of young trees. My pack was 40 yards below me in the brush at the edge of the trail and I carefully scanned the brush around it. Nothing waiting for me. I scanned again with the same results, then expanded the area I was checking and saw movement across the valley floor at the river, but it was only a couple of deer dipping their heads for a drink. Continuing to scan I looked up into the narrower valley we had come down earlier and saw more movement. This time it was of the two legged variety.
Watching for a minute I was confident these were not infected. They moved like normal human males that know how to move in the woods at night. There were five of them and they were spread out across the valley floor. And they were tracking us. Shit! More guys from the ambush? What the hell? Why were they so persistent? What the hell had Rachel and I stumbled into? These had to be locals, up to something. The guys I’d ambushed with the grenades were definitely locals and were certainly not trained for combat. I didn’t get it. They’d gotten their asses seriously kicked. Twice. What was pushing them to keep coming after us? Pride only goes so far. This was something else.
The closest of the five men was over 200 yards out, and while they weren’t moving slow, they were moving cautious. Breaking cover I dashed down to where my pack was, did a quick inspection to make sure it hadn’t been messed with before touching it, then shouldered it and started back towards my group at a fast run. I wanted to set up a couple of surprises for these guys and needed to get to the top of the drop off by the falls with enough time to get it done. I didn’t really expect to encounter any more infected along this stretch of the valley, but ran with the Kukri gripped in my hand just in case.
Ten minutes later I reached the thicker foliage at the top of the drop off and dropped my pack. Taking a quick look over the edge I was glad to see Rachel and the group had moved on so I got to work. One thing about having come into the Army while there was still a large amount of Vietnam combat vets serving was the knowledge. Vietnam had been a very nasty guerilla war, and the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army – NVA – had been masters of booby traps using whatever the forest had to offer. Many of these tricks had been taught to me by an instructor at Fort Bragg who had been a Special Forces team leader for two tours in Vietnam in the late 60s. He was one tough son of a bitch and he’d learned a lot from his enemy. When I left the Army I never thought any of those lessons would ever be needed. Boy was I wrong.
I worked for almost 20 minutes and using young, flexible but strong trees I had set up a whip trap that would slash across the path when tripped. The tree trunk that was bent back like a spring and waiting to be released was lined with a dozen sharpened sticks that were each two feet long. Anyone on the path when it tripped would get impaled with at least two of the stakes attached to the tree as it whipped into them at waist height. A secondary trap of the same design was set to trip to the side of the path to catch anyone trying to go around. The trip wires were the same thin, black nylon line I’d used for the grenade trap, only it was stretched across the forest floor with a scattering of leaves hiding it. The wire was stretched so tight to the stick holding the trap in place that simply stepping on it would trigger the release. Moving down the slope I set up one more of the same trap, then a little further down a loop of line hidden in leaves and attached to a tall tree that I had forced into an arc and set up with another trip wire. Step in it and the tree would release, close the noose around your leg and yank you though the air where you’d slam into the trunk of the tree. For good measure another half a dozen sharpened stakes protruded from the tree at the same height a body would slam into it. Satisfied with my preparations I shouldered the pack and made my way to the valley floor.