Rachel had kept Betty and the group of kids moving and had covered a couple of miles from the bottom of the waterfall when she finally called a halt. A few minutes ago she had heard faint screams from behind and was sure they hadn’t been the screams of infected. Not a praying woman, she still said a silent prayer for John’s safety. She’d had a couple of opportunities to contemplate trying to survive without him, most recently when he’d been shot while rescuing her and she didn’t think she’d last long. Besides, not that they were a couple or ever could be, but she had to admit to herself that she had feelings for him. She knew she could never act on those feelings though as he was so committed to making it to Arizona to find his wife. Katie was a lucky woman to have a husband who was so devoted to her. Rachel felt a momentary pang of jealousy but quickly pushed that emotion down and told herself to stop being ridiculous.
“… great tits!” Rachel heard the very end of a whispered comment between the two teenage boys that were behind her. Turning she met their eyes and held her index finger up to her lips in warning to be quiet. They both looked properly mortified, one of them blushing so hard that she could see the red spots on his cheeks even in the dark. The comment didn’t bother her. Boys will be boys and she knew how she looked and the effect she had on men.
Rachel had brought the group to a halt in a large clearing that butted up against a sheer rock face. Heavy forest shielded them on the other three sides and she felt this was as good a place as any to wait for John to catch up. She spent a few minutes getting the kids settled and admonishing them to stay quiet. Betty made the rounds as well, offering words of comfort to the frightened kids. Soon they were all sprawled out on the ground, most of them choosing to immediately curl up and go to sleep. Rachel was tired too, but between worry about John and concern over letting her guard down there was no way she could sleep. Finding a large tree that had fallen over she settled down with her back against it, positioned between the forest and the kids with the rifle at the ready across her lap. Dog stretched out in the dirt at her feet and closed his eyes, but his ears never drooped as he too kept watch. After a few more minutes of checking on the kids Betty came over and lowered herself to the ground next to Rachel with a groan.
“Are you alright?” Rachel asked, her eyes never stopping their scan of the forest.
“Just a little tired, dear. When you get to be my age a long walk through the woods isn’t as much fun as it used to be.” Betty smiled and leaned her head back on the fallen tree. Moments later her breathing deepened and Rachel could hear soft snores coming from the older woman.
“You and me, Dog.” Rachel mumbled. Dog thumped his tail on the dirt a couple of times but didn’t bother to open his eyes.
Sometime later Rachel startled awake in bright sunlight, immediately cursing herself for having fallen asleep. Looking around she took a quick headcount, relieved to find all of the kids still sleeping. Next to her Betty still snored, having slipped to the ground and curled up with her head pillowed on her right arm. Dog was awake and alert, sitting a few feet in front of Rachel. He turned his head and looked at her, then turned back to watch the tree line. Slowly climbing to her feet Rachel stooped to pet and hug him before moving into the edge of the forest and finding a bush to squat behind. Business finished she returned to the clearing and stood looking around. The sun was well up and the day was already hot. Insects buzzed in the trees and somewhere a woodpecker went to work on a tree making a racket that sounded too much like a machine gun. Rachel guessed it was nearly noon. Where the hell was John?
Worry washed over her. Was he ok? Why hadn’t he caught up with them hours ago? When she had sat down earlier she had expected him to show up within an hour, just appearing so suddenly and quietly that he startled her. But he wasn’t here and it had been hours. Too long unless something had gone wrong. She remembered the faint screams she’d heard the night before, trying to remember if they had sounded like a man screaming. She couldn’t remember, but she didn’t think there was anything that could make John scream out like that. Not that he didn’t feel pain, but he was the most self-contained man she had ever met and she didn’t believe it had been him. That meant he was probably the one causing the screams. That sounded more like him, but then why wasn’t he sitting here with her?
An hour later, the sun directly overhead, Rachel couldn’t take it any longer. Good news or bad, she had to know. No more than John could have left her, she couldn’t go any further without finding out what had happened to him. Betty was awake by now but the kids still slept the way only teenagers could. Rachel sat down next to Betty and discussed the thoughts in her head with the woman. She was undecided if it was wise to take the kids back with her to search for John. But if she didn’t take them they would be left completely unarmed with no way to defend themselves from infected or worse. After a long conversation about their options that she knew would have driven John absolutely insane, she and Betty walked around the clearing and woke the kids.
It took them half an hour to get the kids up and ready to go. Rachel had each of them individually go into the bushes to relieve themselves. She sent Dog with each of them to provide protection while they were at their most vulnerable. Digging a couple of MREs out of her pack Rachel prepared them and portioned them out amongst the kids so each got a few calories into their bodies. As a group they went to the river and drank their fill while Rachel stood watch over them, rifle at the ready. Finally everyone was ready to go and they started retracing their path of the night before.
The valley seemed so much less intimidating with the sun shining brightly. A couple of times Rachel had to remind herself that the infected didn’t care if it was day or night. They were just as likely to attack regardless of the time of day. Fortunately they didn’t come across any, and the kids were moving quietly and fairly quickly, mostly refreshed after the sleep, food and water. As they approached the pool at the base of the falls Dog trotted ahead and Rachel saw him turn his head, nose lifted into the air. She brought the group to a stop and watched Dog sniff the air. After a moment he turned and trotted into the woods, nose to the ground. Moving forward Rachel reached the point where he had cut into the brush and stood watching him. Dog sniffed the ground some more and changed direction, trotting up to a large tree where he found something to hold his interest. Motioning for the group to stay put Rachel followed him into the brush.
After a few steps she could see what held Dog’s attention. John’s pack lay on the ground at the base of a tree. As she got closer she spotted his rifle lying next to it. Rachel’s steps faltered with fear of what she’d find, but she gathered herself and pushed forward, stopping to examine the abandoned pack and weapon. Looking around she spotted a pair of legs sticking out from behind another tree a few feet away. With a lump in her throat and a knot in her stomach Rachel forced herself to walk over to the body, nearly crying from relief when it wasn’t John. The corpse’s shirt was soaked with blood that had dried black and already the insects were hard at work on the body. Choking down the bile that threatened to rise up from her stomach, she surveyed the area and quickly moved over to a patch of ground that was heavily disturbed.
Three distinct sets of boot prints were visible as was an impression in the soft soil left by a body. Twin drag marks in the dirt looked like they had been left by a pair of boots as a body was picked up, then two sets of tracks headed away to the north. One of them, which had already been very clear because of how deep they were in the valley floor, were now noticeably deeper as if that person had suddenly become much heavier. Rachel put two and two together and arrived at the conclusion that someone had been knocked out or killed here then carried away. She didn’t think killed, not imagining that someone would carry away one corpse and leave another. Staring at the size of the prints she tried to remember how big John’s feet were and decide if he was the one carrying someone, but while she thought the prints were too big for him she wasn’t sure.
An idea popping into her head she rushed back to the tree where the pack and rifle still lay in the dirt and cast around until she was able to identify John’s tracks. Definitely smaller and also a different tread pattern than the ones that exited the area. Picking up the rifle she hustled back to where the group was waiting and selected the largest boy. She guessed he was somewhere around 14 but had gotten a lot of his size early and was nearly six feet tall with broad shoulders and thick legs. Leading him back to the pack she helped him lift it up and settle it on his back.
“Jesus, this thing is heavy,” he said, but didn’t offer any other complaint. Rachel gave him her best smile, the one she knew could make most men melt, and was gratified to see him set his face in a stern expression as he straightened up and hooked his thumbs into the straps to help manage the weight.
“I believe in you,” she said with another smile and led the way back to the group, following the tracks, the boy right behind her with a spring in his step at the flattery.
“Betty, do you know how to shoot?” She asked, walking up to the older woman.
“I’ve been known to pick up a rifle from time to time.”
“Good. Know how to use this?” Rachel held up John’s M4. Betty looked at it and slowly shook her head.
“I do,” one of the girls in the group stepped forward. Rachel and Betty looked at her in surprise. “My dad and brothers taught me. I’ve been shooting since I was eight, and I know how to use an AR.”
Rachel looked the girl up and down, still surprised. She was very pretty, slim and athletic with long hair that hung nearly the length of her back and was pulled into a thick French braid. She had an earnest look on her face and after a few moments of Rachel’s scrutiny she cocked one hip out to the side and held her hands out. Hesitating a moment longer Rachel finally placed the rifle in the girl’s waiting hands. Smoothly, and apparently well practiced, the girl made sure the rifle was on safe then dropped the magazine to check the load, pulled the charging handle far enough back to see if a round was in the chamber, releasing the handle when she saw the glint of brass, slapped the magazine back in place, thumb checked the fire selector lever to ensure it was on safe and looked up at Rachel with a smile.
“What’s your name?” Rachel asked, returning the smile.
“Nora. Nora Patterson.” The girl answered, working the rifle’s sling over her head and making sure her hair didn’t tangle in it.
“Nora, can you shoot another person if you have to?”
“Yes I can,” she answered without hesitation.
“I don’t mean the infected,” Rachel stepped closer to her, looking down into the shorter girl’s eyes. “I mean another normal, living human being.”
“If that’s what I have to do, then that’s what I have to do.” Nora held Rachel’s eyes until Rachel relaxed and smiled at her.
“Let’s hope that isn’t necessary.”
Rachel rallied the group and put Nora at the rear, reminding her to keep a close eye out for anyone or anything following, then set off on the same path the heavy prints had taken. They skirted around the clearing where all of the dead infected were being feasted on by a loud and raucous bunch of crows and started climbing the steep valley wall. It didn’t take them long to reach a flat, rocky outcropping that looked down on the pool and Rachel paused to check below them. The animals of the forest were feasting on the dead bodies, including a small pack of coyotes and Rachel was glad they had skirted the area.
At the far side of the outcropping a narrow trail led into the forest and the heavy tracks were clearly visible in the dirt. Checking to make sure the group was staying tight and Nora was still watching their rear, Rachel followed the tracks and headed up the path, Dog ranging ahead of her with his nose in the air and tail straight up. A short time later they reached the edge of the forest, a small dirt parking area backed by a ribbon of asphalt to their front. Rachel brought the group to a stop and after listening and visually checking the area for five minutes she stepped out of the trees. The tracks had led here, but the dirt was packed so hard they had mostly vanished once the person making them had stepped out of the trees. Searching the dirt Rachel spotted tire tracks that looked fresh, slowly walking around the area with her eyes glued to the ground.
Rachel was by no means an experienced tracker, had never tracked anything in her life, but she was a smart woman and after examining the area for a bit she thought she knew what had happened here. A vehicle had approached from the west and pulled onto the dirt. Faint scuffs and partial tread patterns led from each side of the tracks directly to the path in the forest, then came back from the path and led to a spot centered between the tire marks, then back to each side. She thought about it for a minute, still staring at the marks in the dirt. The tires were large which meant a truck or SUV. Coming back from the trees and going to a point between the tire tracks meant they took something and loaded it into the back. Now she knew which way the vehicle was pointed. Following the tire tracks she saw where the driver had started a U-turn as he pulled back onto the pavement, the tires spinning in the dirt and digging a shallow furrow as they threw fresh dirt across the ground. They had gone back to the west. Back in the direction they had come from. The direction where she and John had been ambushed on the road.
What now? Rachel didn’t like the idea of hiking down the pavement with the group of kids. They would be way too visible and too easy to surprise. Looking around, Rachel didn’t care for the possibility of staying in the trees, either. The underbrush along the road was thick with all kinds of vines and bushes, and without a beaten path like they’d just followed it would be next to impossible for them to move through the woods. Not for the first time she wished John was here to make the decision. He’d know what to do. Rachel’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a suppressed rifle firing in the woods. Turning in the direction of the group she raised her rifle and dashed onto the path.
Betty and the kids were bunched up as close to the mouth of the path as they could get without actually spilling out onto the turn out. Rachel pushed past them and saw Nora aiming John’s rifle back down the path. She looked in the direction the girl was aiming and saw a dead infected male lying in the dirt. Movement caught her eye and she looked back down the path in time to see Nora shoot another infected as he stumbled around a bend and started towards them. Momentarily filled with pride that a girl had stepped up and was defending them, Rachel snapped herself back to the situation at hand. No time for feminism. Those days were over, and as much as she didn’t like it she knew that once again most women would need a big, strong man to survive. Nora just might be one of the exceptions to that rule.
No more infected appeared and after a few minutes Nora lowered the rifle but kept her attention focused on the forest. Rachel pulled a full magazine out of her vest and handed it to the girl who jammed it into the back pocket of her skin tight jeans. Moving back past the group to the edge of the trees Rachel stopped next to Betty and explained the situation to her. Betty listened carefully, nodding as Rachel spoke.
“I think I know where he might be,” Betty said. “There was some religious nut that called himself The Preacher, or something dramatic like that, that set up shop on some state owned land a few miles from here. Last I heard he had about fifty followers and they lived in a bunch of tents back in the woods. I don’t know of anyone else around these parts that would have any interest in taking someone. Everyone else would hunker down and ignore what was going on, or they’d be the kind of people that’d invite you into their home and share their dinner with you.”
“Do you know where this camp is?” Rachel asked, a thrill of hope running through her. For the first time she thought she might actually find John.
“Honey, this guy and his followers are bat shit crazy, if you’ll pardon the expression. Well, they were before the world turned upside down. Now, I can’t even imagine.”
Betty was frightening her, but at the same time Rachel wasn’t about to abandon John.