Just outside of the camping area, Rob went to the side of the trail and spoke.
“We need to get ground, quickly. I’m going to put on my night vision and lead. We will be going pretty quick, basically a light jog. I’m going to also stick a chem stick in my back pocket. You should be able to see the glow through the fabric if you stay close. I will warn you of anything on the ground, but you are going to have to trust me and keep up, ok?”
“Sure, let’s stop waisting time and get moving” the girl said with a sarcastic smile; both elements lost in the dark.*
Rob donned a head harness so he could use the NVG’s handsfree, slipped a green light in his pocket, slung his rifle, grabbed the bikes handlebars and started off.*
At first, it was scary, running along the road, and then into the forrest on a trail without being able to see anything. Once she started trusting Rob and listening to his random warnings the hard part was keeping up – jogging with a decently packed backpack, a carbine, and ammo is not easy.*
She started droning out and made her mind numb. She concentrated on the dull green light she could see peeking out from Robs back pocket, ignoring the ache in her legs and the burn in her lungs.
After about an hour of this, they took a break so they could drink water and confirm their location. Rob looked over the map and tried to identify major terrain features using the moonlight and night vision. She sucked air and walked in small circles with her hands on her hips. *
“Ok, I’m pretty sure where we are, and we look like we are still on the trail we should be.” He started pointing off in the distance “there is a saddle to the north east, and a peak to the west. If you look here, this is where we are.” He finished, pointing to the map.
She couldn’t see anything, but before she could say something he threw a jacket over her head, and shoved both the map and the chemstick under it with her. His finger was still pointing to an area that looked like any area on a map. She could see the town they stopped in, not too far away, even though they were on the move for some time. She mumbled something about the hindrances of being foot powered, and continued looking. She saw collections of lines, circles, colors and numbers, but this map was not like any she was used to; there were no street signs or highway markers.
She pushed the map and jacket back to Rob. “I can’t read that map, but I trust your navigation.”
“it’s a topographical map, when I get a chance, I’ll show you how to read it. Basically we are on the right path. We only have about another hour of darkness, let’s use it to get more distance.” The last phrase made her legs ache in protest of things to come. As if reading their mind, Rob continued. “Don’t worry, no more running for now – but we will have to keep a good pace.”
True to his word, they moved at a fast walk, eating up the miles. At sign of first light, they stopped for a quick breakfast of raw carrots and a bit of peanuts – which Rob quickly declared with a grin the least “tactical” meal that he could think of.
She thought it nice to get something fresh, the last non-canned vegetable she had was the tomatoes with the family in the park a few long days ago. Her body craved the clean crunch of produce, which was finally being satisfied.
As they munched and crunched, she went over and over in her mind what happened back at the campground. Would she have killed that man if he got close, would Rob have hacked his head off or stuck him in the side like he stated?*Rob to her was a paradox, the guy looked almost like a kid with his boyish features and thin frame. But when he wanted to be, he was as ruthless as a drug cartel kingpin. *As she started her second carrot, she got caught staring at him.
“What?” he asked, feeling her gaze.
“What would you have done if I didn’t tell you to let that guy go, and what did you tell him?” She replied, her curiosity speaking before she could find a polite way to ask the same thing. When he did not immediately reply, she stammered “it’s not that I’m not greatful, I am, I just can’t get it out of my head.”
“If he made a move to hurt you, I would have taken him out and left him bleeding in the dirt. You are sanctioned, I will do whatever it takes to get you to safety. I told him that he owes you his life, but next time, if I ever see him, I will not ask you first, I will kill him on the spot, without hesitation, reservation, or remorse.”
She could not speak, there was a cross emotion of shear terror coming from the fact the man she is traveling with will have no qualms about killing a person and relief that he was on her side, willing to do these things for her. All she could get out was a weak “why?”*
He took this to mean the fact about her being his ward and responsibility. “I have a daughter, she is everything in the world to me. She lives about four hundred miles to the north with her mother. Right now, there should be a member taking her and my daughters mother to safety; they are my sanctioned. I know that the member is doing everything he can for my little girl, and I’m going to do the same for you. In fact, when I look at you, I see her, and know exactly what must be done.*
Tears began to run down the girls cheek. She could not stand the emotions she was feeling right now, everything coming back; the deaths she witnessed, the attempts on her life, her own taking of a life, the uncertainty of where her man was and the thought of a little girl having to endure these same hardships was too much.
Rob, dealing with his own sets of emotions, looked away; silent in his own thoughts.
After a bit, she calmed down, crying doing the age old job of settling one’s nerves and renewing one’s perspective.*
“Ready?” Rob asked.
All she could reply with was a quick, but resolute nod.
They continued moving, traveling over the set of tree-filled hills and into grass filled foothills – here, the only trees being the occasional lonely oak. Rob started to tense as they left the safety of the trees, every crest of a new hill became a tactical operation. Rob would stop them before they hit the crest, give the bike to her, and slowly creep to the top. Once there, he would get down on his belly and low crawl over it. He would scan the area and wave her up once clear.*
On one such operation, Rob took a bit longer than normal, then shimmied back. In a whisper Rob spoke “there is a lone traveler, walking ahead of us, going in the direction we are. There is no cover if they are hostile and we walk up on them. Even though it will give us away, I think we should call to them so we can see their intentions.”
“Sounds good, I’ll move off to that oak there with the bike” she said, as she pointed to a tree about 30 meters off the trail, just below the crest of the hill. “Then you can yell to them, and I’ll cover you.”*
A few seconds later, Rob was back at the top of the trail, and called down below “hello to you on the trail!” The traveler stopped “I am going the same was as you, and did not want to come up on you unannounced!”
“Stop yelling and come down here if you want to talk” a surprisingly female voice said.*
Rob, feeling a bit foolish, did as the woman asked and came down to where she was at. He did not notice any weapons, but did notice some quality gear that she held with ease. In an attempt to seem less hostile he kept his rifle slung in a casual manner.*
When he reached her, he extended his hand “name’s Rob.”
Mimicking his gesture she replied “Holly.”
Rob got a good vibe from her, and did not see her attacking him, so he motioned for his female companion to come down. He also thought the girls presence would help put Holly at ease.*
She came to the other two, pushing the bike down the hill. When she reached them, introductions were made, and Rob continued the conversation. “We are headed east, your more than welcome to walk with us for a bit, if you like.”*
“I think that’s a good idea, at least for the time being. I’m trying to get home, to where my parents are in Nebraska and it’s east of here.”
After a bit more small talk, the group started walking – each step one closer to their destination.
The trio continued on, getting to know one another as best they could under the circumstances. Rob maintained strong noise discipline, so the conversatons were short and quiet.
Holly quickly grew to appreciate Robs way of doing things, but the first time he dropped to his belly to get over a hill there was nothing she could do to stop from laughing out loud.
Rob shot her a stern look, while his other female companion explained the why’s behind the way they do things.
To gain as much ground as possible, they had a walking lunch, and pushed forward without many breaks.
At one of these breaks, Rob asked Holly “hope you don’t mind the pace, it’s just we want to get to where we are going in the quickest way possible.”
“I don’t mind it at all, I too am in a hurry – plus it’s not like this is all that new to me.”
“Going cross country. I’m a marathon runner and ultralight hiker. I’ve got more gear than I normally do, but I’m ok to kick up the pace. If you can.” The last bit said with a slight sarcastic bend.
With a snort, Rob replied “I think we are good with the pace we are at, I don’t want to burn anyone out. Next thing, do you have any way to defend yourself? I don’t know how long you have been up here, but the populated areas are getting quite… Messy.”*
She looked at the firearms that both held and with a shake of her head she said “No, I’m a peaceful person by nature.”
Rob stood up, indicating the break was over. Just as he started walking he said “yea, so are most sheep right before the wolves come.”
The day continued on, the sun passed all the way overhead, and the girl felt more tired than any day in her life. She welcomed the time when a satisfactory camp location was found and they could drop their gear.
Holly worked in an efficient manner, setting up her simple, yet quality gear – demonstrating she was in fact an experienced outdoors-woman.*
After a brief discussion, the girl started making dinner. She mixed elements of their fresh food with their freeze-dried to come up with a pleasant meal. As she was cooking, Rob made his normal survey of their bivouac area and checked their back trail.*
While he was gone, Holly asked the girl “is he always so serious?”*
“Yea, most of the time. But he is a good guy who has the best intentions. He was in the military for a while, and doesn’t take many chances.”
“Well, I don’t think everything is necessary, things are not all that bad.”
The girl told Holly about their experience at the last town they visited, about the attempted assault on the gate, and the way things we being run. She gazed over the details of their nights stay, but said that someone tried to assault her. That Rob had to intervene, and they had to get out of there quickly.
Just as the girl finished the story, Rob returned. “I saw a camp fire off in the distance, maybe a few miles back. We should keep a cold camp tonight.” He looked at Holly “is your gear sufficient to keep you warm tonight?”
“I will, be fine, thanks.”
“Ok, I have a poncho liner I use to get a few degrees out of if I think it will be cold, let me know if you would like it. Also, we run a night watch, will you be able to pull a shift?”
The girl could tell that Holly was going over in her mind a cross between her belief system, and the story of their escape from town. After a few moments, she replied “Yes I can, but I don’t think I could do anything if someone came up?”
“We need the extra sleep, we have been pushing for a week, this day being the longest and hardest. You taking a few hours will help allot, and don’t worry, if you see anything, just wake me up, I’m a light sleeper.”*
The girl piped in “who do you think the camp fire is, other travelers?”*
Rob shrugged his shoulders, “not sure,” then, looking directly at the girl, *”I just hope it’s not someone unfriendly.” * *
She nodded “yea…. me too.”
Holly offered to take the middle shift, and Rob took the first. This was all decided just after dinner because the girl passed out before anything could be discussed.
The night was uneventful, and the travelers got an early start, with the original pair feeling more rested than they have in quite some time.
The day passed on, and just as Rob was commenting on what good time they were making, Holly tripped on an exposed root, twisting her ankle.
After spilling onto the ground, Rob rushed to her. “How bad is it, do you think it’s broken?” He asked, dropping his pack and rifling through it.*
“No, not broken, but it’s messed up pretty good.”
Rob pulled out an Ace bandage from his first aid kit, took off her boot, and began wrapping it around her swollen, red ankle. “let’s rest for a bit, it may just be a temporary thing.”
Holly nodded and the girl said “let’s get the bike ready for her to ride on it if need be, we can each push a side of the handlebar with her sitting on it, and still keep the gear loaded.”
“You do that, I’m going to do a quick scouting if the area, make sure it’s safe for us to hang here for a bit.”
Rob went back on the trail they just came up on, and the girl started redistributing the load on the bike to make it passenger-worthy.
After twenty or so minutes, Rob had not returned. “How does your ankle feel?” The girl asked.
“Not so great, I think I’ll have to use the bike.”
“Ok, I’ll go find Rob and we can get moving.”
The girl walked back the way she saw Rob go, and spotted him a few minutes later. He was laying down in the grass, aiming his rifle, and using a stack of sticks to stabilize the barrel.*
The hairs on her neck stood up, and she started creeping towards him. She looked to where he was pointing his weapon; there were three men walking along the path they were on. She squinted her vision, they were in an open area easily six hundred meters away and looked tiny at that distance. One of the men looked familiar, and just as she realized it was the man from the campground, Robs Garand barked.
BOOM! She was still watching the man when he dropped to the ground. Even from this distance she could see he got hit in the pelvis and knew he would not be walking anytime soon.*
The two men with him looked around, clutching their weapons.
BOOM! A plume of dust and dirt peppered one of the men, Robs bullet dropping a foot in front of him.
The man looked up from the damaged dirt just in time to realize he was being shot at, and BOOM! get hammered in the chest.
The third man started running towards tree cover. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Rob followed him as he ran, the first two rounds being clear misses, the third hitting a leg, and the last somewhere in the upper body as he tumbled to the ground.*
Robs first target, the man from the campground was slowly crawling. Behind him was a pool of blood and useless legs. He was digging his fingers into the dirt, trying to get any purchase that provided movement away from the heavy bullets being lobbed in his direction.
BOOM! CLANG! The last round in the clip found a final resting place in the dirt past the man, by way of his neck, almost decapitating him. * * * * **
Rob quickly reloaded his rifle from one of the clips in his vest, and scanned the area, looking for more friends of these three. The girl stood, unable to look away, or make any sound.
Finally she loudly whispered “Rob!”
He rolled to his back and pointed his rifle at her. “Dammit! Stop doing that, I’m going to shoot you someday!”*
Dazed, she nodded “we have to go.”
Rob nodded back “Yep, let’s go get our sheep and get moving.”