Chapter index is right here.
Chapter 20: Refuge
“Where’s the gunfire coming from? That you guys?” Tex called over the radio.
“Not us! Some of the people decided to try to fight their way past the police,” Jack responded.
“Where are you guys? What should we do?”
“Everybody safe?” Jack asked.
“Ya—we’re all fine,” Tex answered, sounding a bit at a loss.
“Then give us a minute here—we’re seeing how this unfolds. Be ready to roll.”
The cadence of the gunfight had slowed, with the deputies and the armed, angry mob settled in place behind cover. One side would emerge from their hiding place, fire off a shot, then duck back to safety and then the other side would take their turn popping off a few shots. Jack could only roughly make out their positions now; with most of the vehicles gone, the ambient light provided by the headlights and tail lights of the vehicles had done with it. The patrol cars were still up and running, but their headlights were angled in his direction, making it difficult to see the deputies hunkered down beyond. And the vehicles the armed mob had taken cover behind were mostly shut off. He kicked himself for bringing the Noveske AR pistol instead of his full-sized carbine—his carbine’s three-times magnifier would have been a big help in identifying the shooters. Instead, he had to rely on muzzle flashes, shouts of anger and what he could make out in the shadows and at a distance.
It was clear though that, the mob had the advantage of numbers—they had a similar number of shooters, but they also had a crowd of fifteen or twenty people waiting in the wings, lobbing roadside rocks. The thrown weapons weren’t especially accurate, falling short, going too long or smashing uselessly into the side of the patrol cars, but they were another hazard and another thing for the deputies to worry about.
“They’ve got backup incoming. They’ve got to.”
It made sense—behind cover, they could hold out for backup from elsewhere. That avoided surrendering ground to the mob, and it also avoided exposing the deputies to the risk that would come from trying to make a run for it.
And if reinforcements were incoming, then they would be drawn from elsewhere.
“That town isn’t very big, right? How many cops you think they have?” Jack asked.
“’bout twenty if I remember right. County Sherriff has his office up there, too. Not sure how many they’ve got. Why?”
“Remember that alternate route through town?”
Barry realized what Jack was getting at.
“You thinking they’ll have to draw people from there to come help out here?”
“Exactly. Worth a shot, right?”
Barry considered it, the gunfire and angry cries echoing through the night a couple hundred yards away.
“Sure sounds safer than trying to run the gap here.”
“Then let’s move! Take the quick way back,” Jack said, gesturing to the road.
They rose quickly, leaving the cover of the forest and moving to road’s shoulder. Jack covered the mob of rock throwers—maybe a hundred yards away from their position—in case they took notice and exception to their flight, but the crowd was too engrossed in the gun battle. Confident they were not an immediate threat, he turned and followed Barry on the path back to the vehicles, moving as quickly as his tired legs could carry him.
“We’re on the move, coming back to you,” Jack called into the radio.
“We’re ready to go,” Tex radioed back.
They ran the mile or so back to the cars, keeping to the edge of shoulder and the shadows cast by the trees. No one was paying them any attention—most of the cars had left or were scrambling to load up and get out of dodge. Both were sucking wind as they closed in on the last hundred or so yards.
Rambo the German Shepherd was waiting patiently, tongue wagging, in the passenger seat of the Deuce. The dog didn’t bark at the sight of his master, didn’t pace frantically, just sat there and waited. Barry had trained the dog well.
As they closed in on the vehicles, Jack noticed a battered Ford pickup, seemingly abandoned, that sat parked on the highway’s opposite shoulder. It looked like it might be inside the Deuce’s turning radius.
“Can you still turn that thing around?” Jack asked. Barry snorted.
“You kiddin me’?”
Barry jumped up into the cab of his truck; Jack passed by and joined an anxious Mike inside his Tacoma.
“What’s going on?” Mike asked as he jumped into his seat.
“This way is no good, but we might have a way around.”
“There are gunshots—is anybody hurt?”
“Yup—pretty badly,” Jack said, leaving it at that. He keyed the mic for his radio.
“We’re heading back the way we came, trying for the alternate way through town. Alpha One, you lead the way,” he said.
Barry stomped on the accelerator, the military truck belching smoke and roaring to life. He turned sharply—at least as sharply as the giant truck could be expected to turn—but his course of travel soon made it apparent that there was no way the old pickup would escape unscathed. Barry didn’t hesitate—he just kept on moving. The Deuce’s steel bumper smashed into the pickup, crushing metal and sending bits of shattered plastic debris flying. The impact spun the little pickup out of the way, and Barry accelerated off down the road. The rest of the convoy turned quickly, following in his wake.
“Everybody ok?” Jack asked after they had put an additional mile or two between themselves and the gun battle. One by one, the vehicles called in, confirming that all were unharmed.
“Pretty clear that way is no good, but we think there’s a better chance on the other way through the town. It’s a detour, but it’s our best shot,” Jack explained.
“What if that way’s blocked too, bro?” Kyle’s voice came in reply.
“Then we’ll make for the hunting lease and get some rest. Everybody got it?”
A chorus of affirmatives sounded in reply.
The convoy made good time, blasting through any speed limits on their race to the other road. They tore past other vehicles that were also making their flight from the embattled checkpoint, and others who had stopped at the side of the road.
Tex monitored the police radio, but soon they lost the signal. Jack was unsure if it was the dense trees or the distance, but the last transmission they’d heard had confirmed that backup was inbound and it sounded like the deputies were still holding their position.
Though the deputies were apparently holding their own, Jack couldn’t help be feel like he should have done something more to help them out. A feeling of anxious guilt was spreading across him. He fought back and pushed it away—it hadn’t been their fight, he told himself. He needed to stay alive and keep his family safe.
Soon, they made the turn onto the new highway, which would take them along the western edge of the town. He hoped their gamble would pay off—otherwise, they’d burn valuable time, energy and gallons of fuel.
As they closed in on what must have been the outskirts of town, the forest broke onto a wide field of corn. Off in the distance lay the farm house, with electric lights burning brightly in the night. It stood out like a beacon.
“They must be insane,” Mike said.
“Or maybe just well-armed. But ya, lit up like that, they’ll draw people like mosquitos to a bug zapper,” Jack responded. The sight of electricity in use was a welcome relief from the darkness that they’d passed through on most of the journey. He wondered if just maybe, the town somehow had local grid power. It was unlikely—a farm would likely have its generators and a healthy supply of stored fuel, but it had piqued his curiosity. Soon, they were back in the forest, the well-lit farmhouse fading quickly from view.
Minutes later, they rumbled across upon the scattered wreckage that must have once been the other checkpoint. Slivers of white and orange wood, cracked reflectors and a lone, half-caved in “Road Closed” sign flashed past in a moment.
“I think we just made it through!” Jack radioed out.
“Yeehaw!” cheered Tex in excited response.
Another mile down the road, they passed by a line of homes built along the highway. Most had lights on—porch lights and interior lights. A bonfire burned on the front lawn of one of the homes, a cluster of men, women and children gathered around it. Many had long guns slung casually over a shoulder. They watched as the caravan raced past, but made no move to signal or stop them.
“Think they even know the checkpoint is down back there?” Mike wondered.
“They’d have too, right? All of a sudden, a big stream of traffic comes pouring through?”
“I’d be locked up inside.”
“Me too,” Mike agreed.
They travelled on, passing by more homes and small scale farms—some lit, but most not.
“Traffic light up ahead—it’s workin’ too,” Barry radioed.
“It’s working?” Jack asked in confirmation. A working traffic light pretty much confirmed it—the town had some source of working power, unaffected by the hackers. Jack guessed their power grid was localized and primitive, impossible for the hackers to knock out of commission with a few lines of malicious code.
“Yup workin’ fine and dandy. Looks like we’re going to hit a red, too. We stopping or runnin’ and gunnin’ on through?”
Jack considered for a moment, watching the brake lights of Barry’s trailer flash on.
“Slow down and check for any traffic.”
“Copy that,” Barry confirmed.
There was traffic on the intersecting road—and the vehicles had been waiting patiently for the light to change before going. The convoy waited at the stop light, the vehicles calmly accelerating and traveling off along their way.
“It’s like things are totally normal up here,” Mike said is disbelief, watching as the last of the vehicles, a tired 80s vintage work truck, turned and passed them by, heading back along the route they’d come.
With the traffic gone, Jack gave the signal and the convoy started up again, running the red light and heading back on their way.
“Local power, lots of farms for food. Most of the folks here are pretty self-sufficient to begin with. And this place is not exactly at the top of the jihadi’s hit-list. So it’s business as usual, at least until they get swamped with the hordes from the city,” he said.
“You think there will be that many people coming up this way?” Mike asked.
“There were people willing to kill to get past the roadblock back there, and we’re barely a day into this mess. So ya, they’re already having problems with outsiders—these people just don’t know it yet.”
They passed by a firehouse, lit up like the 4th of July, a closed fast food joint and more houses along the highway before civilization began again to give way to the South Eastern woodlands. A darkened, nameless gas station was the last landmark on the edge of town. Plywood boards told the familiar story—sold out, none left, keep on moving. Jack thought he caught the faint glow of a cigarette, burning in the shadows of the shop.
At the edge of town, they took a turn off, into a narrower, even more back country road. They traveled onwards into the night, northwards, the road beginning to slope upwards as they climbed into the Appalachians. The forest grew thick on either side of the road, though it gave way to the occasional side road or darkened cluster of buildings.
Twenty miles up the road, they passed through a small hamlet—a few dozen houses, restaurant, gas station, school and a small roadside motel. Street lights shone brightly along the road. The motel’s parking lot was full. A single Sherriff’s department SUV stood guardian at the entrance to the tiny town, though it made no move as they passed by.
They made another turn, joining up with a road that snaked back and forth, winding its way deeper and higher up into the mountains. They had to lower their speed—rolling, twisting road made it difficult to go above any of the posted speed limits.
“How much further? I’m getting pretty tired back here,” Fiona called over the radio. Even over the walkie, Jack could hear the fatigue in her voice.
“Thirty minutes, maybe. Should be a clear shot,” Barry responded.
“Everybody think you can make it safely? We need to switch drivers at all?” Jack called out. No one responded with any complaint.
As the minutes ticked by, Jack could feel the relief and excitement growing. Their journey was almost over, and then they’d be at Barry’s cabin in the mountains—as safe of a place as any he could hope to find. They could set up a guard rotation for the night and he could get some rest—a few hours of peaceful, secure sleep. The wait was maddening, the exhaustion nearly consuming.
Eventually, though, the final turn off came.
“All righty. Three miles from here, ladies and gentlemen,” Barry said, flipping the turn signal and slowing to edge off the country highway and onto a narrow side road. The pavement quickly gave way to gravel, and soon they were bouncing and jostling over a rough dirt road.
The single lane road wound up over hills and passed through grassy clearings. The forest canopy grew thick overhead, blocking out most of the night sky. Once in a while, Jack could make out the dark shapes of cabins, set back off the dirt road, but for the most part, they were passing through raw, untamed forest.
Finally, the Deuce rumbled to a stop. Barry’s voice came over the radio.
“All right, it’s right around the bend in the road, here. I need to go check on the place before we all come strolling in. Jack-o, care to join me for another stroll in the woods?”
“Sure thing—how long do you think we’ll be?”
“All right, guys. Shut the vehicles down and hold tight. Keep an eye out. We’ll be right back.”
Jack emerged from his pickup, this time bringing his carbine with him. Barry joined him moments later, instructing Rambo to stay put and watch the Deuce.
“Go ahead and eat any bad guys, pup,” he said, scratching the dog behind the ear before closing the truck’s door softly.
Again, Barry led the way through the woods, moving easily with the help of his night vision goggles. Jack did his best to keep up and keep quiet, but he was so tired that his legs would barely respond, let alone move stealthily. He stumbled frequently, cracking twigs and running into branches.
After a short hike, Barry reached the bottom of a small hill and dropped into a crawl. Jack followed his lead, low-crawling up the crest of the hill.
Ahead of them, some of the forest had been cleared to make room for a home site. In the middle of the clearing sat what Jack guessed to be Barry’s cabin—a small log home that had seen better times in decades past. Beyond the cabin lay a larger steel half-dome building that would have looked more at home at a farm than a mountain cabin.
The buildings only drew the quickest of glances, though. Jack’s attention was drawn immediately to the four vehicles that sat parked along the cabin’s long gravel driveway—two lifted pickups, a battered 90s-vintage sports car and a ramshackle 22-foot motorhome.
Barry swore quietly and furiously. Jack’s heart dropped. He waved for Barry to move back down the hill, away from the crest.
“Do you know who those belong to?” Jack asked, whispering as quietly as he could.
“One of ‘em. The RV. I think it belongs to a cheatin’ bastard I used to be buddies with.”
Jack looked skyward and let out a sigh. So much for safety and that peaceful sleep he’d been hoping for.
“Has he been here before?”
Barry took a while to respond.
“Yes—it’s been years, but yes. Then he got into a buncha neo-Nazi skinhead crap—we ain’t spoken since.”
Jack waited for a moment, trying to game plan. He was too tired, too exhausted to come up with anything worthwhile.
“What do you think? Can you talk to him?”
“You kiddin’, right?”
“Well hell, what are we going to do?”
“Shoot him dead, that’s what. Bastard has probably been plannin’ on usin’ my place for his bug out location all these years. Was probably disappointed he didn’t get to gun me down on my doorstep to take it from me.”
Jack shook his head. They were utterly exhausted and not in any condition for a fight for a nighttime raid on Barry’s cabin, nor did he believe it was the only option at this point. They lacked adequate intel--really, they lacked any intel at all. He sunk to the ground, smacking his forehead against the earth in frustration.
“We’ve gotta go back, Barry. Get some rest and come back later. If we’ve got to take your place back by force, then we’re with you. But tonight—we can’t. We just can’t. Let’s go back up the road and find a place to hide out for the rest of the night.”
Barry growled, angry and low, almost like a mad dog. Jack could tell the old veteran was fighting the urge to move into action and head off on some kamikaze mission. Eventually, reason won out.
“All right. Let’s get goin’ then.”
Back they went through the forest, heads hung low, defeated. Jack tried to think of something encouraging to tell Barry, but could come up with nothing. He hoped that something inspiring would come to him to tell the others, but doubted that his tired mind would deliver much eloquence on the spot. He’d dragged the whole group halfway across the state, way up into the mountains, and their supposed refuge was occupied by a gang of Neo-Nazis. How positively could you position that?
With the hill that led up to the road in sight, a hundred or so yards off, Jack’s amplified Sordin ear muffs picked up voices coming from the road. Unfamiliar voices.
“Get out of the vehicles! Now!” a gruff voice yelled, followed by a string of expletives.
“Come on, move it!” another barked.
The pit of Jack’s gut sank into a black hole of panic and despair. His hands went weak.
“Oh no!” he mouthed silently, setting off on a run.
A lone gunshot echoed out through the night. A split second later, all hell broke loose.