Jason studied the road ahead. He hid in a clump of bushes at the top of a gentle rise a quarter mile from the interstate. The county road he followed went under the highway. He was in an exurban landscape with houses thinly spaced along the road. They were long abandoned, some with windows broken or doors opened, announcing to all that they had been cleaned out of anything valuable. More than a half year’s growth of grass grew along the road and in the yards, adding to the desolate look.
Going down the hill he would be exposed. There would be no sneaking from house to house and stopping at each rise to check the road ahead. The underpass would also make a good spot for an ambush. His route so far had skirted downtown Hillsboro. He had no desire for another encounter with the militia or gangs, which Jason felt to be one and the same. To the north of the interstate lay the national forest and the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains, his goal.
Since the electromagnetic attack on the country, Hillsboro was turning itself into something like a medieval city. The suburbs were abandoned and the town was walling itself in. Jason had watched personal freedoms disappear as martial law was established. His plan was to strike out on his own in the Appalachia Mountains. This crossing was his last hurdle; from this point on he would be walking away from town.
Better wait till night. Get some rest; do this right and don’t be careless. It felt like freedom lay just on the other side of the interstate.
Late that night, with a quarter moon barely softening the pitch darkness, Jason studied the road from his vantage spot. It was still shocking how dark the nights were with no lights. He shouldered his backpack and carried his Ruger .223 Mini 14 Tactical carbine at the ready. The Ruger had a round chambered, ready to fire. He had encountered scavengers and the militia on his journey out of town. Both were dangerous, but the militia frightened him more. Their ferocity stunned Jason and running into them in the open would be dangerous.
Quietly he walked down the road towards the underpass. He stepped carefully to keep his footfalls soft. Nearing the underpass, he stopped and crouched in the ditch along side of the road, listening. The night was still.
He stood up and walked to the opaque underpass. Carefully he walked forward, blinking, not yet seeing properly. His left foot stepped on a branch that snapped with a loud crack. His right foot was tripped by the rest of the branch as it sprang up. Cursing under his breath, Jason stumbled forward.
Suddenly he heard a car door open on the road above; then another; then some muffled conversation.
“Wake up. I heard something below us,” a man whispered.
“What’s up?” another voice asked loudly, in reply.
“Shhh. I think I heard someone underneath the highway.”
“So what?” came the now whispered reply.
“What would someone be doing on the move this time of night?”
“Hell if I know.”
The voices were hard edged, rough.
“My guess is they got something to hide from the militia or scavengers, stuff we can use.”
“I do. We ain’t found much along the interstate, so I say we take a look. If there’s someone down there sneaking stuff out of town, we can take it. Get Jake.”
“Shit, I was sound asleep until you bothered me.” A new voice entered the conversation.
“Bring your guns; we don’t know what we’re gonna find.”
“Shoot first, look second?” one of the men asked.
“Play it by ear; if they give it up, we may let them off easy. Be ready for anything.”
The men had been working their way west on the interstate, scavenging from the abandoned cars and using them for shelter at night. Sometimes they could siphon some gas and barter that for food. They were looking for a gang to join in Hillsboro. They were not interested in disarming and being controlled by any militia.
Jason could only hear parts of the muffled conversation whispered above him. There were sounds of movement now from above.
They’re coming - there’s nowhere to hide, no getting away. Jason slid off his backpack and tightened his grip on the Ruger.
He was in the dark of the underpass, just before the pale light spilled down from the gap in the lanes. His eyes were now adjusted to the dark of the underpass; he would have a moment’s advantage and he knew he had to take advantage of it. Adrenalin rushed through him. He began to shake.
They sound so casual about taking everything from me. They’ll kill me just as casually. I’m not going to talk my way past this. Images of the wild chase two days ago flooded his mind. This time he would not run. He could not. There was no outrunning them and no hiding from them. He was too close and didn’t have a head start.
Three men came down to the road level at the far side of the underpass. He could hear them talking. They were still sheltered by the overpass abutment.
“Do we step out and go under?” one asked.
“He may be armed,” the leader replied.
The men waited, not sure what to do next.
“I don’t hear anything. Think he’s heard us?”
“Maybe, go back up and be ready to come down in between the lanes in case this guy’s armed,” the leader directed.
Jason heard movement but no one came into view. What’s going on? They have to give themselves away when they move. Don’t move, wait.
Then two men stepped into view at the far end of the underpass. Jason took aim. He knew they could not see him in the greater darkness. Before they stepped out of the moonlight, he opened fire. One man went down immediately, the other fired wildly into the dark and then went down from Jason’s return fire.
Where was the third? He listened. There were footsteps above. Jason retraced his steps and crawled up the embankment on the south side of the highway. He saw the man’s shadowy image coming across the far set of lanes. Jason fired at the shadow. The man returned two rounds of wild shots that went far wide of Jason’s position. A few more shots from Jason sent the man running west on the lanes towards Hillsboro. Jason climbed up on the road and shouted as if calling to another shooter, “He’s running west, see him?” He then fired one more round in the direction the man fled.
Less than two minutes. Jason stood shaking and panting.
Did I kill them? Get moving! He didn’t know who might have heard the gunfire and how quickly anyone might come. He didn’t want to be there to find out. He had to get to the woods. He ran back down to the local road, shouldered his pack and started running through the underpass, past the men he had shot. One lay still and from the other he heard sucking sounds as the man struggled to breathe. Jason shuddered but kept going.
On the other side of the underpass, he turned right and climbed up the embankment to the cut slope where the interstate had sliced through the side of the hill. Vegetation had not fully grown over the raw cut.
Jason ran along its base away from the underpass until the slope became less steep. He moved diagonally up the slope, crawling, scrambling and fighting the loosening dirt. He needed to reach the cover of the trees at the top. From there he could defend against anyone following. His hands clawed at the rocks and dirt, trying desperately to gain the top of the slope and the cover above. Reaching the top, Jason crawled though the bushes into the protection of the trees. He lay down, covered in sweat and blood, completely out of breath.
After a few moments he crept back to the edge and looked out to see if anyone was chasing him. The road below was silent. Through his binoculars, he thought he saw a shadow moving south on the local road he had used. Otherwise, all below him was still.
Jason crawled back to his gear and with great effort dragged it a few more yards into the underbrush and lay down. The fear, the panic, and now the realization that he had killed without warning and maybe without need overwhelmed him. He started shaking again.
He sensed a line had been crossed; what effects it would have on him, he could not say. Are we all going to become barbarians? Is this what it will take to survive? Finally, the adrenaline drained from his system, he sank back in exhaustion and fell asleep.