The area around us has been quiet for 10 minutes and I decide now’s the time to cross the road and continue the mission. I slowly rise and give each man in the patrol the up signal, slowly lifting the up-facing palm of my support hand, followed by the sign for a linear danger area (the road), using the same hand, palm down, drawn across my throat, then point to the road. Finally, I tap my left shoulder indicating we will cross the danger area using the “scroll-to-the-road method” and then point to the area on the road where we will cross. The crossing point has good visibility in both directions down a long stretch of the road with no nearby curves. We won’t be surprised by someone suddenly turning a bend in the road at a short distance from our patrol.
The point man in the patrol, in this case Andy, stands and moves toward the road. He takes a knee just inside the treeline, using a large poplar tree for cover and concealment, with his left shoulder (the Ranger scroll or unit patch is on the left shoulder) facing the road. He is now looking down the road to the west, providing security in that direction. When he is in place and sees that the road is clear in that direction, he motions the next man, Jim, forward. Jim moves to Andy’s position, and taps him on the shoulder. Andy then turns around to face the opposite direction, east, insuring it is also clear. By then Jim has taken a knee in Andy’s old position and Andy then quickly stands and moves across the road, still facing east, until he has found concealment just inside the opposite tree line. There he takes a knee still facing the opposite direction from Jim. Andy’s left shoulder is still facing the road but since he is on the far side, he is still facing east. Now both directions of the road are under our observation. Next Al moves to Jim’s position, where he taps his shoulder, and the entire process is executed again. This time however, as Jim turns and moves quickly across the road, he taps Andy on the shoulder. Andy stands and moves into the woods a few yards where he stops at the head of the patrol. He is now on one knee facing in the direction of forward movement. Finally I move to Al, tap his shoulder and the process repeated once again, this time Al turns and after moving across the road, he taps Jim who moves into the woods to Andy’s old position as Andy moves deeper into the woods. Finally, I quickly cross the road, bump Al who moves into the woods with me following when he reaches the proper march interval. If done correctly, the patrol will cross the danger area smoothly without stopping movement. As the last man crossing, I drag a small branch behind me in the dirt of the shoulders of the road to help obscure any footprints we might have left. This technique is more useful when crossing a dirt road and while it will not cover all traces someone has crossed, it does help to conceal the number of folks who have crossed.
We continue movement in a file formation through the ever thickening underbrush and canopy until we come up hard on Ben Creek. The branch is narrow and twisting and so we don’t treat it as a danger area. We ford the noisy, narrow branch, through the knee-deep, ice-cold water and with the help of one another, struggle to scale the high, steep bank on the far side. After crossing we continue to move perpendicular away from the road, due south up the rapidly rising slope. At about 100 meters beyond the branch, Andy passes back the new rally point signal, pointing to a massive, room-sized, boulder jutting out of the mountain side. This activates our last rally point at the saddle on the top of the ridge we have left behind. I send up the signal for the patrol to turn west in order to handrail the road. After we’ve moved about 200 meters from the danger area crossing location, I feel it is safe to stop the patrol long enough to allow each of us to empty the water from our boots and wring out our wool socks.
We continue to slowly, steadily and silently follow the terrain features, checking off each on the map as we pass it, in order to keep track of our location. We wind in and out of the draws and cross the spurs while hand-railing the road below us. In a matter of minutes the fog lifts but the rain steadily gets harder and the temperature is noticeably dropping; our breath now is visible in the air. After moving nearly 1 kilometer Andy stops the patrol and signals for me to come forward. As I approach his position I see that he is looking down the mountain at a small home in a clearing on our side of the road.
Scanning the house, I quickly decide to bring Jim, the assistant patrol leader, up to my present location. I get Andy’s attention, point to him, then send him the security signal, index and middle finger forming a “V” held under my eyes. I bump the stock of my AR with my closed fist, then holding my palm facing down I show him two fingers pointing down, close my fist, then five fingers, also pointed down, (25 meters) and point in the direction I want him to go in order to provide left side flank security.
Next I motion Jim to join me and for Al to provide right side security at his present location, using the freeze/hold sign, a closed fist. Both Al and Andy know to include rear security in their respective sector scans. 360 degree security is ALWAYS our first priority
Jim joins me in the prone under a small copse of bushes at the edge of the clearing where we have an unobstructed view of the homestead below. Through the binos our gaze is immediately drawn to the bodies of a man and boy laying about 15 feet apart in the tall grass of the large overgrown yard behind the 1 story ranch style house. Or what is left of the bodies. It appeared that they had been worked over pretty good by coyotes or buzzards. Four of the large black birds are standing around the adult now. The man, who was fully clothed except for his bare feet, is laying on his back with both arms, which are probably bound, under him. If he had a face above his bearded chin, it would be staring into the sky. His torso has been ripped open by the scavengers who have been after his intestines, which were strung out like random lumpy red and yellow ropes around his body, as well as his lungs and other organs.
“Jim, looks like his head and face have been crushed like an egg. That’s not something coyotes can do.”
“Yeah, whispers Jim. I’d say someone took a sledgehammer to him.” After a moment’s hesitation he adds “Dan, take a look at the young’uns neck.”
The boy was thankfully laying on his side away from us but I noticed his head is laying at an odd angle. Looking closer, I see a thin piece of line or thick wire that had been pulled so tight it around his neck that it has nearly severed his head. His wrists have been bound behind his back then lashed to his bound feet.
“Father and son” Jim grumbles as he lowers his binos and turns to look at me. I see the darkness in his eyes.
I’d seen that look and heard that tone from him in the past and it usually meant it was going to end very badly for someone. Jim is a fellow that keeps score.
We both turn back to the scene below when Jim nudges me and says, “Dan…the clothes line at the far side of the house.”
To the left side of the house I see the line. Hanging among the now wet sheets, towels, pants and shirts are several dresses.
“Dresses?…. Women….. Where are they?” I think to myself.
Glassing the house carefully, I look for any sign of other bodies. Nothing. There are no bullet holes to be seen from our angle in the wooden structure. All the window glass is still intact. The back door is open into the house and is hanging loosely from the top hinge.
“They gained entry from the back” I think out loud. “Subdued the family inside, bound those two, but why drag them outside to finish them?
“Dunno,” Jim whispers back. “Who knows why friggin” psychos do what they do.” He pauses for a few seconds, then adds slowly in a flat tone, “All I know is… this won’t stand.”
“No it won’t. Not if I can do anything about it” I think to myself.
A small stone building set into the hill to the right of the house was most likely the family’s root cellar. Most folks in the mountains have built them to store their garden produce and home-canned goods in when electricity for refrigeration had become unreliable. The root cellar door, with the hasp and lock still attached, has been torn from its hinges and now lies flat on the ground near the small building. Empty canning jars and lids are scattered on the trampled grass around the front of the root cellar where the looters had eaten the family’s carefully raised, prepared and stored food.
Jim remembers Wade throwing the empty canning jar he had been eating from, out of the UTV earlier in the day.
The last building in our field of view is a small shed just below us at the bottom of the hill. It’s situated next to a piece of tilled ground, which was most likely the family’s garden plot. On one side of the shed is a covered area where several cords of split fire wood are neatly stacked. The closed portion of the shed had been their chicken coop, but it’s now empty except for a few feathers on the ground near the open coop door.
While I am trying to wrap my head around the scene below, Jim throws yet another wrench in the works. He slowly says as if thinking to himself “Wonder why no one has buried those two yet? Why have they been left to rot and be eaten by the critters? Where are their neighbors and other family?”
Jim is right. No one lives alone out in the sticks anymore. In order to survive in the small, isolated coves of these mountains, everyone lives in small clusters of family and friends who help and look out for one another.
That little switch in my head clicks. “Time to go Jim. We need to get to the objective and call this in. Nothing we can do for them now.”
“Sucks that we can’t bury them” Jim says flatly.
“Turn it off man. We’ve seen a lot worse.” I reply without looking at him as I slip my ruck on and start to back out from under the bushes.
“Still sucks” he says.