Push Back (Disruption #2) - R.E. McDermott

Chapter One

Appalachian Trail

Mile 1199.7 Southbound

Just north of US 50/17

Day 20, 6:15 a.m.

Briers ripped George Anderson’s clothes, and small branches lashed his face as he crashed downhill, leaving a trail through the dense undergrowth a blind man could follow. The dogs’ excited baying in the distance left no doubt they were closing, and the outcome of the chase was a foregone conclusion unless he could think of something, and fast.

The brush thinned abruptly, and his right foot met thin air, plunging him on hands and knees into a small fast-moving stream. He cursed as his knees smashed into the hard slate of the creek bed and he barely managed to avoid sprawling face-first in the water. Then hope rose anew—would water confuse the dogs? He ignored aching knees and bolted downstream through calf-deep water in a limping run. He slipped and slid on the slick bottom, barely managing to stay upright, his pulse pounding and his breath coming in loud, ragged gasps.

He moved faster in the creek and even imagined the barking was fading, but minutes later a change in the timbre and volume of the baying told him the dogs had reached the stream. He held his breath to quiet his breathing in the desperate hope he’d hear some sign the water had defeated the dogs. The triumphant baying of the lead hound dashed that hope—the chase was on again.

Anderson pushed even harder, oblivious to the treacherous footing as he splashed downstream. He had even increased his lead a bit, when his left foot plunged into a shallow depression in the creek bed. He went down face-first, striking his head on a large rock.

He struggled to a sitting position, stunned, his vision obscured. Water swirled around him, tugging insistently, and when he wiped his eyes, his hand came away bloody. He bent his face to the creek and shoveled water over his head with his cupped hands until his vision cleared. The baying of the hounds grew louder. His left knee throbbed. Time for plan B, whatever the hell that was.

He’d read somewhere dogs followed scent through the air, and the failure of the stream to confuse them supported that theory. Could he use that?

He limped to the stream’s edge to strip off his ragged backpack and shirt, setting them both on the bank to peel off his sweat-soaked tee shirt. The sodden fabric clung to him, the sour odor of stale sweat intense as he tugged it over his head. He grimaced as he held the tee in his teeth and rummaged in the backpack for his water jug, a gallon Clorox bottle. He dumped the water and recapped the bottle, then wrapped the stinking tee shirt tightly around it, securing it with a length of twine from his pocket. Satisfied, he tossed the reeking float in the middle of the creek and watched it zip downstream faster than any human—or leashed tracking dog—was ever likely to move. “Please don’t hang up anywhere,” Anderson murmured.

“Okay, Anderson, stay calm,” he told himself as he slipped into his outer shirt without bothering to button it. “There’s plenty of time, so don’t screw this up.” The baying was closer.

He fumbled in the pack again for an old plastic garbage bag then transferred the meager contents of the pack to the bag before tossing the empty backpack into the stream near the bank. It tumbled downstream, half-submerged in the rushing water, to fetch up on a tree limb dangling into the edge of the creek. Anderson nodded—it looked natural, not staged—but his self-congratulations were short-lived as something ran into his eyes and he looked down at a blood-soaked shirt front and blood spots dotting the rocks around him. Still bleeding!

The dogs were close now, their yelps increasingly excited and mixed with human shouts. Panic rising, he tore his shirttail into a makeshift bandage—then stopped. Stay cool, Anderson, stay cool—lemonade from lemons.

He limped into the creek and bent at the waist, his hand cupped to his head wound to collect the blood. When he had enough, he slung the collected blood downstream, dotting the rocks along the creek’s edge before he tied the makeshift bandage around his head, praying it would staunch the blood flow long enough.

Heart pounding, he dunked bloody hands in the creek, then waded out, splashing the bank thoroughly as he came, both to wash away the blood drops and hide his wet footprints as he exited. On the bank, he pulled one last tool from his ‘garbage bag of tricks,’ his