Grunt, Chapter 95: The Poet and the Pyre

JULIA JADE

I finished my circuit of the camp and stepped down from the saddle, handing the reins to Gwinnie Bliss. “Thanks, Gwin.” It no longer felt weird to let somebody else care for my pinto mare. War had a way of pointing out the obvious. While we were in a combat zone–which at the moment meant the entire Northwest Territory claimed by MAP communities–a noncom’s time was too valuable to spend currying a critter.

“Any time, Sergeant.” She led Pepper away, the hips of both equine and human females swinging provocatively.

Michael was seated on his camp stool, studying a sheaf of reports as he waited for the last of us to arrive. Stirk was running late, but the Chief of Scouts would be all right. The muscle-heavy Jew looked slow and clumsy. He was neither. We’d come to realize his brick-barn exterior camouflaged a towering intellect, an extreme awareness of his environment, even a powerful streak of creativity.

The man wrote poetry, for cry-yi.

My mate, Commander in Chief of all MAP forces, raised his head, smiling. I responded with a crisp salute, followed by a kiss on his bearded cheek. His whiskers tickled.

“All well in camp?”

I nodded. “As well as could be. The pyre is ready.” Our seventy-four mile retreat from Ripple Ridge had been accomplished in three days, a remarkable feat in itself. But we’d had to do it. Here at Big Fish Creek, we were sheltered from the worst of the brisk autumn winds that accompanied the cold snap. Pure water flowed through camp, its purity enforced by Strong Arms authorized to arrest any fools caught relieving themselves too near the broad stream. The wide but shallow caldera, long inactive, provided a natural wall against those who might try to attack or snipe. We’d not care to fight a pitched battle here but it served as a far better than average location for temporary respite. “Lots of deadfall cottonwood. It’ll burn fast.”

“Good.” Postponing cremation for these past four days could have been a stinky proposition as bodies decomposed. The cold snap had saved us a lot of misery, though it wouldn’t hold forever. It was too early in the season for that. Probably. “Wash Conroe’s sentries have spotted Stirk. He’s on his way. Should be here soon.”

“What are the numbers?” Pet Bliss trotted over, toting a teapot and a mug. She poured the mug full, handed it to me, topped off its twin sitting at Michael’s right hand, and left as quietly as she’d come. Both of those Bliss girls, already old for their age, seemed to have matured overnight.

Michael selected a sheet of paper and began to read. “Twenty-five dead, including Lieutenant Moss Feldman, three sergeants and two corporals. There will need to be some promotions to fill those ranks. Twenty-six wounded, ten of them too seriously to ever fight again. The others all want to stay on campaign, heal up in the field until they can march and hold a rifle. One machine gun out of action, barrel got so hot it cooked off a round too early. Blew up the gun and killed the gunner. Sixty-one rounds left for Mace’s .338.”

He put the paper back in the pile. “The medics have worked miracles, especially Herman and the Comptons. The others, too, but those three took the toughest cases, soldiers expected to die during our retreat. Without their efforts, we’d have lost a lot more people than we did.”

“Give ’em medals.”

“I intend to, as soon as we can figure out the logistics. Like what to call Medals for Medics, what they should look like, and who gets the headache of manufacturing them.”

“Wondermas.”

Our conversation stopped. Stirk rode in, his huge black horse looking no more than a pony under his builk. The Chief of Scouts joined us without ceremony, not bothering to salute. In general, nobody saluted in the field. Why play Red Chang, targeting MAP’s top dogs? My salute to my man was more of an inside joke between us.

“All well on the scouting front?” Michael gestured to a thick cottonwood chopping block. Stirk’s special seat. No mere camp stool would hold the man’s weight.

“Yes and no.” The burly Jew twinkled at Pet as she brought his tea. Despite wearing Roost tanned buckskins that emphasized her budding curves, she responded with a mock curtsy, twinkling merrily. The twelve year old flirted with the oversized Scout shamelessly. What Stirk thought of that, I remained unsure. He did clearly enjoy the byplay while remaining the soul of propriety. If something came of that, the forty-four year old man wouldn’t be robbing the cradle. The cradle would be robbing him. “Chang is staying put for now, so that’s good. He’s improved his night defenses to the point I’d not recommend trying to pull another dark raid, so for us that’s bad. He’s got his people cutting huge amounts of firewood from the bank of the Roil, fueling an outer perimeter of fires that are kept going from dusk till dawn. His sentries are still setting up in fixed positions, but they’re dug in. Hard targets. The ground’s not frozen yet. Their scouts are plentiful and fierce now. Seem to have lost all fear of us. Ain’t easy getting close enough to scout the main encampment. We done it, understand. It just wasn’t easy.”

“Hm.” Stirk saying it wasn’t easy meant that nobody but he could have done it. Which was okay. I’d had my fill of slip-sliding past sentries anyway. It just didn’t sound like fun any more. Besides, losing Moss Feldman made me aware of my own mortality, not to mention the mortality of Michael, my mate, and Mace, our best friend. Take any one of us out of the equation and the balance would tip in favor of Hooded Cobra.

“Any guess how soon they’ll march?”

“Not soon, I’m thinking. We hit ’em pretty hard. Tell you what, some of my fellow Jews might not like Slim doing his wizard thing, but they’ve envied him from day one. With Moss no longer around to protect him, he’s right. If he returned to the Badge, he’d always be having to look over his shoulder, waiting for a knife in the back. I’m figuring to take his children out under the protection of my scouts, deliver them safe and sound to him and Merrilee, once this is over.”

I could see Michael girding himself. “Stirk, I need you to take over Banty Squad and accept a promotion to Captain.”

THe big scout’s gentle eyes turned hard as stone. “Don’t much care for the idea of being stuck with a roving squad, Major. Cramp my style.”

“No.” Michael shook his head. “I didn’t make myself clear. With Moss dead, Slim persona not gratis, Merrilee following her man over to Rooster Squad, and two privates too badly wounded for combat, the Bantys are down to seven men, only one of them a corporal. I want you to fold them into the Scouts. You’ve lost four, dead or wounded. The Bantys may not be trained scouts–not yet–but they can ride and fight from horseback, and they’ll follow your orders without argument. So, OJT, on the job training.”

“Oh. I…guess that makes sense.”

We all startled slightly as brass notes smote the air. Love that word, smote. Company trumpets blowing Assembly. Wordlessly, we got to our feet and joined the throng moving toward the cleared area. A huge pile of wood held center stage, tinder and pitch-laden twigs on the bottom, then layer upon layer of cottonwood branches in ever increasing sizes, all topped with two dozen split logs of Douglas fir. Few fir stands existed at this elevation. It was like the universe had known we’d need the dried deadwood. Cottonwood burns too flashy-fast; it wouldn’t hold enough heat long enough to properly cremate the bodies laid out on top of the fir logs. We had chosen to burn our dead, leaving nothing behind for grave-robbing Hooded Cobra soldiers to find. Let them guess at our losses. Never let them be sure. Never give them the opportunity to despoil the remains of heroes.

Michael climbed the crudely carpentered steps to the tiny speaking platform. Now accustomed to barking commands across chaotic battlefields, his voice was easily heard by all three hundred souls present.

Three hundred, I thought. As in three hundred Spartans at Thermopylae. Creator, I hoped not. Those three hundred had all died. Yet we would do that, too, if in the doing we could utterly destroy the invaders.

“Every one of us here,” my mate began, “living or dead, fights for our homeland. Some of us have already paid the ultimate price and we stand here to honor them today. As Souls, they have gone on before us. Some of us, nay, even all of us, may join them ere this war is finished. But it will be finished. None of us wish to die, yet none will cringe away if that is the price we must pay to keep our people free. We knew this when we joined the army to protect those we left behind.

“On the other side, few of their soldiers wish to be here. The African Americans were conquered and conscripted. The Jews were between a rock and a hard place, making the best deal they could. The Asians are not all Chinese and those who are not are looked down upon by their masters. All of them are far from home, fighting the natives–that’s us–not because they choose to but because they were given no choice. It’s important to recognize that about them, to recognize them as human even while we kill them and they kill us. Each of you, when going into combat, is a fierce guard dog defending its turf. With the exception of their War Leader, each of them is a wanderer driven hither, thither and yon by forces beyond his comprehension. We will show them no mercy but we must understand them. And nothing summarizes the Battle at Ripple Ridge better then the poem written by Stirk, our Chief of Scouts.”

Major Jade pulled the paper from his jacket pocket, unfolded it, and began to read.


RIPPLE RIDGE

They charged upslope at Ripple Ridge
Nine hundred soldiers trying to bridge
The gap between what they had seen
And a river of despair

They opened up with laser fire
Sending to his funeral pyre
Commander of the Banty Squad
We knew as true and fair

We answered back with wizard blast
Knocked a hundred to the grass
Machine gun rounds kept flying down
Yet on and on they came

More Hooded Cobra soldiers down
As up on high MAP held its ground
We killed them off at ten for one
The blood looked all the same

They paid the price, they gained the crest
Jubilant, in need of rest
While off we ran to fight again
Some dark and bloody day

What would man be without a war
It’s in our bones, it’s in our core
The battle at sharp Ripple Ridge
Testosterone at play

After he finished reading, the only sound was the honking of wild geese on high, winging south through a graying sky, their vee formation ragged but extensive. Then the first tiny lights flickered to life at the base of the pyre all around the perimeter, rapidly expanding as pitch and twig turbocharged the fire. The troops stayed in formation, holding their salutes until the crackling blaze engulfed the topmost logs, cradling more than two dozen blanket-wrapped bodies in arms of flame. The trumpeters sounded taps, a military underscore that brought tears to my eyes, spilling down my cheeks. Horns fell silent. Saluting hands were dropped. The fire began to roar. Chosen honor guards, one from each unit, pointed their rifles up and away, triggering a twenty-one gun salute into a graying sky.

It would be weeks before I’d find out about the marching song. Obtaining a copy of Stirk’s poem, Grunt found a talented soldier who set the lines to music. On the march, we females shouted out the final line, Testosterone at play, with greater enthusiasm than anyone else. Soldier girls got balls.