My plans were in place. We just had to wait on the weather. Rather than the cover of a storm, I wanted a day of relatively warm sunshine. Such were rare in this country, I was discovering, but hopefully not entirely nonexistent.
On January 14, my patience was rewarded. By midmorning, the temperature had risen nearly to the melting point. Not a cloud in the sky. Riflemen were posted at jungle’s edge, watching over soldiers with axes and horizontal ladders. The ladders were extended halfway out over the river, far enough for a couple of men to cat-foot it out over the ice and begin chopping. To keep the axe men from pushing their end of the ladder down into the drink, half a dozen burly fellows stood on the landside end. Piece of cake. Happily, the river was frozen only at the edges. Some winters, as I understood it, the Roil froze over completely.
Once we had clear water to the shore on this jungle side, cavalry mounted up and towed the ladder across behind them. Where the ice began near the far bank, a dozen riders leaned from their saddles to pass the wooden contraption between them, over the ice. With the ladder’s far tip on the far bank, one man–chosen for his athletic ability–stepped gingerly down and walked on wood to dry land. Dry except for a foot of snow, that is. He then dragged the ladder farther onto the bank and stood on the last rung, lessening the strain on the arms of riders in the river. Another man–this one chosen for his light weight–dismounted and joined him.
The entire process, including ice chopping, took roughly an hour and a half. The sun was directly overhead but a few wispy clouds began showing above the western willow screen. No lunch today; it was crucial to complete the crossing as expeditiously as possible.
This time, no man was required to strip naked for the crossing. Few got so much as a splash on them. They were ferried over, riding double behind cavalry. I was pleased to note the lack of sulk in those mounted fighters. Their horses had been protected by infantry during their extended jungle stay. The cavalry appreciated that. Our army, diminished as its numbers might be, had become a single, cohesive unit. These men made me proud.
With a mere fifty-four horses left to pull ferry duty, it took six trips across the Roil to get every man free of the jungle. We all drew great breaths of open country air. Our shoulders, and I was no exception, lifted up and back. Living in the Zoo had oppressed us more than I’d realized.
The last batch was still strung out across the river when shots rang out. First one, then a volley. Not aimed at us, but away. Our sentinels had spotted a MAP scout, seeing him before he saw them.
My men should not have opened fire. The rider was too far away and too well mounted. Perhaps he hadn’t even seen us; the sentinels had been somewhat screened by the willows. But no-o-o, they had to get all excited and start taking potshots instead of lying low and hoping the enemy might wander closer or miss us altogether.
Knowing they’d be flinging themselves into saddles, preparing to give chase, I bellowed at the top of my lungs, “Hold position!”
They held. I drove Flame through an opening in the brush in time to see the enemy rider top a rise before disappearing down the other side. Sure enough, the man was riding one of those big black chargers. Even Flame, I suspected–though I’d never admit it–might have trouble catching one of those.
“Have you forgotten the Grave Detail Ambush already?” The scorn in my voice dripped with venom, part of the reason for my name. “Did you not think there might be others?”
I expected no answer and got none.
It could have been worse. The scout could have seen us first, brought the wrath of MAP down upon us when we were most vulnerable, our cavalry caught in the water and our infantry split between prairie and jungle. As it was, yes, they knew we were coming now. But we were in good shape. Losing more than eight hundred men had left the remaining three hundred with as much ammunition as they could carry. We were well north of those spooky cliffs, and thanks to our jungle stay, the men’s packs were heavy with smoked meat. Boots were wearing out and a few horses had worn shoes removed, leaving them bare-hooved, yet the Gathering with its riches was no more than two or three marches north. We’d be fine for two, maybe three weeks yet. If we hadn’t taken the River City fort by then, we’d be dead anyway.
Sora and I agreed. The situation could be a lot worse.
Stirk nodded briefly. “We’ve had eyes on them, Major. There’s no question. Chang came out of the jungle at the ford just below Forty Mile Creek with what looks to be his entire army. Our counts are coming up a little short, but not by much. Ten fewer horses, maybe fifteen fewer men. We’re still working on getting an exact count.”
“Any chance those missing numbers are up to something?” Like most of us who’d settled down for a restful few weeks, R & R in River City, Grunt had shaved. The big man had to be approaching seventy yet lacked none of his native vitality that I could see. I should look so good at his age.
“Anything’s possible, Jake. We’re watching our sixes when we’re out there, for sure. But my gut says the Fringe took its toll and the missing men and horses are monster poop.” I turned my attention to Stirk. “All right, Chief.” Chief of Scouts, that is. “Keep us posted. And remember, you’ll be reporting to Captain Gilson from here on in.”
“Ain’t likely to forget.” The burly man rose and began putting on his gloves. It was back to the field for him. “You done okay running this war so far. I reckon you got your reasons.”
When he was gone, I turned to my commanders. “Gil, you’re all set?”
“As ready as can be with what we’ve got. All four south-facing trenches are dug, the rocks and sand piled up facing the lower ford. Every man knows his position. Couple of flame throwers would be nice, but hey. Short of that.”
“Better just hope Chang didn’t find any unexpected allies or weapons in the Fringe.” I gave my second in command a level stare. “And don’t be begging for both machine guns again.”
The Captain chuckled. “Bottom line, Major, yes. We’re ready.”
“Hnh.” Grunt shifted uncomfortably on his camp stool. He wouldn’t admit his gunshot butt-cheek was bothering him again but I could tell. “Reckon we’ve rehearsed it about to death, Michael. “We come around at ’em from the north ford, swing out by the road, engage ’em when Wash sends up smoke. Try not to get shot, give ground grudgingly, retreat back around, hope they follow. How am I doing so far?”
“On track, old man,” I grinned. “Just try not to get yourself shot again. You’re a mighty big target.” He chose not to dignify that with a response.
“Wash, the bench is ready?”
“Raring at the bit, actually.” Washington Conroe chewed on a winter-dried grass stem as he spoke. “Just two north-facing trenches. First volley, then fire sporadically, make ’em think we’re either low on ammo or short on men. When the time is right, trench #1 troops fall back to trench #2 while trench #2 provides cover fire. Rinse and repeat as necessary, back the trench #3, then #4, then up to the stockade if it comes to that.”
“Good enough.” Julia and I rose, picking up our rifles and our packs. “You’re in overall command, Gil. Jules, let’s beat feets.” We all left the tent, scattering to our assigned duties. My wife and I had to mount up and get across the north ford while the getting was good. If one of Chang’s scouts managed to lay eyes on us too soon…I preferred not to think about that. Adrenaline churned in my belly, screaming for action or free time in an outhouse, it didn’t care which. It all came down to this. Worst of all, it was my plan. If things went south, every River City death would be on my conscience for approximately…forever.
I had to see for myself. Sora and I followed the general forward, dismounting when he did and bellying through the snow to peer over the low rise. “You see the ford, War Leader? And beyond it, where earth has been thrown up? They obviously mean to keep us from crossing the river if they can.”
“Yes, General. I see it. This is the route that would take us right up the gullet. Yet I see neither horse nor man. They may have soldiers in that trench but a horse would not fit. They are ready for us.”
“It puzzles me,” Sora said at my side, “that their scouts have not been more aggressive. They always were in the past, yet since we left the Fringe, they have done nothing but run from our scouts. Why is that, I wonder?”
“Why, indeed?” It was ever a worrisome thing, this wondering. No conqueror liked surprises. “Our maps indicate the north ford is much closer to their bench stockade. Perhaps under its guns, even. These trenches–there must be more than one–Skilled Man, if we are able to take the first, would we not have our own beachhead? Kill the soldiers there, or force them out, and take it for our own uses, would that not be of benefit?”
The idea of the north ford was inviting. It would be quick. Once across the river, which could be waded this far north at this time of year, infantry would have a dash of three hundred yards, four hundred at most, to assault the bench. If enough men made it across alive. At that exposed north end, against an equal number of defenders, the odds would not be good. “We will cross here, at the lower ford,” I decided. “Our losses may be high, taking that trench, but once we do, we can hold off reinforcements from a position of strength. Long enough to get more and more of our soldiers across. By all reports, the water is nowhere more than three feet deep. Inform the commanders. We attack now, before the sun rises.” The weather had remained warm. Snow was beginning to melt. Today, the infantry would fight wet, the heat of battle their only warmth.
RIVER CITY BATTLEFIELD
“Here they come!” The soldier’s yell, stating the obvious, went unheard as forty MAP rifles opened up, firing through slits hand-carved in the frozen berm. No shooting horses deliberately this time; the charging cavalry were after all bringing their mounts onto Gathering turf. Why waste good breeding?
Their riders were another matter. Hooded Cobra infantry fired at muzzle flashes from across the river, lying prone behind whatever cover they could find, but their bullets found few targets. The defenders, on the other hand, were rested, well fed, and had their weapons sighted in perfectly. Of the first twenty horses to clear the water, nine had their loads lightened before the animals could get up to speed. Cavalrymen slumped over their saddle horns or slid off sideways, several of them hanging up in stirrups. Their fired-up horses ran in panic, dragging their flopping humans, busting skulls against the frozen ground.
There was no counter charge by MAP cavalry. Horses, in Captain James Gilson’s opinion, were for carrying you to battle, not stopping bullets. More attackers fell, including two magnificent animals who screamed in agony, dropped by poorly aimed bullets or bullets fired from less than precision weapons. Men screamed, too, but more often in battle rage than in pain.
The first wave of cavalry died to the man. The second wave took the trench. Yet no defenders died in their retreat, covered as they were by a barrage of fire from the hitherto unseen trench #2. The second trench, set twice as far from trench #1 as trench #1 was from the river, spat forth flame and death, not always simple lead bullets but sometimes large-bore loads of rusted steel bits, jagged and eager to rip and tear through flesh. A soldier drilled through and through might–just might–survive. The victim of a shot-shrapnel blast was dead before he hit the ground.
Chang did not exult. He could see it was going to be too close for that. He had his beachhead. Infantry troops were pouring across the river by the score. Yet now they faced a killing field of monstrous proportions. He might be able to flank the defenders. He would certainly try. Yet too many of his men were dying, as were too few of the hated MAP army. It did not take a genius to do the math.
Staying back, directing his forces, he saw the pincer movement before any one else did, even Sora. A strong force, all mounted, firing carbines one-handed. Several things impacted his consciousness at the same time. One, these riders were disturbingly accurate for men firing from horseback. Two, MAP had flanked him instead of the other way around. Three, there were at least eighty of them, led by a black-haired giant on a powerful bay. Four, if he let his army be cut in two, half across the Roil and the other half not…he could not let that happen.
“Wheel left! Charge!” Those across the river would have to fend for themselves. On this side, he would meet ferocity with ferocity. Without wasting any more time on thought, he pulled his ten-round repeating rifle from its scabbard and began firing. Sora shouted behind him but he did not hear. He did not realize Flame had carried him out ahead of his men, faster than any other horse in the army, far faster than any infantryman. Nor did he feel the bullets. Not the bullet that pierced his flame-red helmet and furrowed his skull. Not the round that shattered his left shoulder, nor the one that struck the big sorrel stud right between the eyes, killing the horse instantly. Had the animal’s skull not redirected the full metal jacket, Chang himself would have been drilled through the chest, his armor insufficient to the task.
Flame had taken the fatal bullet meant for him.
As he and his warhorse crashed to earth, Sora going down behind him, one hundred and eleven Hooded Cobra warriors pulled up in shock. Stared in disbelief. And then flipped a switch, not to panic but to fury. Many of War Leader Venom Chang’s soldiers had feared him. In the beginning, most had hated him as well. But that had changed. He was their commanding officer and must be avenged. They charged with renewed energy, the sort of power seen in a tiny mother lifting a fallen tree to free a trapped child. Across the river, troops pushed forward, routed the hated MAP fighters from trench #2, forced them back to trench #3. Those who’d witnessed the fall of their War Leader knew nothing about that. Cared nothing about it. Revenge was all that mattered.
Faced with this determined assault, Big Jake “Grunt” Sedlacek turned tail and ran, pausing only to yank a wounded man up with him. A MAP soldier who fell into the enemy’s this day would be hacked to pieces.
Only infantry pursued. Chang’s entire cavalry, aside from the two personal mounts belonging to him and to the Skilled Man, had been committed to securing the lower ford beachhead. On nothing but sore, booted feet, the pursuing infantry ran after the horsemen who’d done them injury after injury. They ran all the way up along the riverbank, firing wildly until they emptied their magazines, reloading on the run, and firing some more. More MAP horsemen fell, not many, but enough to slow the main body as Grunt’s dead and wounded were loaded up to ride double if they could, across saddle horns if they could not. After the first mile, there was no more enraged screaming. All breath was needed for the chase. Ragged gasps, in and out. Near the end of the second mile, where the Fort Steel road ran closest to the Roil, the horsemen hung a hard right, disappearing from sight, hidden from view by ten thousand willows lining the river’s far bank. Hooded Cobra’s squads should have been strung out all over the place but their training had held. They weren’t exactly in parade formation, but neither were they scattered.
As they stood there, bent over, hands on knees and rifles slung on their backs while they struggled to replace much needed oxygen, Major Michael “Dawg” Jade opened up with twenty-six fighters and both remaining machine guns. As far as his enemies knew, there was nothing but sagebrush out there on the other side of the road. Sagebrush with teeth, as it turned out. Michael himself manned one of the machine guns, Sergeant Julia Jade the other. Sniper Mace Smith stuck to his bolt action .338 Lapua Magnum, though this was pretty much point blank range for that weapon. Twenty-three men worked AK-47 copies in short, three-round bursts.
Forty-seven seconds later, all 110 Hooded Cobra fighters were down. The Jades moved among them, leading a kill squad, slicing throats or–in Julia’s case, with her sword–chopping off heads of those not obviously dead yet. There was steel in the woman’s eyes as well as in her sword.
Once the deed was done, Major Jade ordered all but two roving squads back to the north ford. “Hook up with Grunt or reinforce whoever needs it,” he said.
Ten minutes later, they were set up on Sniper’s Knoll. From here, Mace’s Laupa could reach out and touch anyone in the Gethering’s prime river bottom who hadn’t buried himself in the brush. As usual, Michael acted as spotter while Mace did the shooting. The difference was that this time it would not be a matter of shoot and move. This was for all the marbles.
“Far end, #2, wind five miles per hour at five o’clock low. One hundred thirty feet drop.” These were not guesses. Every location had been checked out a long time ago. “Hit.” Single kill after single kill, the pair eliminated key enemies. Anyone spotted near a horse was targeted first. After that, Jade trusted his instinct, his feel for who might be the most important enemy combatant down there at the moment.
Mace sniped three soldiers after the white flag was flown. Michael simply hadn’t noticed it, situated where it was, and the victims hadn’t raised their hands in time.
We kept watching through our scopes as the last of Hooded Cobra’s once-vaunted army surrendered and Captain’s Gilson’s people moved in to disarm them. “Is it really over?” Julia asked. She and the rest of the two-squad detachment had watched our backs while Mace and I focused on sniping. “Is it really?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted, “until we find out if Venom Chang is dead or merely wounded.”
My mate gave me a funny look. Not even she knew why I wanted the man alive.