Authors: William W. Johnstone
Tags: #Science Fiction
The smell of burning and cooking and charred human flesh and hair was thick in the damp air, clinging close to the ground, offensive even to those who were long accustomed to the smell of death.
The carnage seemed to go on for hours, when actually it lasted less than five minutes. Five minutes to snuff out hundreds of lives. Ben was reminded of the old saying: “You pays your money, you takes your chances.”
The ambush was almost one-hundred percent effective. Perhaps twenty or twenty-five men escaped into the brush and jungle, running in sheer panic to escape the death trap.
“No pursuit,” Ben ordered, his voice strange in his head after the yammering of combat.
Automatically, Ben ejected the nearly empty magazine from the belly of his Thunder Lizard and slipped in a full one, clicking it into place. He walked to the door and looked out through the swirling smoke, staring impassively at the sprawled bodies and those few who were wounded and trying to crawl away. A few were crying out for help in English, others were calling out
in a language Ben did not understand, but he was reasonably certain the vocal content was the same.
Ben slung the M-14 and pulled his canteen out, unscrewing the cap and taking a long drink of water. He was conscious of eyes on him. He searched the death scene until he found the man who was staring at him.
“Water, please,” the man called.
Ben walked over to him and knelt down. The man must have taken at least eight or ten rounds in the chest and belly; he was soaked in blood. Ben pulled the wounded man’s canteen from his web belt and unscrewed the cap, holding it to the man’s lips. Water to a man gut-shot is dangerous, but what the hell? Ben thought. This guy will be dead in a few minutes. The blood staining his lips was pink and frothy-lung shot.
“You are the devil, Ben Raines?” the man gasped out the question.
Ben smiled. “That’s me.”
“You live up to your reputation, General.” Then the man closed his eyes, shuddered once, stiffened, and died.
Ben placed the canteen on the ground next to the man and stood up. “I’ve been called worse,” he said to the dead man, then turned and walked away.
Some of the Rebel deuce-and-a-halves were able to back out of the brush and jungle without getting stuck in the soft earth. Rebels were already using them to wench out trucks that were mired up.
“How many people did we lose?” Ben asked, as Cor-rie walked up to stand beside him.
“None. Five wounded. None of them seriously.”
“We lucked out again.”
The rest of Ben’s team joined him and stood watching as the dead were unceremoniously dragged off the road and tossed into ditches. They would not be buried. The wounded-those the medics thought might have some
chance of making it-were patched up and carried to huts and houses. The dying were given a shot to ease the pain and left alone to wander off into that long sleep.
Several times Ben heard the whispered words among the wounded: “That’s the devil himself over there.”
Ben ignored the comments and walked away, over to where his own wounded lay, being treated. Their wounds were not serious, certainly not life-threatening, and all five would be up and ready for limited duty within a few days. He chatted with the wounded for a few moments, then walked on.
“The animals and the carrion birds are sure gonna have a fine time here when we leave,” Jersey remarked.
“That they will,” Ben replied. “But I don’t believe the dead will notice.”
“Those enemy troops at the junction have fled, boss,” Corrie reported. “Running away in all directions.”
“Somebody caught up in the ambush kept their cool and was professional enough to get off a radio message. With the element of surprise gone, those at the junction wanted no part of us. Good. Just maybe we can get out of this country without another fight.”
“I wouldn’t bet any money on that,” Anna said, standing nearby.
“No,” Ben replied. “I don’t think I would, Anna. We’re going to have to be heads up at all times from now on. Corrie, how many of the enemy trucks are serviceable?”
“Maybe half a dozen.”
“Load all the collected weapons, ammo, and what supplies we can salvage from the ambush into them. Let’s get out of this damn place ASAP.”
His team knew what he meant: the awful smell of deadi hung everywhere and clung to everything; especially the odor of burned human flesh. And the after-
noon rains had not yet come to wash and cleanse the earth. It was time for a lunch break, but no one wanted to eat here.
“Corrie, tell the companies ahead of us to hold up at the junction; wait for us. We’ll be pulling out of here within the hour-hopefully.”
“It’ll be about forty-five minutes, boss.”
“That’s even better. Damn, this place stinks!”
A medic walked up. “General, the one white who survived the ambush wants to talk to you. He’s hard hit and probably isn’t going to make it.”
“All right. Lead the way.”
The officer looked to be in his early forties and had been hit twice in the chest and twice in the belly. The doctor attending him met Ben’s eyes and shook his head, then walked away. Ben knelt down beside the man.
“An honor, General Raines,” the dying man whispered. “You are truly a worthy foe. You might even be a match for Field Marshal General Bottger.”
“How many damn titles does that nut have?”
The officer smiled: a bloody curving of the lips. “Whatever suits him at the moment, General Raines. But he pays well and while he might be just slightly insane, he is a brilliant field commander.”
Ben didn’t argue that. He knew Bruno Bottger’s tactics well and knew he was not a commander to take lightly.
“Then you are not one of Bottger’s regulars?”
“No. I’m Austrian by birth. A professional soldier by the grace of God.”
“You’ll fight for whoever pays you the most money.” It was not a question.
“That is correct. Politics does not interest me at all.”
“How many men can Bottger field?”
“Several hundred thousand regulars and several hun-
dred thousand natives who joined him after he arrived on this shithole of a continent.”
Ben smiled faintly. “Does he have an air force?”
“Yes. Jet fighters. Not that many but he has training programs and factories working around the clock as we speak. All of the south of Africa is his new homeland, so he’ll be ready for you and your Rebels, General.”
“I’m sure he will be. What happened to the people of South Africa, the white population especially? And I’m talking about all the whites south of here?”
“They fought us. We killed off most of them. Pity, they were good fighters, too. There are still many of them left, but they’re disarmed and helpless. They know that if they oppose us, they die. It’s just that simple. Once you disarm a nation, the citizens are virtually helpless.”
“Yes. That’s what the liberal politicians in the United States tried to do.”
“But you and your people, among others, rose up and fought them.”
“Tooth and nail.”
“You were better organized, General. Despite the efforts of government enforcement agents. Oh, I followed your exploits carefully. I always admired your courage and tactics.”
The man’s voice was growing weaker.
“You will face growing resistance the further south you go, General.” The dying officer coughed up blood and for a moment, Ben thought he wasn’t going to be able to continue. He fought for breath and settled down. “And then from the Congo River south you will meet Bottger’s legions. And he will stop you eventually. Oh, you might push him back a hundred miles or so. Two hundred miles, perhaps, if you’re very, very lucky. But this is one fight you cannot win. But you will be a
very worthy foe for him, and he will respect you for that.”
Ben said nothing. He waited.
“You might be able to strike some sort of deal with him, General. Have you given that any thought?”
Again, the dying man smiled that bloody grimace. “No? I thought not. Widi you, it is all or nothing, correct?”
“Something like that.”
“I would keep a deal in the back of my mind, General. I really would.”
“I don’t make deals with thugs.”
“So I have heard, General.” Weakly, the man lifted a bloody hand and saluted Ben. “Good-bye, General Raines. I’ll see you in Hell.”
The officer closed his eyes and died without a shudder or another word.
“Could be,” Ben said, rising to his boots. “It sure wouldn’t surprise me.”
Ben’s company joined the others at the junction and cut east toward Abomey. On the way to the border, Scouts reported seeing patrols of enemy soldiers, but there were no further attacks against the column while they rolled through Togo.
At the Togo/Benin border, the column halted. There were no border guards.
Ben got out and walked toward the raised barrier at the crossing, joining a group of Scouts.
“Looks as though no one’s been here for a long time, General. No cigarette butts, no discarded ration containers, no nothing. It’s strange,”
“Corrie, is Nick meeting any resistance?”
“Nothing,” she reported. “He’s waiting at the border crossing at Ouake. It’s deserted. No signs of life.”
“Paul’s 17 Batt?”
“They’re still in Burkina. About seventy-five miles from the border of Nigeria. They’re reporting no trouble.”
“Mike’s 16 Batt?”
“Waiting at the Mali/Niger border. Taking a break. No trouble.”
Ben was silent for a moment. He rolled a smoke and lit up. A couple of minutes passed before he spoke. “Get
a link set up, Corrie. I want a report from every battalion.”
The portable satellite was set up and Corrie spent the next half hour talking over hundreds of miles. Then she reported to Ben.
Ben sat for a moment by the side of the road, which had been swept for mines and cleared. “For several days, every battalion stretched across Africa was under either full attack or hit and run actions. Then suddenly, nothing. We know there are small patrols out watching our movements, Scouts from every battalion have seen them. It’s a coordinated effort; you can bet with certainty they are not acting independently of each other …”
The rains came thundering down in a gushing torrent, preventing Ben from finishing his thought. Tents and tarps had already been set up and Rebels scrambled for cover. Ben and team, Dr. Chase with them, ran for the squad tent that had been set up for him. Corrie set up her equipment on a folding table and sat down. Portable generators were cranked up and the coffeepot was filled up and turned on.
“Tell the cooks to set up and get busy,” Ben ordered. “We’re going to be here for at least the night.”
Ben did not have to order guards out. That had been done within seconds after the column had halted. Now tanks began moving into position around the camp and several hundred yards away from the center of the encampment, perimeter bangers were being strung and claymores carefully placed.
Within minutes, the camp was as secure as human hands could make it.
“Scouts are five miles inside Benin,” Corrie said, raising her voice to be heard over the drum of heavy rain on the canvas above their heads. “Nothing. And the road just stopped. They’re facing brush and forest.”
“Shit!” Ben cussed. “We’re going to be forced to cut
south and take the coast road. Exactly what I didn’t want to have to do. Or else cut north for a hundred or so miles and take the highway over to Savalou. If we’re attacked by any kind of force along the coast highway, we could be in serious trouble. We could be forced back, or surrounded on three sides with the Atlantic at our backs and no place to run. We would then have to be evaced by sea, leaving all our equipment behind. And that just might be what the guerrillas have in the back of their minds and to hell with Bottger’s orders.”
“But we don’t know for sure, right?” Dr. Chase asked.
“We sure as hell don’t, Lamar.”
“About fifty or so civilians approaching from the Benin side,” a guard called. “About a third of the bunch are kids.”
“Check them out carefully for weapons,” Ben said, walking to the flap and pulling it back.
“Time to go to work,” Lamar said, rising from the camp chair.
“Get a translator in here,” Ben ordered. “Pump them for information.”
For once Lamar didn’t argue with Ben about bothering his patients.
Ben walked out seconds behind Lamar and looked up the road, Benin side. He knew after only a glance there was nothing to fear from this bunch. They were some of the most emaciated looking people he had yet seen in Africa. And he also could tell, even from this distance, that several of the kids being carried in the arms of their mothers were dead.
Ben stepped back into his squad tent and returned to his portable desk. Anna remained at the opening of the tent, looking at the pitiful sight. Ben studied her in the dim rainy light. There was no expression on her lovely face. She had not only seen it all before, she had lived with it for years, struggling for survival in the old
country, before Ben picked the little waif out of a lineup of street hoodlums and took her under his wing.
Anna stepped out of the tent and slogged away through the mud, heading away from the border crossing. Ben thanked Beth for the mug of steaming coffee she placed in front of him and turned on the lamp, powered by the portable generators. He opened a map case and selected a map.
He suppressed a groan as he studied the route along the coast. Then he laid the map aside and shook his head. They would not take it. Too risky. They would head north to Savalu, then south to Dassa-Doume, northeast to Save, and enter Nigeria that way. If, and it was a big If, the bridge over the Oueme River was intact. If it had been destroyed? … Well, they would find out in a few days, or a week, it all depended on the roads.