by J. B. Hogan
Part 1 and part 2|
appear in this issue.
Dust rose up behind the fleeing riders, filtered the sun’s light, blocked the Erads’ sight. But they raced on anyway, firing up the road, seeking revenge for their fallen comrade. After a few moments of the mad chase, Lt. Rankin realized the enemy had disappeared into the sun and that the pack was wasting precious ammunition.
“Cease fire,” he cried out. “Halt firing.”
The order went through the pack, the firing became sporadic, stopped. The pack slowed. Regrouped around the lieutenant. Lt. Rankin waited for the dust to settle. He saw nothing on the road ahead. Heard nothing but the sounds of the pack around him.
Stephen lifted himself up in the back seat. Dared a peek outside. Straight ahead was another rise in the road, this one steeper than the one before. Ahead to the left, a series of low rolling hills, cut in places by a meandering creek or small river. It would have been a beautiful sight, Stephen noted to himself, if it had not held so much potential danger.
“All right,” Lt. Rankin leaned out of the vehicle to bark at the pack and to wave them on, “move out, time and a half.”
“Oh, God,” Stephen murmured to himself, slinking down in the back seat again.
The pack started as one, then, traveling fast, but not recklessly, spreading out on either side and to the back of their commander, senses keen, eyes trained on the treacherous land around them.
“I see something over that rise over there,” Lt. Rankin said, Stephen seeing him point his right arm forward in a motion to charge and the pack stormed over the top of the hill. What they saw caused them to brake their vehicles to sliding stops and rein in their wild assault.
Stephen looked out and saw that below the hill on which they had stopped, directly before them on the road and further back on both sides of the road as well, spreading off towards the small river that could clearly be seen snaking through the land, were several hundred mounted Long Wound warriors. The stunned pack gathered outside and off their vehicles to take in the size of the enemy force, to gauge its strength, the combat possibilities and odds.
“Holy hell,” Bead spoke into the tense silence.
“Son of a jammer,” Cage cursed softly.
“Listen up, men,” Lt. Rankin told the pack, the resolve in his voice highly impressing Stephen, who peered fearfully at the scene before them all, “we start forward slowly, then on my signal make for those hills to our left. If we can get there, get to the top of those hills, we may be able to set up a defensive perimeter. Hold them off.”
“Yeah,” the pack concurred. All but Bead.
“Sir,” he addressed his uncle, “hold them off till when? We’re low on food, fuel, water. Low on ammunition. Hold them off how? For how long?”
“Never mind that, boy,” Lt. Rankin said, surprising Stephen and no doubt the other Erads by not upbraiding Bead.
Stephen imagined that in their world, seldom, if ever, did an Erad question a superior’s orders, object to a course of action, present a counter point of view. It would no doubt be an invitation to disaster, probably resulting in the questioner being driven from the pack, or worse.
The rest of the pack looked at Lt. Rankin, waited for an additional response. They must have expected Bead to be summarily dealt with. But they would have been wrong — this time. And it was then that the rest of the pack, and Stephen, their unseen observer, understood. There was no reason to chastise Bead. This was it for the pack. The end. Lt. Rankin signaled for the pack to move out before the idea could take complete hold. The men mounted onto and climbed into their vehicles.
“Steady, men,” Lt. Rankin called, holding out his right hand as the pack advanced slowly towards the enemy, “steady.” Twenty yards down the hill, he jabbed the air with his right arm. “Now,” he cried out, “now.”
With the lieutenant at their fore, the Erad pack broke from the road, raced wildly into the desert land beyond it, headed for the hills above the small river. With a high pitched, yodeling cry, the Long Wound soldiers charged after them.
“Oh hell, oh hell, oh hell,” Stephen blubbered, not caring whether anyone could hear him or not. Over the din of the run, no one could.
Shouting and firing, the Erad pack tore across country, fleeing for their lives. The Long Wound soldiers broke into three groups: one rode hard to intercept the Erads where the small river crossed before the low hills; another group swung around behind and to the left; the third mounted a full frontal attack. A phalanx of twenty warriors broke through the middle of the Erad pack, splitting it into two disorganized troops.
Bead was separated from his father and uncle in one half of the divided pack, which was surrounded and driven northwesterly angling away from the river and hills. The two older Rankin men and Sgt. Cage were in the other group, and it drove hard towards the center of the hills. None of the Erads had time to notice that the third group of Long Wound soldiers was no longer in sight.
With the pack torn in two, the Long Wound soldiers began to drop the madly firing Erads. One from Lt. Rankin’s group fell, then two in Bead’s. Bead and the rest of his men were harassed from all sides; they dismounted, fell behind their machines to fire back at their pursuers. The Rankins and Sgt. Cage miraculously reached the creek, drove desperately across it and leaped to the ground to try and dissuade the many Long Wound soldiers attacking them.
In their abandoned vehicle, Stephen White clung to the back seat as if it were the only thing keeping him from falling off the face of the earth. But he could not restrain himself from peering out at the battle and what he saw was amazing.
The Erads, now surrounded everywhere and their cause surely hopeless, fought with the fury that was undoubtedly their stock in trade. They dropped many Long Wound soldiers, filled the air with their deadly sounds, soaked the soil with the native People’s blood. But it was only a matter of time until their ultimate defeat.
In the heat of the battle, Stephen saw Lt. Rankin’s brother Tom fall, a Long Wound spear through his throat, saw the other Erads with Tom splintered from each other, running towards the hills, cut down from all sides. He saw Lt. Rankin grab huge Sgt. Cage and with a voice made harsh from yelling and from the smoke in the air around them tell the big soldier to run, to save himself.
“I can’t do that, sir,” Stephen heard Cage say, as the big man ducked alongside the Erad truck with Lt. Rankin.
“You have to,” Rankin told him, “you must. We must not all die.”
“No, sir,” Cage refused.
“That’s a direct order, sergeant,” Rankin said. “For us. For the pack.”
“Sir, my place is here with the pack.”
“Don’t argue, sergeant.
Cage knelt closer to Rankin as an arrow banged off the side of the Erad truck just by his head. Stephen looked up, saw many Long Wound warriors coming — fast, crying wildly.
“Go. There’s no time. Alone, maybe you can get out. It’s the only chance. You can get past them on the romcycle, then outrun them to Endgate. It’s the only hope.”
“Yes, sir,” Cage said, looking for a chance to make a dash for his abandoned romcycle.
“Sgt. Cage,” Lt. Rankin called.
“Don’t let us down. Always remember this day.”
“Yes, sir. I will, sir.”
And Sgt. Cage went. Stephen watched breathlessly as the big man leaped astride his romcycle and cranked it up. Cage drove back across the small stream, nearly losing control of the vehicle, then exploded out onto the dry land beyond the creek. He must’ve seen Bead there, as Stephen did, running towards the escaping sergeant, arrows sticking in his chest and legs.
And he would have seen a warrior, perhaps the one Cage and Bead had failed to kill before, break from a crowd of soldiers beyond Bead. The warrior rode up alongside the young soldier, lowered Crad’s lost DC-40 and blew the top of Bead’s head off. With a shout, the warrior then galloped after Cage, another half dozen of his men joining in the chase.
But Cage’s unexpected run had caught the enemy off guard. He rode insanely for the main road, bullets and arrows whistling around his fleeing figure. The Erad sergeant hit the road airborne, landing hard and sliding nearly to the point of laying the cycle down before righting it and accelerating to top speed down the center of the smooth dirt road. A tower of dust rose up behind the romcycle and Cage quickly outdistanced the horse-mounted soldiers galloping after him.
As he roared off, Cage could not know or see that the third group of Long Wound warriors, the group that had vanished at the very beginning of the battle, had reappeared over the top of the hill behind Lt. Rankin and the few of his men who were still standing and fighting. The big sergeant could not see the warriors drop down off the hill to ride through the remaining Erads, slaughtering them where they stood or where they ran, finally cutting down Lt. Rankin himself.
And at the end, at the very last, the bulky Erad sergeant could not hear the deafening cheer rise up from the scene of the Erad slaughter. Could not hear the Long Wound warriors celebrating their greatest, bloodiest victory. Sgt. Cage could not see or hear this, the end of his pack; but he would have known it was all over. He would have sensed it. He would have felt it in the marrow of his bones.
Back at the scene of unspeakable carnage, Stephen lay in the backseat floorboard of the Erad Desert Runner, incapable of action. Long Wound warriors were everywhere outside the vehicle, whooping, cheering. They looked inside the vehicle.
Stephen held his breath. No one seemed to notice him — except... The warrior Stephen had seen kill the Erad Bead poked his head inside the back of the vehicle. The young man wore a small, feathered headdress that had been knocked akimbo during the battle. One feather hung precariously to the headdress, ready to fall. Stephen, unable to contain his fear any longer, gasped and turned to look at the warrior. For a moment their eyes met and in that moment of mutual recognition Stephen yelled in terror.
“Aieee,” the warrior cried out himself and instantly, without hesitation, brought a heavy, rock-faced tomahawk squarely down on Stephen’s head.
* * *
Stephen came to thrashing around on his couch. He was flailing his arms wildly and almost knocked himself off onto the carpeted floor of his crappy little apartment.
“Holy crap,” he said out loud.
His heart pounded and he was panting and puffing — nearly out of breath. He looked around the apartment wildly, expecting a warrior or an Erad to materialize in his living room, arrows flying or weapons firing. When he realized he was safe and sound back in his own little place, he fell back onto the couch and let out a huge sigh of relief.
“Oh, my God,” he exhaled a deep breath of air, “this stuff is starting to wear me out.”
Reaching down off the couch with his right hand, Stephen braced himself to stand up — slowly. He felt something soft beneath his hand. He picked it up without looking and brought it to in front of his face as he stood.
“No way,” he said softly, “no darned way.”
Between the thumb and index finger of his right hand he held a white feather. Not a real long feather, but an inch or two wide and musky smelling. He turned it over and examined it carefully. At the base of the feather, the pointed hard end that had once firmly attached it to some kind of bird’s wing — Stephen guessed a Canadian goose maybe, before it had perhaps adorned the headdress of some strange offworld warrior — right at the base of that feather was a tiny red spot. Picking up his glasses from the coffee table beside the couch, Stephen lumbered off to the bathroom where the bulb over the sink gave off the best light in the apartment.
“Too strange,” he said out loud, when he had looked at the feather more thoroughly.
It looked just like the feather he’d seen on the Long Wound soldier in the dream or hallucination or whatever had just happened to him that had thrown him so realistically seeming into that other world. And the red spot was blood. Fresh blood.
Stephen checked himself everywhere for a cut. His hands, his feet, arms, legs, neck, head. There was none. With a deep, troubled sigh, he set the feather on the sink counter and just stared at it for a moment.
“Not possible,” he said after a few moments. “Not even remotely possible.”
Leaving the feather where he’d set it, Stephen headed out for the kitchen. He was suddenly feeling very thirsty. His throat was very dry. Very dry indeed.
Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan