A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 13
At least that was what happened when the maniple Cruz was accompanying was hit from the flank by a unit–hell, was it even a platoon?—of Tauran paras. The maniple commander went down quickly, followed by the first platoon leader. The exec had gone ahead and the first centurion was still waiting back at camp, to the north. And the platoons had simply broken and scattered, demoralized in advance by the unaccustomed retreat.
Cruz had managed to round up ten men, forcing them by sheer force of personality–well, that and a credible rumor that the cohort sergeant major wasn’t above shooting a coward–to hold a line to cover the rout of the rest, hoping that enough of them would get through to reform the unit under the exec. And they had bought some time for the rest, though all but two were dead or wounded now. And Cruz . . . Cruz . . .
“Sergeant Major,” asked the private, his voice filled with fear and desperation. He was a young kid, fairly new to the maniple. As he shook the bleeding Cruz to something like alertness, he asked, “Sergeant Major, what do we do now? I’m just about out of ammunition. So’s Salazar. And that’s after looting the dead and wounded. What do we do now?”
“Fix bayonets,” said Cruz, though he was hardly aware of having said it.
“Yes, Sergeant Major,” said the private, and was just about to click his bayonet home when he heard, coming from his front, a flurry of fire such as he hadn’t heard since the Mad Minute in basic training. The fire shocked him, which shock became deeper still when it was followed by “Banzai, motherfuckers!” in turn followed by a less distinct bellow of pure rage, coming from a mass of animals or maniacs, somewhere to his right front.
Ramirez’s first burst, not unpredictably, missed the machine-gun crew. It hit close enough, though, to make the gunner and ammo bearer nearly soil themselves, and to stop their continued firing on whoever or whatever it was that had been in the gunner’s sights. The assistant gunner took a shot at Ramirez, no better aimed than had been the tribune’s. Ramirez raised his F-26 rifle to his shoulder for a better aimed burst, but even as he lined the sights up, someone or someones in his crew bowled over the machine-gun team in a red misty haze. He dropped the rifle back to a lower position.
The tribune charged on, still screaming wildly and firing from the hip. If he’d been thinking he’d have, rightly, doubted he’d hit anything. Thinking though, was quite beyond his capabilities at the moment.
Passing a thick tree, Ramirez sensed a hulking presence. He was just turning when said presence launched himself forward, his unbayoneted rifle raised with the stock forward, for a butt smash.
Ramirez ducked, which was a lot easier for his being so much shorter than his assailant. The butt smash went right over his head, leaving the Tauran tottering forward from the overbalance.
Instinctively, as the hulking Tauran tottered, Ramirez lunged with the bayonet. He cursed at having the point fail to find any purchase on the Tauran’s body armor. The bayonet slid off, sliding further under the Tauran’s load carrying equipment, the harness holding ammunition, canteens, and first aid pouch. Instinctively–“Attack! Attack! Attack!”–Ramirez pushed forward on his rifle, twisting the falling Tauran around and causing his legs to entangle. The Tauran went down, losing control of his rifle as he did. However, with hands firmly–nay, desperately–holding onto his own F-26, Ramirez was pulled down with him.
And came up to hands and knees just in time to take a ferocious punch to the jaw from a Tauran who recovered his senses just a fraction of a second faster than Ramirez did. The tribune flew sideways, spun by the blow. His helmet flew off in a different direction.
Landing on his back, the wind knocked from him, and stunned besides, Ramirez’s swimming eyes saw the Tauran stand and draw a knife. Inanely, the tribune thought, What kind of moronic army issues a knife that can’t be fixed to a rifle, when they could issue a bayonet that can always serve as a knife?
Somewhat less inanely, realizing what the advancing Tauran intended for the knife, Ramirez’s right hand scrambled to his left side for the legionary issue, large bore pistol, held in the underarm holster there. He pulled out the firearm, aiming it at the Tauran with one unsteady hand, pulled the trigger and–
BLAM! Shit! Missed! BLAM!
The second shot did hit but the bullet, not yet having travelled enough for the spin to stabilize it, it hit at an off angle, and thus merely staggered the Tauran, lurching him back a couple of feet, and probably hurting like hell.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! Two misses and a hit; the Tauran coughed from the blow, and seemed stunned, but definitely did not go down. Instead, he shook his head, tightened the grip on his knife, and came on.
“Die, goddammit, die!” Ramirez exclaimed. Still on his back, he took his non-firing hand, his left hand, and placed it under the magazine well to steady it. Wincing a little in advance at what he expected to happen, he took a more careful aim–the care coming from his desperation–and with equal care, squeezed the trigger at the Tauran who was now no more than ten feet away.
A hole, about half an inch across, appeared in the Tauran’s face, about an inch to the left of his narrow nose. His head snapped back at the same time as the hole appeared, then, pulled by the head, the body arched backwards and collapsed.
Stifling a sob, Ramirez likewise folded into the dirt, exhausted beyond care by his ordeal, by the close call, and by the feeling of having committed murder.
He actually came to his senses while being led by Avilar to a place with several bodies, and some thousands of spent stubs from their 6.5mm rifles.
“I’m okay, Centurion; I can walk now.”
“If you say so, sir,” Avilar agreed. “The leader here”–Avilar pointed down at someone bloody, still breathing, and unconscious–“is Sergeant Major Cruz from Second Tercio. He’s hurt bad–sucking chest wound, both front and rear–but our medic reset the bandages and resealed the plastic, and gave him a blood expander. This group didn’t have a medic so it was just what a private remembered from basic training. At least his lungs have stopped collapsing and he’s got a fair chance of not drowning in his own blood if we can get him out of here. There are also two unhurt ones, two walking wounded, plus two more of ours. And five dead of the sergeant major’s along with two dead of ours.
“I’m having litters prepared from ponchos but we can’t carry all of them, not if we try to take the corpses out. And sir? There’s absolutely no time to bury the bodies.”
Ramirez winced, nodded, then said, “Sometimes I hate my fucking job. Leave the bodies. Load the litters as soon as you can. We move out in fifteen minutes.”
“We’re going to switch, too. You take point, head north. I’ll need whatever can be spared from the litters for a rear guard.”
Avilar nodded. “I’ll set it up sir. Now sit and rest, why don’t you?”
Ramirez sat. He was shocked, then, when the wounded sergeant major opened his eyes, looked at him, and said, “Ramirez? What are you doing here? I thought you were on a boat.”
“Ship, Sergeant Major,” Tribune Ramirez corrected. “My elder brother, the squid, would insist on calling it a ‘ship.’ We look a lot alike.”
“Elder brother? Oh . . . oh, okay. Tell him I said ‘hi.'” Then Cruz closed his eyes, letting unconsciousness take him once more.
Parilla Line, Balboa
As they had gotten closer to the line, Centurion Avilar had aimed for wherever he didn’t hear firing ahead. Passage of lines was a stone bitch under almost any circumstances. Trying to do it where a battle was in process approached the suicidal.
He tried the recognition signal over the radio and got nothing. He tried shouting out the approved code phrase and got a blizzard of bullets in return. The bullets that thunked into the tree behind which he sheltered were “friendly,” he thought, based on the rate of fire. What worked, however, was simple. In their own accent he said, “This is Centurion Avilar, Sixty-Second Field Artillery, with a party of twenty-one. If you motherfuckers shoot at me again I am going to come forward, take your fucking rifles, and shove them up your asses.”
“Cease fire! Cease fire!” passed along the line ahead. A voice called out, “Come forward, centurion, with your party of twenty-one. You’ve got to be friendly because nobody but an Anglian or a legionary centurion talks like that, and you don’t sound Anglian.”
“Fine,” Avilar shouted back. “We need an ambulance or three, and a land line to graves registration.”
“The command post can give you the land line. I’ll call for the ambulance or, if I can get them, ambulances. Come on in and welcome back.”