The Forever Engine – Snippet 43
I tripped, almost fell sprawling, but kept my feet and regained my stride. From its sound and weight I knew I’d tripped on a dropped rifle, and the sudden surge of anger almost overwhelmed me. Idiot! Some jackass dropped his rifle and had almost killed me, not to mention himself and his friends when the animals caught up and he was unarmed.
We’d overtaken at least some of the fugitives, but the sound of something coming through the grass was close now. No one was going to stop on their own, and this couldn’t end well. The ground cover was higher, thicker here. Branches and tree limbs crunched under my feet, and I saw the darker shape of a tree trunk.
“Come on you lot!” I heard O’Mara shout close by. “Keep together.” At least someone was still thinking about their men.
Time to make a move.
“Marines, rally on me! O’Mara, pick a spot for a stand.”
“Right. ‘Ere’s as good a place as any to face ’em. Form up, you bastards!”
I knew the emotions struggling in the men. Their legs wanted to keep running, but their heads wanted someone to tell them what to do. It might be too late, though. The animals, whatever they were, were close, streaking through the brush and tall grass.
I grabbed Gabrielle by the arm to slow her, and we found a small knot of men, hard to tell how many in the darkness.
“Form a firing line facing the animals,” I shouted, my voice hoarse. “Do it now! Close up and keep it tight.”
And then the first one of them hit us, rocketing though the air in a leap. I only saw it for an instant, but it was the size of a wolf or bigger. It hit a Marine in the chest and bowled him over into the brush, the two of them rolling in a pinwheel of arms, legs, and feathers — big feathers.
“FIRE!” I screamed and got a ragged volley of four or fire rounds. I added two quick rounds from the Webley, firing low and spreading the shots, although the noise and muzzle flash were more important than the potential damage.
“Again! Keep it up.”
I heard the bird screeching behind me, the down Marine crying out, fighting for his life. The ragged volley had wiped out whatever night vision I had. Everything was sound and smell now. Sweat and fear, crushed grass and black powder. The crack of more rifle rounds from our firing line, screeches of animals, cries of men going down under them, but not here, farther from the river toward the hills. A wet-sounding thud and the animal on the ground squawked once in pain and fell silent.
“That’s done for him,” O’Mara said, his voice ragged. “On yer feet, Williams.”
“Gabrielle, where are you?”
“I am here,” she answered.
An animal streaked past me from a different direction. Gabrielle screamed as she and the bird went down together. I jumped on top, got my left hand into the feathers on its neck, and tried to pull it off, but the son of a bitch was strong! Screeching, ripping cloth, cries of pain. I raised the pistol and cracked the bird on its back — aimed for the head, but it was moving too much. The blow didn’t make much impression through the feathers, but I got its attention. It spun and sank its teeth into my forearm, or at least the sleeve of my coat, shook its head, and I felt its strength all the way up in my shoulder.
Its jaws, its head — too big for a bird. A bird with teeth? a remote part of my mind asked.
I didn’t know who might be in my line of fire but had to take the chance. I pushed the Webley’s barrel against its chest and pulled the trigger. Its body muffled the sound. It jerked, let go of my arm, took a step away, and fell over with a whimper.
“Gabi, are you okay?”
“I . . . I don’t know. I . . .”
I felt for her, found her, did a quick check on her face, throat, and hands, and didn’t find anything slippery with blood. She trembled uncontrollably.
“Hold it together, sweetheart. Okay?”
“You carry matches, for your cheroots, right? Dig some out. I need them,” I said.
“O’Mara!” I shouted.
“One moment, sir. Cooperson, is that you on the end? You and Williams, half left, two paces forward, and fire to the south. Space your shots. You others keep up your fire but slow and steady, in sequence right to left.”
Then he knelt next to me.
“Is the lady all right, sir?”
“I think so, for now, but whatever these animals are, they’ll circle around eventually. We need a fire.”
“What the blazes are those things, sir?”
“Fire,” I repeated.
“Right. A fire,” he said, and it was clear it hadn’t occurred to him. “Aye, a fire would be a fine thing, sir, and there’s wood lying about here, but it’s damp from all the rain. It will take some time to get it going.”
“I bet we can speed things up if one of the men has a signal rocket.”
“I’ve got one here, sir.” He slipped his pack off and set it beside me. “I’ll see to some wood.”
I holstered the Webley and felt O’Mara’s pack with my hands. I found the signal rocket lashed to the top, got it free, and took my first close look at it, although by feel. A sheet-metal cylinder with a crimped cone at one end and a bracket for a launching stick at the other. The stick itself was tied to the rocket. I pulled out my sheath knife, cut the lashings that held the rod to the rocket, and started working at the soldered seam by the bottom.
“Here’s some wood, and I’ll get more.” O’Mara dumped an armload of damp brush and branches beside us and hurried away.
I had the bottom open by now and shook out some of the powder of the propelling charge into the brush.
“Got those matches?”
“Here,” Gabrielle answered and handed me a half-dozen and a box with a striker strip on the side. Her hand was steadier now. My own shook enough that I broke the first match, but I took two long, slow breaths to steady myself. The second match lit, and the charge powder sizzled and flared to life, igniting the brush. That got a ragged cheer from the Marines around us.
I worked the top of the rocket tube open, shook out a handful of the powder from the bursting charge, and threw it into the fire, got a nice flash from it and a wave of heat.
I turned to get more fuel, and right there, not more than ten feet away, I saw the eyes of a large hunting bird glowing with the reflected light of the fire behind me, disembodied and seemingly floating in the air. I pulled my Webley out, careful not to make any sudden move, took aim, and fired twice. I sensed more than saw the animal fly back from the impact.
A Marine was down in the grass near me. I could tell at first from the direction of his voice; then I could make him out in the growing firelight. He was praying in a thick Irish brogue.
“Hail Mary, full o’ grace, the Lard is with thee. Blessed art d’ou among wimin, and blessed is the fruit o’ thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mudder o’ Gawd, pray fer us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
But it wasn’t the hour of our death. Close, but no cigar.