Authors: David E. Meadows
Tags: #Fiction, #General
RETIRED LIEUTENANT GENERAL DANIEL THOMASTON
looked at his watch. The green glow from the hands showed a few minutes after midnight. It was amazing how dark a moonless night was when no electricity flowed to chase back the shadows. “They should have been back by now,” he said quietly to retired Sergeant Major Craig Gentle.
“Yes, sir. They were told to be back before sunset.” He glanced at his own watch. “They’re a couple of hours overdue. Maybe they ran into the rebels?”
Thomaston turned to the side and picked up the M-16 he had leaned against the side of the darkened building. “Could be. I hope they’re either broken down somewhere or found a safe place to hole up until morning.”
“I hope you’re right, Boss, but we’ve been calling them on the radio continuously with no luck.”
“I know,” Thomaston added morosely as the two strolled across the compound toward the front gate. “We have to assume the worst.” He looked around to make sure no one was within listening range. “Most likely they’re dead. Don’t want to give up hope, but according to Beaucoup Charlie their last transmission was at 2100 hours—on the dot—as scheduled. They missed the 2130 and 2200 check-in times. No, you’re
right. They’ve run into the rebels. The question is whether it was a hostile point patrol or the main force. At the nine o’clock check-in they were fifteen klicks from here.”
Thomaston walked around the knoll with the flagpole and Civil War cannons. The flag had come down as planned at eight o’clock. Everyone in the compound had come out, stood respectfully, and watched the militia lower the American and Liberian flags. The young bugle player had done a credible job playing taps. Thomaston had ignored Gentle’s cringe when the teenager mangled the high note.
He glanced at the flagpole. A slight breeze rattled the secured flag-line chains against the metal staff. The offbeat clanking sound created a brief vision of ghostly apparitions in Thomaston’s thoughts. He hoped the surrealism was not prophetic.
“Sure wish we had some armored personnel carriers, a couple of tanks—” Gentle said, thinking aloud.
Thomaston let a small grunt escape. “And a couple of brigades of Special Forces. It would be one big
when those assholes arrived.”
“Yeah, it would be. Fortunately, we do have a couple of M-50 machine guns, and unfortunately, only limited ammunition for the small arms we have. I hope those sailor boys get here soon with their Marine playmates.”
Thomaston stared at the African night outside the front gate. What a cruel continent, he thought. No room or forgiveness for mistakes.
. They were told to turn back when they checked in at nine. Instead, they had smooth-talked Beaucoup into letting them go forward for another thirty minutes to see if they could make contact. Why in the hell the radio operator didn’t ask
or at least tell him what they were doing, was just another example of the difference between a military organization and one clouded by consensus-building civilians.
“Do a quick reconnoiter and return,”
Charlie had told them.
“You know, we could move those vehicles we got crammed together in back and sparse them out around the perimeter,” said Gentle. “Might slow the rebels down if they have to crawl over them.”
“Might also give them cover if they get inside the
compound. Let’s leave them where they are for the time being. It would do little good to move them anyway.” They had enough small-arms ammo for the M-16’s and enough to make the two old .50-caliber machine guns effective. However, unlike the enemy force headed their way, he had no supply tail to replace what he used.
He ran his fingers along the buttons of his sleeves. He had rolled the sleeves of the jungle-camouflage utilities down when night fell as a preventive measure against mosquitoes. Granted, it made the utilities warmer than he liked, but the threat of West Nile Virus, malaria, and the host of virulent mosquito-borne diseases made the bites deadly. They had started spraying last year, but it hadn’t done any good. The slight night winds just imported mosquitoes from those unsprayed areas. Thomaston had been one of the few to argue against spraying. He preferred using natural and preventive methods, for life, once changed or introduced, always found a way to survive and spread.
The two friends stopped near the front gate. The strong steel fence of the gate was closed. It bothered Thomaston. The chain-link gate would allow unfettered weapons fire directly into the courtyard. On the inside of the right gate against the brick wall, two guardsmen manned a sandbagged machine-gun position. The M-50 barrel hovered about six inches above the six-foot-high brick wall, poking under the chain-link portion of the fence that rose above it. That should be sufficient to protect the gate, unless the bogeymen he was preparing the armory for were real and had more than small arms when they arrived.
They had been trying to regain radio contact with this Admiral Holman with no success. The loss of satellite communications and limited VHF/UHF ranges, which were line of sight, meant radio contact would mean U.S. forces were on their way. The only other radios they had were the limited-range radios in the SUVs. He had no way of knowing what was going on except through the hourly BBC news broadcasts on the radio. An hour ago, the BBC had reported both an American and French Naval force off the coast of Liberia. If that was true, then where in the hell where they?
He strained his ears, hoping to hear the noise of an
automobile engine mixed with the jungle night sounds. Several seconds of concentration convinced him nothing was there but the nighttime life-and-death struggle within the surrounding jungle.
They had kept scheduled contact with the patrol after it departed the armory. Thick forests, rolling hillside terrain, and unidentified deposits in this mineral-rich nation disrupted radio transmissions. Heightened sunspot activity during the day stopped most radio efforts entirely; especially the lower-high-frequency ranges that had the capability of long-haul earthbound communications.
Complicating their situation was knowing that Admiral Holman would be operating on the last thing they’d discussed, which was that Thomaston and the Kingsville population were evacuating overland to the Ivory Coast.
That gate still bothered him. “Sergeant Major Gentle, I believe you may be right. Move a couple of those larger trucks up here to this front gate.” Thomaston pointed. “Right now, it is like a sieve. Wouldn’t stop a BB, much less military small arms. Let’s seal this front gate up.”
“Yes, sir, General. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Good. We should have insisted this armory be built with a practical military use instead of thinking of it as a ceremonial decoration. This gate would work great keeping demonstrators at bay. Open like it is, it makes the inside of the armory like a pinball machine. Small-arms fire funnels through the front gate, ricochets a few times, and hits someone. While we’re ducking, they could mount a concerted offensive that would burst right through it. Trucks across the front would not only block the view from outside, but keep random fire from playing havoc inside here.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll go take care of that now.”
Thomaston watched the back of Gentle for a few seconds as he walked away. The smell of cooked meat whiffed through the air from the back of the main building. The families had been cooking all the fresh and frozen meat. There was no way to preserve it. He spotted a family of refugees emerging from the side of the building, plates of food held near their mouths as they wolfed down the huge helpings being dished out.
Good leadership often meant being consistent even when it
went against personal desires. Civilians were a strange lot, like the lady and her daughter who’d walked into the armory this afternoon. How the hell they’d made it from Monrovia to here was a miracle. But they’d insisted a patrol go to their house in Monrovia to pick up curling irons, hair dryers, and clothes. Shock, he suspected. The lady’s husband had been killed during their escape and her two sons were missing. Shock did that to a person. It made your mind focus on minor things to obscure what really frightened you.
He had thirty militiamen if that patrol failed to return. Another sixty men and women capable of firing a weapon, and a host of children and refugees who might find themselves in a battle for their lives. A battle they’d never imagined they would have to fight. He had enough weapons to stop anything within Liberia, unless the rebels brought up the few tanks the Liberian Army had probably abandoned in Monrovia. He crossed his fingers. If they showed up with armor, none of them stood a chance.
“They’re moving the trucks,” Gentle said as he returned.
The sounds of engines turning over rode the night air. “There they go now,” Gentle added, jerking his thumb toward the rear of the compound.
Thomaston nodded. “Thanks.”
“May I ask what your thoughts are, General?”
Thomaston sighed. “I am trying to determine what other options we have, Sergeant Major. The failure of the patrol to return helps confirm that an armed force is heading this way. They may show up with heavy weapons, for which we have no defense. Armor would give a small force commanding presence even if they had no ammunition for it.” He shook his head. “It doesn’t look good. Small arms to small arms, we can hold out for a while, but we can’t get into a battle of attrition. They will outnumber us.”
“Thank you, sir. Remind me next time not to ask.”
Thomaston chuckled. He turned right and with Gentle strolling by his left side, the two walked along the front wall, greeting the two young men manning the machine gun at the front gate.
“Another option,” he said as they continued past the gate, “is to abandon the armory and head south, taking everyone
with us. But it’s dense swamp and jungle. Once inside of it, it’ll be hard for the Navy to extract us.” He shifted the M-16 from his right hand to his left. “No, they could do it. I’ve seen it done by us—the Army—on other occasions. This is one of these times that makes me realize what a glutton for information I was when I was on active duty. I’d never engage an enemy with what little we know. We need to have a backup plan. Sergeant Major, maybe you should take a couple of people and see what looks to be the best escape route south into that jungle of a swamp. I’ll stay here.”
Retired Sergeant Major Craig Gentle rendered a snappy salute. “Yes, sir, I’d do that, but I think we both know if we head into that maze of vines, bushes, and swamps, most of our people are going to die. Some are just too out of shape and too old to make it.”
“And if we stay here against a superior armed force that outnumbers us, then we may all die.”
Gentle looked south and stroked his chin. “Come to think of it, a brisk walk through that stuff might be just the exercise our town folk can use.”
Thomaston watched his loyal friend disappear around the corner of the building before continuing his walk. He needed to survey the perimeter one more time. Others called it management through walking—a talent many leaders had thrown aside for the ease of management through e-mail. Let the troops see you. Let the troops know you’re interested in their welfare. It was as important for those serving under you to know you were on top of things as it was for you to have a feel for how your forces were dispersed. No e-mail could substitute for physical presence. Otherwise, you brought your own self-made fog of war into the battle.
Thomaston warned a couple of sentries assigned the night watch to remain alert and awake. He touched each man or woman he passed on the shoulder.
Ahead in the starlight, two rain barrels were braced against the wall with a couple of planks across them. Two people were on the makeshift platform. One was female. He couldn’t see her face, but he recognized that energy as he neared.
Tawela Johnson sat with her back against the brick wall, her feet swinging back and forth off the edge of the planks.
That familiar bright-white smile appeared in the faint starlight. Somewhere she had scrounged up an old Army helmet that lay beside her. Sweat matted her thick black hair against her forehead, down the sides of her face, and along her neck. Almost primitive in appearance, but appealing. She stared back. The faint lines visible in the darkness around her eyes betrayed her fatigue. He grinned. She might be tired, but she was enjoying this. She had no idea what was to come, and yet she was looking forward to the fight. He had been around enough soldiers going into combat to recognize the signs, though Thomaston would have been hard-pressed to point them out. Her tired eyes twinkled for a moment, making him realize how close to savagery civilization rested. A young lady should be second—
—year in college, flirting with young men and enjoying herself. Instead, she waits with an M-16 assault rifle to fight an enemy she has never seen—and she grins. Civilization was a fragile shell always waiting to burst. All you had to do was remove an essential column of infrastructure and the walls tumbled down. Look how close they had come September 11, 2001. All because of religion—
he said to himself.
“Leave it be.”