Authors: Don Pendleton
Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Fiction, #det_action, #Non-Classifiable, #Men's Adventure, #Drug traffic, #Bolan; Mack (Fictitious character), #Opium trade
The main body of the column came. They heard it before they saw it, boots hitting the dry ground, cloth brushing cloth, straps straining. First came two men with M-79s, then some riflemen, then an officer, judging by the map case at his side. Behind the officer came a radioman looking like an insect with the bent aerial at his back. A machine gunner followed, holding his weapon straight up like a priest with a cross at a procession, then a man with a flamethrower, then the commander, binoculars on his chest.
Behind the commander came the three whites. The first two were overweight individuals dressed in golf clothes, M-16s slung over their shoulders. They gave the impression they regretted having embarked on the expedition. Breathing heavily, their faces glistening with sweat, they walked like tired men.
In contrast, the third man seemed to take the march in stride. He wore sensible jungle fatigues and boots, and instead of an automatic rifle, he carried a real hunting gun, a Remington. The first two walked close together, the third man alone, the professional holding himself aloof from amateurs.
The third man was Fenster, the New York drug czar and world game hunter who among his wall trophies could boast two stuffed human heads, one of a Botswana Pygmy, the other of an Amazon Indian. Now he was going to bag himself a Montagnard.
While the column marched, Bolan paid special attention to the interval between the men. Knowing the number of men and the interval between them would give him the length of the column. He had to make sure the entire column was in the kill zone when he attacked. Otherwise the men could escape.
In deciding to attack from the rear, Bolan was taking a gamble. It would have been easier to attack from the front — attack on sight — but from experience Bolan knew that an attack from the rear was more effective. It rattled people.
* * *
As the last man passed, Bolan activated the chronometer and ran back. The attack had to begin exactly three minutes from the time the column had passed. He climbed atop the elephant and signaled the mahout to move out. The elephant lurched forward, the mahout whispering to it, promising piles of coconuts and barrels of beer if it did as it was told. Without the elephant's cooperation the ambush would be a washout.
Soon they reached the trail and turned after the column, Bolan counting the seconds.
"Pssst!" Bolan hissed.
The mahout looked back, and Bolan pumped his arm. The mahout spoke to the elephant, and the beast speeded up its walk, breaking into a lumbering run. Air flowed over Bolan's face, and the sensation sent adrenaline pumping into his system. The charge of the heavy brigade was underway. Two minutes and thirty seconds... two minutes and forty seconds... two minutes and fifty seconds... Bolan watched the numbers change, hoping his calculations were right because if they were not, Galloping Horse would go down in Meo history as another good reason for not siding with Americans, and Tiger Enterprises' future would be assured for decades to come.
"Pssst!" Bolan pumped his arm faster.
Again the mahout whispered to the elephant. Bolan held his breath. This was the critical moment. The howdah swayed violently, and the elephant went flat out. Bolan grabbed the side of the howdah to steady himself. The charge was on! He pocketed the watch and took up his Armalite. Pressing with his thighs against the side of the howdah to give himself balance, he cocked the weapon and held it ready. They ran through the night, the ground trembling from the thudding feet, Bolan ducking to avoid overhead branches.
"Ayu!" cried the mahout as the column came into view. It was the millenia-old Meo battle cry.
Simultaneously, both men fired. Shouts broke from the column, muzzles flashed, and bullets sang past. One of them hit the elephant in the ear, a sensitive spot. The beast trumpeted with rage. Eyes gleaming vengeance, trunk raised to strike, the elephant bore down on the running men. It caught up with them and plowed through, scattering bodies.
They thundered up the trail, leaving carnage in their wake: mangled bodies trampled to death, men smashed by the flailing trunk, men disemboweled by the ivory tusks. This was how elephants smashed columns of men when they were used in battle in the early days of Thailand.
But death also came to those who ran out of the way. Both sides of the trail were thick with
sticks, low ones for tripping a man, high ones to catch him full in the chest or back. As the Tiger soldiers dispersed into the undergrowth, they were impaled by the poisoned spikes. Behind Bolan the forest filled with screams of agony.
The forest lit up, and figures appeared holding flaming torches. They were the village women, and they held knives in their hands as well. Fleet of foot, as only mountain dwellers can be, they made their way between the
to finish off the soldiers and collect their weapons. The gruesome task had been left to the women because all available men were needed on the DZ. To help them, many women had brought their sons. The sons went about the business of human butchery with the nonchalant air of Idaho farmboys administering the coup de grace to fish.
They were reaching the head of the column. A white face went by, split in two by one of the swords. A rifle fired aimlessly before its owner exploded into a gory mess under the impact of the elephant's feet. Suddenly they were in the clear, the trail empty. The transition was startling: one moment the noise of battle, the next only the animal's thudding footsteps along a peaceful forest trail bathed in moonlight.
The mahout brought the elephant to a halt. Panting wildly, mouth foaming, its entire body glistening with sweat, the elephant proceeded to fan its ears to cool itself.
The mahout came up to the howdah and lit a cigarette. "Big Bottom needs rest," he announced.
"Not too long," said Bolan. They had to get to the DZ.
"Two cigarettes," said the mahout, indicating the length of time they would stay there. He nodded in the direction of the forest. Rifle shots now punctuated the screams as the women, tired of killing by hand, killed the enemies with their rifles. "Tiger finished."
"Only a column," Bolan cautioned. "Lots more troops at the Tiger camp.''
"We will finish them, too," said the mahout. "Then we go to fight Chinese in Yunnan." One of the Meo dreams was to reconquer their ancient homeland, southern China. There were still five million Meo living there.
A shot rang from inside the trees and the mahout toppled.
Fenster! The name exploded in Bolan's head as he recognized the sound of a Remington .306.
The elephant wheeled and with a trumpeting shriek charged into the trees. A figure detached itself from a tree — a tall figure with a white face — and fled inside the forest. Bolan held on to the howdah for dear life, crouching to avoid being decapitated by overhead branches. They barreled through the jungle, the elephant swerving, tearing vines and snapping trees in a cacophony of thrashing and trumpeting. Fenster was an agile runner and was outwitting the elephant by changing course at the last moment. But bit by bit the elephant gained.
The chase led into a clearing. The elephant was nearly on him when Fenster dived into a clump of bullaca bamboo. The elephant went after him, jabbing with its immense tusks, flailing its trunk. There was a scream, then the animal backed out with Fenster held firmly in its trunk. It backed all the way into the clearing and began swinging its prey from one side to the other. Bolan stood up in the howdah, and both men could see each other, Fenster sailing through the air as if on a swing, his eyes wide with fear, Bolan watching him, the Armalite in his hands.
"Help me!" Fenster cried. "Shoot him behind the ear!"
Bolan remained motionless, a figure in black bathed by the icy moonlight. Occasionally his silver collar glistened.
The elephant tossed the man high in the air, Fenster landed with a loud thud and began moaning.
The elephant went over and very gently placed a foot on Fenster to hold him while its trunk sought out an arm.
An agonizing scream escaped the man's lips as the animal tore off the arm and sent it flying through the air.
Then the beast proceeded to tear off the remaining limbs.
Finally, giving an ear-splitting shriek, it trampled the dismembered torso to a pulp.
A birdcall sounded from inside the trees, and the mahout appeared. Seeing him, the elephant gave a joyous cry and ran to meet him. It hoisted him gently with its trunk, and the mahout came to the howdah, a bloody hand clutching his shoulder.
"Bullet went through," he announced cheerfully.
"Let's take a look," said Bolan. He bared the mahout's shoulder and examined the wound by the light of a match.
The mahout nodded at the mess on the ground. "Who was he?"
"A bad man," said Bolan. He finished his examination and blew out the match. "On the way to the drop zone we will stop at the village. I want to bandage your wound."
"We will be late for parachuting," said the mahout.
"My mahout is more important," said Bolan.
The other grunted, pleased. To the elephant he said,
The beast moved off.
Flaming torches lighting their way, the handful of riders galloped in the night. A trail loomed ahead. The point rider swerved into it and the rest followed. The new trail led them out of the forest into a savanna, a plain of tall grass and woods. The torch riders swirled their torches to extinguish them, and the group rode on by the light of the moon, grass swishing under the horses' legs. The headman, who was leading, maintained a grueling pace. It was two hours past the scheduled drop time.
On the other side of the plain was a range of hills. Twenty minutes later they were spurring their ponies up the slopes, galloping until the ground became too steep, then continuing at a fast climb, the horses straining. They went over a ridge, down an incline, and up another slope. When they got to the top, they stopped.
Below lay the Valley of the Spirits, and the slope directly ahead was dark with people and horses... and they were still waiting.
"Colonel!" exclaimed Vang Ky. "Where are the planes?"
"Weather could have delayed them," said Bolan. "It happens."
"But the sky is clear."
"Yes, but over the ocean there might be a storm."
"Password!" called the voice. A group of men emerged from bushes holding crossbows.
The headman gave the password, and the men joined them. They were one of the teams Nark had posted on the ridges to guard the drop zone. There was always a danger some Tiger patrol might show up.
"A plane came, but it did not stop," said one of the guards.
"When?" asked the headman.
"A little after we arrive."
The headman looked questioningly at Bolan.
"Could have been an airliner," said Bolan. "We'll ask Nark."
They rode to a clump of trees midway down the slope that was to be the command post for the drop. In a clearing a campfire had been lit around which sat the other headmen and Nark. When he saw Bolan, the tall man with the mustache left the group and came over.
"How did it go?" he asked.
"Better than here," said Bolan, sensing the tension.
"There's talk of going home. Some people are saying the spirits are angry we disturbed them. I'm trying to keep them from leaving."
"What's this about a plane?"
"Wasn't ours," said Nark. "A jet fighter by the sound of it. Flew high."
Bolan dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. By the fire, Vang Ky was surrounded by angry headmen.
Poor Vang Ky,
always taking the flak.
"Let's take a walk," he said to Nark.
They left the trees and came out into the grassland. There were a good three thousand people on the slope and several hundred horses. An atmosphere of doom hung in the air, everyone conscious of what no drop signified. Instead of them attacking Tiger, Tiger would attack them, and this time the expedition would be accompanied by gunship helicopters. It would be a massacre.
Bolan and Nark sat down in the grass and lit cigarettes. For a while they watched the Montagnards. They stood like statues, their upturned faces watching the western horizon, the direction of the Indian Ocean. No one spoke, and the only sound was that of clothes flapping in the breeze.
"The wind's picking up," said Nark.
"Yeah," said Bolan. With the wind would come clouds, and clouds were bad for a drop. Planes had trouble finding the drop zone.
They stretched out and smoked in silence, eyes on the stars in the sky. "What are we going to do if the planes don't come, John?" asked Nark after a while.
"I don't know." Bolan sighed. "I really don't know." He felt tired, physically and emotionally.
"Avion! Avion! Avion!"
The cry spread until the whole slope was shouting it.
In the west, high in the sky, a light was moving. Bolan and Nark sprang to their feet. Another chance traveler, or for them? Nark took a flashlight from his pocket and they waited.
The light drew nearer, flying straight for them. All of a sudden it went out. A disappointed groan swept the slope. Suddenly there was a shout. The light came again, and now it was flashing. It was flashing short, short, long, short. The letter
"Foxtrot!" cried Nark.
"Reply," said Bolan calmly.
Nark pointed the flashlight at the plane and Morsed the letter
the ground recognition signal. In the sky the light flashed
, the second half of the air recognition signal.
"He's seen us!" said Nark.
Bolan cupped his mouth. "Light the fires!"
The valley echoed the shout, and moments later flames licked piles of branches stacked at the start and end of the drop zone. The bonfires grew, bathing the valley in a warm, red glow, silhouetting the men and ponies.
A deep drone filled the sky. It grew rapidly, and a floatplane flew over the valley. An object fell and a parachute blossomed.
"I'll get it," said Nark, running down.
A couple of Montagnards helped him to detach a container from the billowing parachute, and he dragged it back to the slope. Its contents included two radio handsets. Bolan took one, Nark the other.
Bolan pulled out the aerial on his. "Phoenix to aircraft, do you read me?"
The set crashed with static. "Five on five," the voice in the sky replied. "Is the DZ secure? Got a passenger for you."
Bolan and Nark exchanged glances. "Send him down," said Bolan, intrigued.
They checked the rest of the goodies in the container. For Nark there was a camera; for Bolan there was a Makarov 9mm pistol with a silencer, and for both of them, money in three denominations — Thai bahts, Russian rubles, and U.S. dollars.
"What's the pistol for?" asked Nark.
"I'll find a use for it," said Bolan.
The floatplane came in. A parachutist sailed to the ground preceded by a container dangling from his leg at the end of a cord. Such a setup usually denoted a precious cargo, one from which the parachutist did not intend to be separated.
"Romeo one to Phoenix," said the floatplane's pilot. "As soon as the passenger is off the field we'll proceed with cargo drop. The other aircraft will be here in a minute."
"Copied," said Bolan.
On the field, the new arrival had collapsed his chute but seemed to be having a hard time extricating himself from his harness. Finally the harness fell away, and the man picked up the container and ran from the field, taking off his helmet.
"It's Harry Stressner," exclaimed Nark. "Harry, over here!" Nark waved. He turned to Bolan. "Harry's one of our communications men."
They watched him make his way up the slope, a big blond man in brown overalls. Bolan was sure this mystery visitor heralded new complications. From experience Bolan knew that when people turned up unexpectedly, it usually meant something was going wrong. Otherwise they would not have been sent. It cost money to send people on a mission.
"Hi, Nark," said Stressner, coming up to them. He nodded to Bolan. "Colonel."
"Good morning," said Bolan.
Just then the sky roared as the floatplane made its cargo drop. This time a whole string of parachutes bloomed. One of the containers sailed over a bonfire beyond the drop zone.
Bolan pressed the talk button on the radio. "You were a little long there, Romeo. Shorten your drop fifty."
"Sorry about that," replied the voice in the sky.
A new voice broke in. "Romeo one, this is Romeo two and three coming in. Delta Zulu in sight."
"Go right in, two and three," said the pilot.
Two lights were moving in the northern sky, approaching the valley in a wide arc. As they neared, the planes took shape, an Ilyushin and an Antonov boxcar, the same that brought Bolan to Thailand three days earlier. Like the arms, the planes for Galloping Horse were Russian. The floatplane was a Beriev. All three had been purchased on the black market in Angola, a Soviet client state in Africa.
The Antonov came in first, its silver fuselage shining in the moonlight. Halfway over the valley the pilot gunned the engines, and with a roaring thunderclap the aircraft shot skyward almost vertically. A string of crates flew out its back door, some with three parachutes attached to them. The crates landed with heavy thuds.
The camouflage-patterned Ilyushin followed. It flew low and slow, pushed off course by the wind. The Ilyushin did not have the benefit of a back door, and dispatchers, not gravity, had to do the work. They shoved container after container through both side doors so that two strings of parachutes seemed to follow the plane as it flew over.
The Beriev flew past again, the Soviet red star clearly visible on its white tail. The radio came to life. "Romeo to Phoenix. The container with the orange parachute is money. The striped green is medicine."
"Roger, Romeo," Bolan replied. "Let's take a break to clear the field." The drop zone was becoming crowded with equipment, and there was the danger of collision and damage. Bolan turned to a group of men and horses nearby. "Major Vang Ky."
The headman ran over. Bolan explained to him about the money. Vang Ky shouted orders to some men, and they ran onto the field. Bolan followed their progress, making sure the money container was picked up. Stories about covert missions were full of instances of money containers being lost, and of the people who were supposed to pick them up saying they never did.
The container retrieved, Bolan cupped his mouth. "Clear the field!"
A cheer broke from the slope as men ran down, pulling horses behind them. It was a race, a bit of fun after the tension and uncertainty of the night. Overhead, the planes began circling the valley in a holding pattern. Bolan turned to Stressner. It was time to find out what he was bringing.
"To what do we owe the pleasure?"
"The helicopter broke down, and they can't find Russian spare parts," Stressner announced. "The files will have to be transmitted out." He nodded at the container by his feet. "I brought a Crypton."
"A Crypton?" Bolan said.
"A high-speed key transmitter. Works like a typewriter. Codes itself."
"That'd take hours," said Bolan.
"Depends on how much there is to send," said Stressner.
Bolan nodded to himself. It meant an overhaul of their strategy. Galloping Horse had been planned as a hit and destroy operation, in and out. Now they would have to provide security after capturing the hardsite to make sure the transmitting was not interrupted by the appearance of some Tiger unit returning from the bush.
Furthermore, there was the agreement with the Meo. Nothing in it stipulated they had to establish a defensive perimeter after the hardsite was captured. Montagnards were loath to do that, hit and run being their specialty. He or Nark might be able to convince them to prolong their services, but they most certainly would ask for overtime money.
"I don't suppose Control sent some extra cash, did they?" asked Bolan.
"Beg your pardon, Colonel?" said Stressner.
"Never mind." Obviously they had not.
"We could offer them the gold at the hardsite," suggested Nark. He had caught on immediately to what Bolan was thinking.
"They already expect the gold," said Bolan.
"They might expect it, but nothing in the agreement we made with them stipulates they're entitled to it," said Nark. "I intentionally refrained from making any commitment."
Bolan chewed on a blade of grass. It was a moot point, but it was a start. In fact, it was about the only approach he could think of. "Okay, I'll try that."
"Romeo one to Phoenix. Can we resume?"
The last crate was being dragged off the field by ponies. "Go ahead, Romeo," said Bolan. He looked at Nark. "Take over," he said and set off for the woods to solve the latest problem.
* * *
In the forest, by the light of flaming torches, headmen were prying open crates and giving out arms. Others were demonstrating how to use them. A noisy crowd milled amid the trees, and the air resounded with the rattle of bolts and slamming magazines. There was also a great deal of brave war talk. Gloom had given way to bravado.
As he made his way through the crowd, Bolan observed the wide variety of weapons. There were brand-new Kalashnikovs and ancient Mosin-Nagants, Dragunov snipers, and Simonov carbines. There were several makes of machine and submachine guns, and four types of grenades: soup can, egg, pineapple, and potato masher.
The variety was something Bolan would have preferred to do without — the profusion of calibers meant ammunition was not interchangeable — but he had been warned to expect it. To avoid arousing interest that might have compromised the mission, the arms were bought in small quantities in various parts of the world, and not everyone had the same weapons for sale.
Bolan found Vang Ky by a crate of pepeshas, the acronym for the PPSH-41, the famed submachine gun of World War II whose perforated barrel and circular 70-round ammunition drum gave it a distinctive appearance. With it the Red Army drove the Germans from the Soviet Union. The guns had been bought in Chad from a supposed Marxist revolutionary making a killing from the resale of arms given to him by the Soviet Union.
"Everything going okay?" Bolan asked.
"Very good, Colonel," replied Vang Ky, his mood visibly improved. "The men are very happy. Plenty of guns."
"And the money?"
Bolan watched him explain to a younger man how to use the pepesha.
As with most older Montagnards, Vang Ky was familiar with World War II Russian weaponry from the war fought from 1946 to 1954 between the Vietminh and the French in which the Montagnards sided with the French.
When Vang Ky finished, Bolan asked, "Can I have a word with you in private?"
The headman signaled to an assistant to take over, and they went back out onto the field. A plane was coming in for a drop. Bolan waited until the plane passed and the noise subsided, then he explained the problem and made his proposition. In return for a defensive follow-up, the Meo could have the Tiger gold.
Vang Ky considered it for a while, eyes on the ground, teeth sucking the air. Bit by bit his head began shaking. "No, Colonel," he said finally. "No good. If we must defend, we must be paid more. And not with gold. The gold belongs to the Hmong.''