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Chapter 21: Loss
Chapter 21: Loss
Gunfire roared on the road up ahead, a chaos of pops breaking through the night. Muzzle flashes burst to life like fire crackers on the 4th of July as rifles and handguns opened up. Jack ran through the forest, moving as fast as his feet could carry him, crashing through branches and brush. He reached for his walkie’s mic, found it and jammed his thumb onto the transmit button.
“What’s happening? Where is the threat?” he yelled, getting no answer. He glanced back; Barry was close behind, moving more smoothly through the woods thanks to his night vision goggles, his suppressed grease gun held at high port.
“We are moving in from your left. Repeat, we are moving in from your left!”
The cadence of gunfire slowed, and Jack could hear some indistinct yelling coming from the road up ahead. He couldn’t make out the voice, but it was male and panicking. He was close to the road now and could make out movement up ahead in the darkness. He put on an extra ounce of speed, legs pumping up the incline that led to the road. Almost there, he told himself.
Suddenly, he felt his foot snag and went sprawling. He fell forward, face smashing into something rough and hard. He felt his nose give way, cracking audibly under the impact. The pain, for a moment, was blinding. His vision blurred and his head spun. He fought to maintain consciousness. His family needed him.
He shook his head, clearing out the cobwebs and stabilizing the dizzying spin. Warm blood trickled down his face, the patter of droplets onto the vegetation below somehow standing out amidst the gunfire from the road. His vision took a moment to clear, struggling to refocus.
Gradually, the twilight around him came back into view. Movement, only a few paces ahead, immediately drew Jack’s attention. The silhouette of an injured man half limped, half ran towards him, a Kalashnikov rifle clutched in his hands. He had not yet seen Jack, but he was moving on a near collision course, and in the matter of a few strides would be on top of him. It was dark—Jack couldn’t make out the man’s features well enough to identify whether he was friend or foe.
Jack fumbled to bring his AR to bear—the sling had gotten twisted and tangled in his fall. He cursed silently, giving up and reaching for his pistol. Before he could break it free from the holster, the shadow was on top of him, tripping and falling over him. They crashed together in a heap of limbs. The other man swore, and the reek of tobacco and booze told Jack that this was a foe, not a friend.
The other man was instantly atop him, raining down with a hail of wild, windmilling punches. Jack bucked out of instinct, trying to roll the attacker off. Instead, the man landed in a side control position, jamming his left forearm down on Jack’s windpipe while his right arm punched furiously for Jack’s face. The man’s body blocked Jack’s access to his pistol.
Jack threw up his right arm to deflect the blows, fighting and trying to roll out and shift away from the man. He failed to improve his position, his exhausted body not responding with the strength he thought it should. Already, he was seeing stars as the crude choke cut oxygen off from his brain. A solid punch snuck past his defenses and slammed into his already broken nose, the pain staggering. Again, his vision swam.
Then, as his attacker reared up to deliver another blow, the man suddenly went limp, flopping loosely onto Jack. He was dead. Barry stood above him, antique katana in hand.
“Hey – quit messin’ around!” the old veteran whispered, kicking the corpse off Jack with the toe of one of his combat boots. Barry sheathed his katana with practiced ease.
“Thank you,” Jack managed as he stumbled to his feet, wobbly, Barry helping to stabilize him. He glanced at his attacker—the back of his neck had been severed almost halfway through, cleanly chopping through the spinal cord. The head lolled off at a weird angle, dark blood pumping free.
“You alright to move?”
Jack fished around for his carbine, untangling it and getting the long gun back into action.
“Ready,” he said.
Barry led for the last few yards back to the road. Automatic gunfire began its deadly chatter up ahead, a long spray of fire.
“That’s Tex,” Barry said. There was shouting, too, but it was impossible to make out over the roar of the machinegun. Jack could see his friend now, silhouetted by the constant succession of muzzle flashes, clearly identifiable by his distinctive cowboy hat. He was crouched behind one end of his trailer, firing the RPD into the night with reckless abandon. Jack couldn’t see anyone else. Smoke grenades had been set off to the front and to the rear of the convoy, and now they belched thick clouds colored of smoke, obscuring any view they might have of the attackers.
Jack keyed his walkie.
“Anybody read? Jack and Barry, returning on your left flank.”
“Jack! It’s Jack! We need help!” Esme’s voice came over the radio, panicked and frantic. It sounded like she was moving.
“We’re returning to the vehicles! Coming in from the left flank. Tell everyone not to shoot us!”
“Do you see my husband?”
The machinegun let up and a chorus of return fire opened up in response from further up the dirt road, in the direction of the cabin. Tex ducked back behind his trailer, bullets skipping across the dirt road around him.
“He’s fine! Where is everybody?”
No response came. Jack swore. Next to him, Jack could sense Barry tense up.
“Tango, coming our way. They’re trying to flank him,” Barry whispered. Jack scanned the forest and roadside, struggling to see the threats. Slowly and silently, Barry shouldered the M3, moving like a hunter lying in wait for his quarry. Jack still could not see the enemy. Barry fired
The submachine gun was so quiet that Jack could make out the clink of the .45 ACP shell casings as they fell across the ground. Barry fired for what seemed like a good three or four seconds, one long burst of hot lead death. The enemy never even got a chance.
“Problem solved,” Barry said matter-of-factly, stowing the depleted magazine and loading a new one. Still, enemy gunfire cracked out from up the road. From what Jack could see in the shadows, Tex was struggling to switch in a new drum magazine on the RPD.
“Tex!” Jack yelled.
The cowboy looked in their direction, instinctively reaching for his sidearm but stopping short.
“Woah boy, it’s us!” Barry shouted.
“Good to have some company!” Tex yelled back, slapping shut the top cover on the RPD. He swung the big gun out around the other side of the trailer, opening fire again. With Tex keeping the enemy’s heads down, Jack and Barry dash out across the road, joining their friend. Jack put a hand on Tex’s back, signaling that they were with him.
“We got boxed in, had to ditch. Everybody else ran into the forest. I’m holding back, buyin’ ‘em some time,” Tex shouted in between short bursts. Jack knew what that meant.
“Well, no Jim Bowie at the Alamo tonight!” Jack said, joining in and lobbing shots back up the road. Tex grunted.
“If you say so!”
Barry was listening to the exchange of gunfire.
“There’s only one shooter up there,” he said, shouting over the roar of the RPD. Jack paused for a moment to listen, and came to the same conclusion. It did sound like there was only a single shooter—a Kalashnikov, probably—firing off a shot every second or so. They were un-aimed, seeming to zip randomly past them and into the night.
“You’re the pro—what should we do?” Jack said,
“Flank ‘im! You and me, Tex covering.”
Jack looked back over to his shoulder to his buddy.
“Tex, you got that?”
“Got it! I’ll hold out here!”
Jack slapped a hand on Barry’s back.
“You lead, I’ll cover!” he shouted. The old veteran nodded.
Jack leaned out from behind the trailer, triggering off a quick burst of fire. Barry jogged out behind him, heading once again for the cover of the forest. He made it nearly there, when suddenly his leg gave way. The veteran went down, groaning in pain and clutching at his right shin.
“Barry is down!” he said.
“I’ll cover, go get him!” Tex said, shifting his position to join Jack at his side of the trailer and opening up in one long spray of gunfire, tracing bullets back and forth across the shoulder of the dirt road. Jack dashed out from behind the vehicle.
As he closed in on Barry, Jack could see his lower right leg, flopping painfully out of place, snapped clean through by a bullet’s impact. A pool of blood was forming underneath the wounded leg, but already Barry was throwing a bandana on above the wound to stem the flow.
“Come on!” Jack said, grabbing the old gunfighter’s arm and hauling him up onto his one good leg. With Barry using Jack’s shoulder for support, they hopped back to cover behind the trailer.
Tex’s machinegun fell silent, again depleted. Enemy gunfire responded, and this time Jack could clearly hear multiple shooters. They were on both sides now, sending bullets whizzing down either shoulder of the road. Tex reached into a small duffle thrown on the ground, searching through it and coming up with another drum of ammunition. He went to work reloading it.
“Last one!” Tex yelled.
Then the enemy machinegun opened up.
“That’s a Pig!” Barry grunted through the pain, the sound of the M60 machinegun familiar to his ears. .308 rounds skipped across the road, tracers ripping through the night, tracking the stream of fire in alongside the trailer. The machinegun had been set up at a slight angle, not directly ahead on the road, giving it a better firing position on the trailer.
“Get down!” Jack said, shoving himself and Barry to the gravel road as the bullets blasted into the side of the Tex’s trailer, zipping clean through and over their heads. Shrapnel rained down over them, bits of fiberglass siding blown free by the gunfire.
“We gotta move!” Jack yelled at the top of his lungs as the bullets tore overhead. The three men belly crawled away, moving as quickly as they could, arms and legs crunching through the gravel. The M60 kept blasting wildly and blindly, tracers crackling like laser beams in the night.
As they crawled, Jack kept anticipating the impact of a bullet somewhere on his body. It seemed like bullets were everywhere. Somehow, they made it off the road and into the forest. They just rolled down the hill, away from the road.
They paused for a moment, safe from the enemy machinegun fire.
“Didn’t pick up anything new, if that’s what yer askin’” Barry groaned. Jack helped him to his feet, throwing an arm over his shoulder. Barry hopped painfully, his nursing his injured leg.
“Come on, you boys gotta run. Leave me here, I’ll keep ‘em off your tails. I’m just going to slow ya down,” Barry said.
“Screw that,” Tex said, scooping up Barry and throwing him into a fireman’s carry over his shoulder. Barry cursed him in protest, but Tex was already moving forward, plowing through the forest, putting distance between them and the road. Jack followed after the former linebacker, watching their rear. The M60 was still shooting, though now in short bursts.
Jack shook his head, cursing their attackers. They were leaving everything—their vehicles, food, supplies and weapons—behind and there was nothing he could do about it. He could go back up to the road and get himself killed, but even that would not change the outcome. His family and friends were out there in the forest, scared and possibly wounded. That fight would have to come another day, on his terms.
Tex led the way through the forest, running through the darkness, Barry’s weight seeming not to slow him down.
“Jack? Tex? Barry? Anybody out there?” Fiona’s voice came over the radio, flooding Jack with relief.
“We’re here! We’re here—all three. I think we’re moving in your direction,” Jack said.
“You’re alive! Thank heavens! We’ve stopped—there’s a little stream, we’re alongside that. Amy is…Mike’s trying to help her,” Fiona said, relief clear in her voice, too.
“You have the boys?”
“Yes, they are with me. Scared, but ok,” she said.
“All right. Stay quiet as you can. We’ll find you. Be ready to move.”
On they went through the forest, Tex keeping a steady pace and Barry protesting all the while. Gunfire from the road had stopped, and Jack could hear the faint sounds of shouts and yells from back that way.
Finally, they reached the stream. Jack’s legs were weak and wobbly, barely able to move him forward. They stopped catching their breath while scanning up and down the stream, trying to find any sign of their group. The dark forest towered all around them, not giving forth any signs.
Jack heard a faint clinking of metal and turned to see Rambo the German Shepherd, trotting towards them. Tex had set Barry down for a moment, and the old veteran chuckled in delight, collapsing to his knees to welcome the dog with a hug and scratches behind her ears.
“I knew you’d bug outta there! Good girl!” the veteran praised.
With Rambo’s help, they navigated down along the stream for several hundred yards before finding their friends.
“It’s us!” Jack transmitted over the walkie, flashing his flashlight on the low setting to show their position.
“I see you, love, come on in,” Fiona said. She rushed out to greet him, her handgun held at her side. She recoiled as she saw the dark stains of blood across his face.
“What happened?” she asked, reaching for her flashlight. Jack put out a hand, stopping her.
“No lights. It’s just a broken nose. Where’s Mike—Barry hurt his leg,” he explained.
Jack and Tex helped Barry hobble into the temporary rest sight, Fiona leading the way. She led them to the far side of a huge hardwood tree.
Bathed in the pale moonlight, Kyle cradled Amy in his arms, rocking slowly back and forth. Amy’s eyes were closed and her head hung loosely to one side. Kyle sobbed quietly, his head buried in his wife’s blond hair. She was dead.
Jack’s heart tore at the sight. He nearly buckled, but somehow stood firm, helping Barry maintain his footing.
Mike was kneeling off to one side, staring blankly off into the night. He hadn’t reacted to their arrival and did not turn to look at them then.
“Mike,” Fiona said softly, her voice breaking him from his shocked trance.
“Uhh, what?” Mike managed.
“Barry needs you to look at him,” she explained. The paramedic gathered his things, shoving them hastily into his medic’s bag.
“Yes, of course,” he said, rising and walking to join them. Jack turned to help Barry limp away and leave Kyle to grieve in peace, but found Fiona taking his place at the veteran’s side.
“He needs you,” was all she said, helping Barry limp off into the night, Mike close at hand.
Jack collapsed to his knees alongside Kyle, placing a hand on his friend’s shoulder. He had no words or actions that could sooth Kyle’s pain—at least not now.
They stayed like that for a while, Kyle sobbing quietly, clutching his wife to him as tightly as he could. Jack listened to the sounds of the forest—the crickets singing their songs, the frogs chirping in the stream and the breeze rustling through the branches overhead. For a moment, all was still in the world. Jack thanked the heavens for a moment of respite.
Finally, Kyle looked up from his wife, locking eyes with Jack. Jack could see the sorrow in his friend’s eyes, but he could also see the barely restrained fury caged within.
“I’m going back, man. I’ve got to. You guys go on without me, but I’ve got to make those bastards pay,” he said, voice filled with grit and resolve.
Jack shook his head.
“No. You’re not going to do it alone, brother. We’re all going to make those bastards pay.”