It was around noon, though of which day they could not be sure. The three of them sat on ammunition boxes amid swarms of great dragonflies, shaded by the tall trees of the rain forest, telling the story of the voyage to incredulous men in gray-green uniforms.
"No!" Hoess, commander of the column, shook his head in disbelief. "Three men on the whole ship! How did you do it'?"
"Oh, with a good manning table, lots of luck and a judicious use of amphetamine tablets." Hans stifled a yawn.
Hoess wiped perspiration off his grinning face. "Just like our last motoring 'holiday' in Germany, eh Hans'?" "Yes, without the mud." Jesus rubbed his eyes. "What day is it?"
"Thursday. You've slept for two days, and it looked as if you all needed it." Hoess crushed a scorpion with the toe of his riding boot.
They watched a man wearing white overalls signal the winch operator. A warning whistle blew and a heavily-laden cargo net rose out of the Sandshark's forward hold, ropes creaking with strain. Other men, their uniforms dark with sweat, streamed up and down the gangplanks like carpenter ants, carrying small cases which they stacked carefully on the sandbar.
Charles pointed to the activity. "Are you nearly finished, Commander?"
"We'll be finished by this evening, and tomorrow we will uncrate everything for loading onto the pack animals. You brought us a lot of 'merchandise,' you know. It's really staggering." "Thank Hans for that."
"Ach, the quantity was no problem." Hans smoothed the thinning hair back on his forehead with dirty fingers. "There are enough arms and munitions in the hands of private armies in the United States to wage one or two major wars. This shipment was nothing, really."
"In any case, it's more than sufficient. I've issued each man with a rifle and submachine-gun as well as plenty of ammunition. Grenades will be distributed as soon as we open the boxes." Hoess nodded to a soldier who placed three bundles on the sand before them, saluted casually, and walked away. "Ah yes, your uniforms. Now you can change out of those stinking rags."
"First, a bath!" said Charles.
"There you are." Hoess pointed to the river. "Your tub has been filled already."
"But won't the crocs and pirañas object?"
"Not at all. They will enjoy your company."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
They stripped off what remained of their National Guard uniforms and plunged into the clear green water, eyeing the basking crocodiles with a certain amount of suspicion at first, but soon they discovered the grinning reptiles were only interested in soaking up the hot sun on the riverbank. They splashed one another with the warm water and cavorted like otters.
Charles pointed to some minnows. "How do you know if those little fish are pirañas, Jesus?"
"When your voice goes up several octaves."
"Ho, ho, funny man!"
"Race you to the opposite bank!" shouted Hans, taking a head start.
They swam madly out into the slowly-moving tributary, Charles beginning to overtake Hans, but stopping suddenly in midstream and treading water.
Hans looked back. "What, the younger generation has chosen early retirement?"
Charles pointed to something in the water. "Look, there, in that shady spot!"
Jesus swam over to him. "What is it?"
"It's a submarine!"
"Oh," said Hans, "so you have seen her."
The shadows and shimmering green of the water almost obscured the stark outlines of the U-boat resting on the river bottom near the Sandshark's mooring.
Hans joined them. "Yes, an interesting story. Remind me to tell you about it sometime."
Charles looked at him eagerly. "Why not now?"
"Because it's rather sad, and I don't wish to be sad right now."
A soldier waved to them and shouted from the fantail of the Sandshark. "Hey, loafing plutocrats, it's lunchtime!"
They swam back to the sandbar and put on their new uniforms, tall boots for riding or walking, baggy cotton trousers and tunics of gray-green, and distinctive but functional Afrika Korps caps. Now they were indistinguishable from their fellows, except for their rank and sidearms.
They joined the company who had stopped working and were now lying or sitting on the sand, chatting in small groups before the meal was ready. Those not off duty were the sentries who paced the bridge of the Sandshark or stood in the shade of the foliage at the edge of the jungle. Their ready weapons were the only sign that this was not some kind of club outing and picnic.
From the Sandshark's galley came cauldrons of savory stew. From the late Captain Barman's refrigeration locker came beer and ice cream which vanished instantly down parched throats. On the sandbar, well away from the stocks of ammunition, monkey meat was roasting over pits of charcoal, along with fresh fish from the bountiful river.
"Nobody should complain about not getting enough to eat," Charles raised a dumpling on his fork, "but this flour has a peculiar flavor."
Hoess looked up from his mess tin. "Manioc, ground cassava roots. Deadly poisonous."
Charles looked mystified. "But ... "
"Oh, it's been suitably prepared."
"Hmm, I see. At least, I think I see."
"You will soon discover that our men are adept at living off the land."
"They seem to know what they're doing, all right." Charles drank the remainder of the stew from his mess tin, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"These are elite troops, like the Waffen S.S." Hoess nodded in Hans' direction. "They are not required to salute. Officers and men share the same rations and the same work. You will find a good deal of joking and comradeship in this group, but you will also see excellent discipline and teamwork."
Hoess looked at his watch. "Now for an hour's siesta. Find some shade and snooze. The off-loading resumes at fourteen hundred hours. Schlafen Sie gut!"
Charles sprawled under an awning of jungle creepers which camouflaged a stack of boxes containing mortar shells. Through the vines he could see the contrails of a jet, crawling across the sky, far above the hot jungle and the concealed anchorage.
"They couldn't see us, even if they tried," he thought. "By nightfall, our fires will be out. They can use their infrared cameras all they like."
It seemed no time at all before he was being shaken by a sadistically-smiling sergeant who invited him to join the 'fun' of piling ammunition on the sandbar. Off-loading proceeded briskly, as if the men had just wakened from a full night's rest.
Charles flopped beside Jesus during a break. "Hell, they're fit!" He wiped the perspiration off his forehead with his sleeve.
Hoess passed out salt tablets. "Take three of these, both of you. Without salt, you'll drop if you keep on working in this heat."
Charles downed the tablets with water from his canteen. "Incidentally, I see you've left the, uh ..."
"Don't worry, my friend." Hoess smiled. "I have experience in such matters. The gold will be left on board, under a suitable guard who will steam up to the capital once it has been secured."
Charles looked dubious.
"Oh, I know what you're thinking ... All right, then, where would you take the gold, once you'd stolen it?"
"Well, I ..."
"Switzerland is out. The Swiss would hand it and you back to the U.S., once they'd determined its origin. Other European countries? We'd get you, then. Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East'? All too rapacious. They'd see you parted company with it right away. Back to the U.S.? As an American, you know that possession and dealing in gold is illegal, even if it's not stolen from the Federal Reserve. And what about your pursuers? Who would protect you from them? No, you may set your mind at rest. Our little treasure will be quite safe."
Charles smiled. "Good. I see you've figured all the angles. As you say, you have experience in these matters."
Hoess, his vulpine features set in a quizzical expression, eyed Charles for a moment, perceiving the meaning in Charles' air of studied innocence.
Hoess laughed. "You are devilishly tactful, my young Captain Hendricks, but your brawn is required right now, more than your brain. Back to work. Remember, 'Arbeit macht frei.'"
"Und Kraft durch Freude, Commander." Charles winked at him and rejoined the work detail.
He managed to set down the box of detonators without jarring them, despite his fatigue. A hand fell upon his shoulder. It was the sergeant who had wakened him from his siesta.
"Come with me, Captain Hendricks. Now we must water the animals."
"But what about the off-loading?" Charles looked back at the ship.
"It is finished. Follow me."
He stumbled after the sergeant, his heavy boots sinking into the loose sand which bore the imprint of hundreds of feet, human and animal. He saw the sergeant disappear into a seemingly impenetrable thicket on the border of the sandbar and found himself on a path which had been hacked through the undergrowth. Soon, he entered the immense cathedral of the rain forest. Here, walking was much easier, since few bushes and creepers could survive the lack of light. As he became accustomed to the perpetual twilight, he saw hundreds of horses and mules tethered to picket lines strung between the trees. Guards were already loosing their halters and leading them off to the river. Charles soon discovered he was leading a handsome chestnut stallion.
The sergeant led a mule up to him. "Take good care of them, Sir. They're both yours."
He took the rope halter from the sergeant and examined the mule. It was a fine-looking animal, young, strong and healthy, with a gleam of mischief in its eyes. Charles drew upon the halter. The rope went taut, but the mule refused to budge, even when Charles tugged with all his strength.
"The water's this way, idiot. Come on, don't be mule-headed."
Some soldiers were laughing. The mule had a reputation.
Charles was not amused. "Sergeant, give me that length of rope."
"Here you are, Captain." The sergeant passed him a lariat and stood by, a broad smile on his stubbled face.
"Thank you, Sergeant. You can go on about your business and let me get on with mine." Charles cinched the stout rope around the mule's fetlocks, tying all four of its legs together.
"If it's all the same to you, Sir, I'd like to lend a hand. That one's got no culture. He kicks, bites and goes on strike if you give him any chance at all." He drew back from the mule's teeth. It appeared that the mule was beginning to resent his immobilized state.
"No culture, eh ? Well, I'll give him a real lesson in etiquette." Charles removed his pistol belt.
The sergeant offered him a cutting from a vine. "Care to use this switch, Sir?"
"No, thanks. I don't want to cut him, just warm his rump a bit. Besides, this belt will make a louder noise."
Holding the wide leather belt by its buckle, Charles laid on a lusty whack, one after another, with suitable pauses for effect. The mule snorted, humped his back and strained at the hobbles, to no effect. His efforts were rewarded by more well-aimed blows on the behind.
"Play bastardo with me, eh? I'll tan your stubborn hide." Charles warmed to his work, stopping only after reaching the point of exhaustion. He stood perspiring and panting in the still, warm air of the jungle, the pistol belt gleaming with the mule's sweat.
The mule had long since forgotten his rage and was now quivering in expectation of the next stinging blow. When the blow failed to come, he craned his neck around to see what had become of his two-legged tormentor.
"You have him worried, Sir," said the sergeant, calming the nervous stallion.
"With good reason. His lesson isn't over." Charles buckled on his pistol belt and stood before the mule. "Go on, take a good look. I don't want you to forget me."
He took one stride forward, locked the mule's head in his arms and sank his teeth into its ear. The mule, braying more from fright than pain, struggled, then was still. Charles released him, stepped back, and spat blood upon the ground. He unhobbled the mule and led him toward the river. This time there was no balking.
The sergeant handed him the stallion's halter. "Bravo. You should have no more trouble with that one."
"We've reached an understanding." Charles smiled, giving the mule a slap on his streaming withers.
The sandbar was the scene of spirited frolic, men and animals splashing into the water, horses and mules guzzling, men shouting encouragement, everyone thoroughly soaked in the humid hour of the last light. The rain forest resounded to the whinnies of excited horses and the bray of pack mules, chorused by the whoops and screeches of jungle creatures. Clouds of parakeets took to the air and the setting sun turned the men and beasts into fiery demons locked in the weird permutations of a bacchanalian revel. Charles caressed the stallion as it drank from the foaming river, and watched the great lily pads as they undulated gracefully upon the turbulent water.
He saw the members of the column arrayed before him, and was thrilled. It was a privilege to be among such men, he thought. They were going to fight somewhere on the llanos. Maybe they would be defeated, perhaps killed. No matter. He would rather die with this column than live under any other circumstances. If they were defeated and lived, there would be no place left on earth for them. They would be disowned by the power that sent them and shown no mercy by those they came to oppose. He thought of this as he led the animals back to the jungle.
Returning to the sandbar where most of the soldiers were bedding down, he unrolled his mosquito net and crawled into the lee of some ammunition boxes. He squirmed his way into the warm sand, making a contoured mattress for himself, and lay still, looking up at the incredible display of stars in the clear jungle night. A pack mule hee-hawed amid the singing of the insects and the green water slapped against the black hull of the Sandshark. On the far side, a crocodile splashed into the river. A faint breeze wafted the scent of wild vanilla over him.
It was still dark when Charles felt himself being shaken by the sergeant who had imposed a respectful tyranny over him.
"Your turn to watch the animals, Captain."
The word 'captain' woke him up. Suddenly, he remembered where he was. "What time is it, Sergeant?"
"Oh four hundred hours, Sir."
He took the lamp from the sergeant, slung on his rifle and picked his way among the dark forms of men and equipment that were strewn upon the sand like a depiction of the aftermath of Waterloo. Coming to the path through the thicket, he switched on the lamp. As he entered the jungle he cast its beam upon the rows of horses and mules, looking for any signs of mischief. He continued his surveillance around the remuda's perimeter, followed by other beams of light, other eyes scanning the sleeping rows for the small, dark forms of blood-lapping vampires and sucking leeches.
He stopped and unslung his rifle, hearing the whistle of a jaguar. A horse whinnied and stamped, frightened by the smell of the cat. He turned the lamp into the jungle, following the beam with his rifle. The eyes of a tapir caught the glare for a moment, then its rump as it scuttled off among the trees. A small jungle cat bounded away from the light, not the sort he was worried about. He saw a furry tarantula the size of a puppy scurrying up one of the thick vines, probably on the hunt for young birds. A giant moth brushed his cheek and fluttered about the light, displaying its beautiful patterns. So lavish was nature that she provided rainbow colors and intricate designs for these insects that lived in darkness.
The beam caught the dark stream of blood coursing down a horse's leg. On the ground, crouching beside the small pool that had formed, was the offending bat. Charles raised the lamp so the vampire would not be distracted and bounded to the side of the bleeding animal. Shining the light on the ground, he located the bat and raised his boot over it. There was a faint squeak, then the snap of tiny bones as he crushed the life out of the creature.
He saw to the horse's wound, a neat incision into a vein. As he worked to staunch the flow with pitch, the horse woke up and stirred, startled by the smell of its own blood.
Charles stroked the animal's neck. "Easy, boy."
The horse calmed down and let him finish the job as if it understood that Charles was there to help.
He'd not even made a complete circuit of the remuda by the time his relief arrived. Returning to the sandbar, he saw the sun beginning to appear, tingeing the wispy clouds with coral. Someone blew a whistle and the beach came to life, men rising, standing stretching, yawning, rubbing eyes caked with sleep. Nails screeched in protest as crates were ripped apart for firewood and cooking fires.
Charles drew a tin of bully beef from the food line and contemplated it without enthusiasm.
Hans slapped him on the back, full of glee. "Better enjoy it! We have a thousand cases, and it's all we have, except for this." He handed Charles a brown tin.
Charles looked horrified. "C-ration biscuits! You're a fiend, a raving sadist!"
"At least they will encourage us to wage a short campaign."
Charles gritted his teeth. "You know how we can make the enemy surrender, immediately?"
"Just say we'll feed him this stuff if he dares to put up a fight"
Jesus joined them by the fire. "It isn't lobster mayonnaise."
"Don't look so glum." Hans grinned. "Whoever heard of Boy Scouts eating lobster mayonnaise?"
Charles speared a tin with his bayonet. "I'm sorry I heard that."
The horses and mules were watered and given their rations of salt and maize while the crates were unpacked and the contents divided into heaps which would make up the load for each animal. Hoess supervised, walking up and down among the piles of supplies and weaponry, slapping the top of his boot with his riding crop.
Charles approached him. "You don't seem too pleased about something, Commander. May I share some of your burdensome thoughts?"
"Oh, good morning, Captain." Hoess shook his head. "In the whole of my military experience, I have never been confronted by an oversupply of anything. So this is how the Americans wage war!"
"Not enough transport?"
"I don't think so. There is so much to carry. Fortunately, we put caches of food and water for the animals along the route we are to follow, but even so, many will not be able to ride until we reach the escarpment. Perhaps we should leave some of this behind."
"You mean we can take it all with us?"
"Yes, but most of us must go dismounted if we do."
"We'll have to go on foot through the jungle, won't we?"
"Yes, that's so, at least most of the way.'
"Well, I advise you to take everything, even if you double the men's rations. When you need supplies, you need them very badly. They won't do us any good here. Besides, we can't move fast until we leave the jungle, and by that time, we'll have consumed a lot of the rations. If we're still too heavy, we can dump things then."
"True. All right, we load the whole lot, and you, my friend, can join the infantry. I shall ride whenever the opportunity presents itself." Hoess saluted with his riding crop.
"Your prerogative, Commander." Charles returned the salute smartly.
The animals were loaded quickly but systematically, the items to be used first being packed last, the pack ropes arranged meticulously to secure the loads and to distribute their weight evenly and comfortably upon the animals. Every trick in the mule-skinner's handbook would be needed for the hard going ahead, thought Charles, watching two of the packers check the diamond hitch on his mule. They nodded their approval and he led his animals into position in the column.
Hoess blew three sharp blasts on his whistle, answered by the croaks and cackles of toucans which festooned the camouflage netting on the Sandshark. The column wheeled into line and entered the shallows so that the animals could have a last drink from the river. Their morning salt had made them thirsty.
Hoess, among the few riders, raised his hand. The column reformed and slowly moved out over the sandbar, entering the thicket where it was swallowed up by the shadow of the rain forest. Charles looked back at the Sandshark which had now become part of the jungle itself.
It seemed to him that the jungle alone was real, the Sandshark, the burning cities of San Francisco Bay, the hatred, futility, choking smog, only figments of his fevered imagination. The jungle, with its soothing yet vibrant emanations, had driven the fever from his head, along with the mad visions of his last days in California. The rain forest was all.
Somewhere in the green vastness he heard the rending crash of a giant tree falling upon the teeming humus, its clinging network of vines unable to sustain it. At once it would be set upon by the agents of decay and would soon feed other giants. The jungle smelled of this process, the unending cycle of blossoming and decay, and Charles, having experienced it, hoped it would go on forever, changing yet unchanging.
The drowsy hum of the insects and the peaceful shade imposed a hush over the horses and men working their way among the vine-clad pillars of the green canopy. The cackle of hornbills and squawking of parrots seemed out of place.
Groups of Indians appeared along the line of march, their short, well-muscled bodies decorated with brilliant feathers and hideous tribal scars. Some of the soldiers gave them trinkets, nails salvaged from broken crates. The Indians waved and acted friendly, understanding that it would do them no good to behave otherwise.
A troop of monkeys made strong objection to the column's trespass into their neighborhood. From their vantage points in the branches above, they emptied their bladders and threw fruit and seed pods upon the men and animals of the column, shrieking and chattering simian invective. There was much cursing or laughing among the soldiers, depending on who was sprinkled or pelted.
Leading his animals, Charles observed the things of beauty and fascination which the jungle displayed. One day, when this business was over, he wanted to return and give these creatures of the jungle the attention they deserved. But he had a strong feeling that such a day would never come, so he tried to capture all that he saw in his memory. His eyes could not take in enough of it, the profusion of orchids, the intricate pattern of vines and branches revealed by vagrant rays of sunlight. He saw nests of giant wasps and hoped their occupants were not disturbed by the column's passage. Not once did he see a snake, however hard he looked. The jungle was not all delight, despite its beauties. There was the heat, the ticks, and leeches and occasional swarms of plum flies to detract from his enjoyment.
Days and nights passed in timeless succession. Charles felt suspended in a green universe. The only way he knew how many days he had spent in the jungle was by counting his diminishing stock of ration tins. A few more days, he calculated, and he would be able to ride.
They had begun to climb. A few tins of bully beef later, the air grew cooler. Gradually, the foliage was changing. He saw wild coffee trees beside the trail. The trail got steeper and switchbacks more frequent. One day he saw outcrops of naked rock, not covered with the usual cloak of moss. Springs of clear water gushed from some of these, and the men filled their canteens and water casks. Charles had never tasted anything so delicious as the water of the escarpment.
As they went on, he noticed that he and the animals were breathing more heavily. One night, he had to unpack a blanket, and the next day he saw the sun rise over the Llanos Orientales.
He and Hoess stood upon a lava rise on the edge of the escarpment overlooking the llanos. Charles, scanning the horizon through his binoculars, saw some shapes darting hither and thither over the dry grass. He pointed them out to Hoess, who raised his binoculars for a moment and had a look.
"Reas." Hoess took a deep breath of the wind from the llanos. Standing arms akimbo, chin held high, his cap at a jaunty angle, he looked every inch an S.S. officer. "The dry season is nearly over. You can smell rain on the wind."
Charles sniffed the air. "Your nose is much better than mine, Commander. I'm afraid I only smell thorn trees and grass."
"There's a subtle change, but you can smell it. Wait until you've been out here for a few more years." Hoess slapped him on the shoulder. "Horseman's country, my friend. That's what you see. Wild horses, wild cattle, wild people. Plenty of grass, water in the rivers, a clear sky and open land as far as you can see, indeed, farther. On the llanos a man can stand as tall as he wishes without bumping his head on any ceilings. Here you are your own boss. You know what the llaneros say?"
"No, aside from a few swearwords." Charles cased his binoculars.
"They say, 'Over the earth, my horse, over my horse, me; and over me ...'" Hoess laughed.
"'... Over me – my hat!' Pride and self-sufficiency go together. In the llaneros you will find both, as well as ignorance, superstition, brutality, selfishness, disease, and so on, but their first two qualities make them stand out from other louts, so I have a certain liking for them." He tried to scratch his back. "Ach, I can't reach it. Captain, please do me the favor."
"Certainly." Charles dug his fingernails into the commander's back.
"No, higher. There! Ah, that's heavenly." He shrugged his shoulders, like a bird ruffling its feathers while enjoying a bath. "Thank you. Your services are most satisfactory. I shall note that in my report, 'Captain Hendricks is recommended for the Order of the Back-Scratcher in bronze with five claws.'"
"All in the line of duty, Commander."
"Hmm, I see Hans waving to us. Better go back to the men."
Charles stood for a moment, feeling the contrast between the thrilling sweep of the llanos and the subduing mantle of the jungle. Hoess was right. The llanos gave him a feeling of boundless opportunity, limitless possibilities. Clambering down the lava slope, he imagined he could smell the first rain on the wind, and down among the men and horses, he could see the same exhilaration taking hold.
Hoess stood upon a water cask and addressed the members of the column. "We conceal ourselves and move only at night. You may expect contact with the enemy at any time, so keep your weapons ready and stay alert, especially for aircraft. The men of the anti-aircraft section will have their chance to show us what they can do. Now, I suggest you make yourselves comfortable and sleep. We move at dusk."
The moon and stars turned the llanos to silver, the column winding among the thorn bushes and clumps of pampas grass like pale ghosts, no sound coming from the horses' hooves now wrapped in tent cloth and burlap. Charles heard the cry of a coyote or wild dog and saw the dark shape of an owl as it soared and pounced upon some creature in the grass.
Splashes ahead told him they were fording a stream. Their crossing was on a gradual incline which had been worn by the passage of animals over many years. At first, Charles thought such a stream could have posed them only a small obstacle. Then he changed his mind, seeing the steepness of the banks and the water-swept wrack clinging to projecting roots at the arroyo's edges, well above his head. From these flood signs, he judged that the water would normally flow deeper and swifter than a horse and rider could negotiate by wading without some kind of assistance. Hours, even days, could be lost getting the column across such a stream once the rains began. Now he realized why there had been such insistence on the Sandshark's reaching the column at Rio Sucio before the end of the month.
The stallion snorted and blew, having inhaled some mosquitoes. They were a minor annoyance during the dry season. After the rains, there would be clouds of them sufficient to clog the horses' nostrils and drive the animals mad.
The night went quickly for Charles, and he was surprised when the first sunrays appeared on the horizon. Like the other night creatures, the column dispersed, sheltering under the scattered thorn trees. The cool morning air would soon yield to the dust devils and shimmering heat of midday.
After seeing his animals provisioned and secured with others under the leafy umbrella of a large thorn tree, Charles joined Hans, Jesus and the sergeant under a bush. They wolfed down their breakfast of bully beef and biscuits. Using his haversack as a pillow, Charles lay down and looked up at the clear sky through the screen of thorny branches overhead.
"I can see you, but you can't see me," he thought, hoping it were true, because the sound of an aircraft was now unmistakable.
"lt sounds like a single piston engine to me." Hans assembled his rocket launcher. "Probably an observation plane."
They rushed out into the clearing, carrying rockets and two of the launchers. Jesus loaded them and Hans and the sergeant sighted in the plane's direction.
Charles raised his binoculars. "That's what it is all right, a light observation plane with army insignia, rockets under the wings.
Hans followed the plane with the barrel of his launcher. "Probably looking for bandits."
"Or us." Charles focussed on the cockpit, trying to discern the pilot or any passengers.
"Not so soon, I hope. Damn, he's turning away!"
Hoess joined them. "I want him brought down. Do the best you can."
Charles drew out his compass. "Then I have your permission to signal him."
He caught the sun with his compass mirror and flashed a beam at the plane's cockpit.
Hoess slammed his fist into the palm of his hand. "I think he's seen it. Yes, he's circling back!"
Jesus tapped him on the arm. "You'd better stand clear of the launchers. They can be very hot."
Charles showed Hoess to a safe distance. "Infra red-seeking missiles, Commander. They're beauties!"
"If I like them, I'll buy them, as you Americans say."
They turned around, hearing a muffled whoosh behind them. Charles could see nothing in the sky but the plane, its rockets and even more lethal radio antenna. Then the plane's engine vanished in a bright flash and a puff of black smoke. The aircraft hesitated pausing for a moment as if suspended by wires, then rolled over leaving a twisted ribbon of smoke, obscene in the clear sky. The plane disintegrated, burning pieces of wing and fuselage scattering and spinning to the dry grass below. Charles thought he saw the body of the pilot plummeting to earth, still strapped in his seat.
Hoess gripped his arm. "Very good, I do like them!"
Charles laughed. "They're yours. Your children will love playing with them."
"My grandchildren perhaps. I think my own sons have outgrown rocketry. Maybe you have a chemistry set or some model trains in your interesting collection."
"Ask Hans. Any moment I expect to see him bring out a kitchen sink."
"Ah, my wife would like one of those."
There was the dull boom of an explosion and Jesus came running. "The plane's gasoline tank has exploded! The grass is burning and the wind is driving the flames this way."
"Drei Teufels Namen!" Hoess looked anxious. "The grass is like tinder. Get out the spades, entrenching tools. I want every man ... Towards us, you say?"
"Yes, Sir. The ammunition ..."
"Good! Excellent! Yes, the smoke comes this way. The smoke!" Hoess blew his whistle. "Load up! Move out! We ride with the smoke!"
Charles ran after him. "Won't the fire draw suspicion?"
"Always fires, this time of year. Get your horse!"
They rode with the smoke, a line of flames leaping at the rear of the column, swarms of hot cinders, like wasps, stinging men and beasts. Acrid smoke swirled and billowed around them choking, blinding. Charles guided the stallion, at times barely able to see the horse in front. He splashed water from his canteen on the handkerchief he wore over his nose and mouth, and turned to see a clump of pampas grass blaze up against the smoky background. The fire was gaining on them. The mule seemed to know this, and kept trying to come abreast, needing no coaxing to hurry. The problem was to keep the animals from stampeding and losing their way in the smoke. A line of thorn trees roared into flame not far behind them and the stallion quickened his pace. Charles hoped the horse wouldn't stumble and thought of the trouble they would have with the animals should they be overtaken by the fire and be forced to turn back into the burned area. Once they had done that, the flames would no longer threaten them, but they would be seen from the air.
The wind was changing. He felt a cool breath on his face. It must be afternoon, he thought. There was an explosion – had the fire reached some of the ammunition? He squinted, trying to pierce the clouds of smoke, and felt a drop of cold water on his cheek. A large drop spattered upon the horse's neck, just as a sharp crack of thunder resounded overhead. The wind was rising, blowing the smoke back toward the fire, bringing with it the sweet smell of the first rain.
The column halted, dispersed under the thorn trees and watched the rain, a hesitant sprinkle at first, become a monsoon, sheets of icy water accompanied by violent gusts of wind and searing bayonets of lightning that stabbed much too close for Charles' liking. After one drenching, thundering hour, the clouds moved on, leaving ashy rivulets of water coursing among the scorched thorn bushes and indestructible quebracho trees of the blackened area.
The men of the column ate their rations as much to rid their mouths of the smoke as to satisfy their hunger. At nightfall they moved on, stopping to feed and water the horses at the first stream they encountered. The rain made the night air cool, even chilly, to the sodden members of the column. Charles shivered as he rode and longed for a dry, uninterrupted day's sleep. He wondered if he had caught malaria.
In his stupor, he thought he heard someone calling to him. He tried to remember bedding down the animals, but all he could recall was how good it had been to fall upon the dry space he'd cleared beneath the thorn tree. Forcing his eyes open, he looked up at the parakeets chattering overhead. It was still daylight. Maybe he'd imagined a voice.
He looked around to see if he were alone, then groaned. "Oh no, not you again, Sergeant!"
"Sorry, Sir, but the scouts report firing ahead. The commander says mount up."
"Shooting at this hour? It's uncivilized." Charles drew on his haversack and crawled from his bed under the tree.
He joined the small group sent out to reconnoiter, leaving the rest of the column concealed, but ready to advance. They were trotting up a grassy slope, nearing the sound of the shooting, when one of the scouts signaled them to dismount. Approaching the top of the slope, they dropped on all fours. Charles grinned at Hoess crawling along beside him. A snake rustled in the grass as it slithered away from them. Reaching the top, they parted the blades of grass and peered out over the rolling countryside. On the reverse slope were some army vehicles, two trucks and an armored scoutcar which sheltered some government soldiers from gunfire that came from a rocky knoll beyond. Dead horses lay at the base of the knoll.
"Bandits, most probably," whispered Hoess.
Charles nodded in agreement. "Look, that blond-haired fellow by the scoutcar, he's using the radio."
"Probably calling for an air strike."
Charles fingered the safety catch on his rifle. "Shall I shoot him?"
"No. It's too late. Let them come."
Hoess whispered to the soldier beside him. The soldier, crouching as he ran, rejoined the group attending the horses below.
Charles heard the heavy breathing of horses and the creak of leather harness as more of the party joined them. Well-practiced hands soon had a small mortar and shells unloaded, ready for firing
"Feed the belt." Jesus snuggled beside him with the machine-gun.
The horses were taken away and tethered beneath the thorn trees, while the men on the slope camouflaged one another with stalks of grass. They waited. Charles watched a tiny spider lower itself on a web from a grass stem. A line of busy leaf-cutter ants passed a few inches under his nose. The machine-gun smelled of fresh oil, its ugly perforated cooling jacket and conical flash-hider clashing with the graceful lines of nature.
Charles took out his binoculars and gazed at the knoll. He glimpsed a straw hat for an instant. One of the soldiers behind the trucks had seen it, too, and let off a shot. Someone replied from the knoll, and a bullet came whistling overhead.
An aircraft droned, coming closer. It was an old Corsair, just right for the job. Napalm canisters glittered beneath the wings.
Hoess raised his arm. "Ready!"
Jesus jammed the stock into his shoulder, feeling the cool, polished wood against his cheek.
Charles returned his binoculars to their case and picked up the belt of gleaming cartridges, his hands damp with perspiration.
Hoess studied the enemy through his binoculars. "Not the blond one. He must be captured, alive."
The Corsair's pilot made a perfect dive-bombing run, directly over the knoll, its engine screaming.
"Poor devils," thought Charles. "Nothing for them to do."
A silver glint in the air announced the dropping of the napalm. Hoess dropped his arm, and the world seemed to explode, the plane, the knoll, the armored car, but the only sound Charles could hear was the deafening staccato of the machine-gun as the belt jumped through his hands. Smelling the hot oil and burned cordite of the gun, he looked up and saw the soldiers sprawling, flung about, geysers of blood spouting from their bodies. Hoess waved his hand and the firing stopped, leaving silence, save for the crackle of flames and indignant outcries of startled birds.
He stood up, cupped his hands around his mouth, and bellowed in Spanish, "You, there! American! Come out from under that truck. Come out, Kowalski, it's too hot to play games."
The blond-headed man peered out from between the tires of the truck he was hiding under, saw Hoess looking imperiously down upon him, and shook his head in disbelief. He crawled out from under and brushed himself off.
"Well, don't be shy. Come up here!"
Exploding ammunition from the burning scoutcar hastened the American's limping steps.
"What's wrong with you?" asked Hoess.
"I hurt my knee when my car blew up. Jesus, who are you guys?" He raised his arms as they searched him for weapons.
"We are here to see you safely on your way home, Sergeant Kowalski."
"Hey, how do you know my name, anyway?"
"It's written above your pocket, Dummkopf!"
A scout came forward. "No one escaped, Herr Kommandant."
"Good. Bring up the rest of the column. We have just acquired two trucks. Load on the extra ammunition. Hans and Charles can drive."
"Uh, Commander ..."
"Shut up, Prisoner Kowalski. Behave yourself and you will survive this little episode."
A smoke cloud erupted on the site of the plane crash and the explosion echoed among the low hills.
Hoess shook his head. "A pity, wasting all these aircraft. If only the fools would stop sending them over us!"
The column moved out, trotting on either side of the two trucks, leaving the blackened knoll and burning scoutcar far behind. Carrion crows and toucans, driven away by the skirmish, returned to their perches in the neighboring thorn trees. Vultures would join them shortly.
Soon after dark they saw a campfire. Scouts rode off to investigate and returned. They reported that the fire was burning in front of a llanero's hut. The hut was deserted, and food scattered around the fire indicated that the inhabitants had fled in great haste. No one could be found.
A few hours later, they arrived at another hut, abandoned like the first. Some of the men helped themselves to beans which had been left stewing in an iron pot hanging over the fire.
With the look of a connoisseur, Jesus chewed some of the beans. "They could do with a little more cooking."
Hoess blew on a spoonful until it was cooled. "Um, yes, but they are not bad. Strange, running off and leaving food."
"Maybe they think we're bandits." Charles checked his submachine-gun.
Hoess smacked his lips and drew another spoonful of beans. "Unlikely. These llaneros are all bandits, at least when there are strangers to rob. You see, they are all related by marriage and godfatherhood."
A scout saluted, offering Hoess a broken catapult. "Sorry, Commander, we made a thorough search and found no other weapons. We found these, however." He showed them a gold crucifix and an expensive-looking watch.
Hoess threw the catapult into the fire and examined the valuables with an appraising eye. He gave them back to the scout. "Keep them, Corporal, in payment for your trouble."
Jesus looked into the hut's interior where a kerosene lantern burned, and perceived all the signs of recent occupation. He came back to the fire. "Well, they sure cleared out in a hurry, bandits or not."
They rode on for some way and came to a dirt track which led through a citrus grove. The column stopped and the men dismounted. The animals were watered from the irrigation stand pipes then unloaded and bedded down for the night. Having left a suitable guard, the men formed up along the dirt track, weapons ready.
"Move over!" Hoess got into the cab of Charles' truck. "We are going to a party."
Kowalski looked dubious. "Am I invited, too?"
Charles drove slowly up the track, followed by Hans' truck and the silently marching infantry. The road took them up a hill, and turned so sharply that they nearly collided with the dark shapes of buildings which loomed out of the night. Charles saw that they had entered a large courtyard, or a small village square.
"Stop!" said Hoess. "Sound the horn."
Charles pressed the horn button and blinked his eyes as the square was illuminated by powerful spot lights. Iron doors and shutters clanged open, showing the well-lit interiors crowded with friendly-looking people, most of them women and children, who ran out to greet the soldiers. Ardent hugs and kisses revealed more than casual relationships.
As he got out of the truck, Hoess was besieged by a little boy and girl who threw their arms around him, their grasp not much higher than his boot tops.
"Grandpa, we've caught you!"
"It looks that way, doesn't it?" Hoess knelt and hugged the children.
"Ooh, you smell like a horse," they giggled.
"You say such nice things, but tell me, where is Grandmother?"
"We'll take you to her!"
Clinging to his trousers, they led him over to a tall, white haired woman whose weathered features radiated that Nordic serenity born of intelligence. A life well-examined, thought Charles. She said nothing, but reached out and took Hoess by the hand reading all he had to say in his tired face.
"Well, I'll be damned!" exclaimed Kowalski.
Hans nudged him in the ribs. "Let's eat."
On one side of the square they discovered four large oxen roasting over pits of brightly-glowing coals. Fragrant pots of beans and strong black coffee hung from iron stanchions over the fire pits. On tables they found fresh black bread and a variety of fruit to accompany the meal. Nearby bubbled a fountain of the clearest water flowing from a windmill pump in the square.
Hoess came up to them brandishing a hero sandwich he had assembled. "Are you gentlemen all right?"
"I've died and gone to heaven," said Jesus.
The others' mouths were too full for speaking. Sated, they lay upon the grass or flagstones and slept beside their weapons. The prisoner, Kowalski, was secured in a private room and placed under guard.
A warm breeze turned the windmill in the now darkened square, and the footsteps of sentries joined the steady beat of the pump. An owl hooted in a stand of trees and a dog barked as a squad of soldiers tramped off to relieve the men guarding the horses. They took hot food for them from the banquet.
When Charles woke up, it was mid-morning. He looked around for the sergeant, his unwelcome alarm clock, got up stretched, decided he'd had enough sleep and walked over to the watering trough at the base of the windmill tower, picking his way carefully among the gray-green forms scattered over the square. As he splashed cold water on his face, he heard a voice calling him.
He looked around the square, scanning the doorways of the silent, whitewashed buildings. The only others awake were two old men playing draughts under a tree.
He looked up. On the topmost platform of the windmill tower stood the sergeant, smiling down at him.
"Don't you ever sleep, Sergeant?" Charles felt the water running down his neck as he looked up.
Hoess came out of one of the buildings, looked at the sun, then at his watch. He had bathed and put on a clean uniform.
"Nothing yet?" he shouted to the sergeant.
Hoess looked immaculate. He looked at Charles, who felt like a little boy caught making mud pies in his best suit. "The water running down my neck must be causing soil erosion," thought Charles. "I'll be growing potatoes in no time, if we get some rain."
"Would you care for some breakfast, Captain?" Hoess gestured to a table on the veranda.
"Well, Sir, I certainly would, but I'm in pretty foul condition just now. It might spoil your appetite."
"Not at all. My wife and I are old soldiers. Nothing spoils our appetite. You'll have plenty of time for a shower and change."
They went up the stone steps, and Charles joined Hoess and his wife at breakfast. As the coffee, orange juice, bread, jam, eggs and homemade sausages made a rapid disappearance, Charles broke the silence, asking about the two old men playing checkers. Hoess' wife looked surprised.
Hoess finished sipping his coffee. "One, the oldest, the one with the stoop, is a retired officer of the French artillery."
"The other has a crippled hand."
"You are observant, Captain. Such a trait is essential in a good officer. I know you are discreet, as well." Hoess gave an assuring nod to his wife.
"It doesn't matter, now," said Charles.
"No, I suppose it doesn't, really."
"Kommandant!" The sergeant waved from the tower.
"I hear it."
"We must be off, Captain. Please excuse us, my dear." Hoess rose from the table and kissed his wife on the cheek.
As they went down the steps of the vine-draped veranda, Charles noticed a large golden spider sunning itself in the middle of a perfect orb web.
"Die Spinne." Hoess chuckled.
Charles watched the two old men get up from their game, the younger helping the older.
"Ach, he is finished."
"The Frenchman has become senile. He only experiences clarity in the mornings, and his time span is rapidly diminishing. When he is not sleeping, he just stares into space and drools. He can't feed or dress himself, but the other looks after him."
"Sad." Charles' boots crunched over gravel on the flagstones.
"Yes. To die head first is to be avoided at all costs."
"But isn't it unavoidable?"
"I don't think so, not if one determines to stay active. To allow the death of the mind is a willful act done by those lacking the courage for suicide." Hoess waved good morning to the soldiers who were rising from the square and arranging their equipment.
Charles heard an approaching plane. "Oh, oh!"
"Relax, it's ours."
Even so, he could not avoid ducking his head as the little Fiesler Storch flew low over the square. Some of the soldiers waved at the plane.
"Shower time." Hoess pointed to a queue of soldiers in one corner of the square.
"Something I need very badly." Charles remembered his last bar of soap with nostalgia.
"Yes, today everyone can clean up and have a change of uniform. To say we smell like horses is something of a compliment."
They passed some soldiers having a spirited archery contest in a corner of the square. One of the men had just scored a bull's eye, almost dead center, displacing his opponent's arrow.
"Good shooting, Schneider!" exclaimed Hoess.
"Thank you, Commander. I hope we do as well tomorrow.
"You will, don't worry. Another good meal and some rest will steady you considerably."
Charles heard the plane land. Its engine grew louder as it taxied toward the hacienda. Rounding a corner, he saw the plane parked on the edge of the nearby pasture. Its propeller stopped turning and the field was peaceful once more except for the cawing of crows. The pilot, a fair youth clad in a black leather flying suit, carrying an attache case, alighted from the plane and strode toward them. Not until the aviator helmet came off did Charles see that the pilot was an attractive young woman.
Hoess saluted her. "Marlene von Mannerheim, I wish you to meet our Captain Hendricks."
"Ah, Captain Hendricks, what good things I have heard about you." She removed her glove and extended her hand.
"Very pleased to make your acquaintance." Charles took her hand. "I hope you'll pardon my disreputable appearance and stay upwind from the aroma."
"Oh, I have nothing against horses. I enjoy riding as well."
"I see you have a considerable number of talents."
"She is also an excellent aerial photographer and photo interpreter." It seemed Hoess was anxious to get down to business.
Marlene removed two large black and white prints from her briefcase. "This, I took yesterday. This one, two days ago."
Hoess passed him the most recent picture. "What do you make of it, Captain?"
"Well, it's obviously a military installation of some kind. It looks like a fort. That's an airstrip running outside the enclosure, and that large building is a hangar."
"All correct, so far. If you were planning to capture this fort with a force such as ours, what would you look for?"
"The best avenue of approach."
"Well, you see, as something of an amateur in military tactics, my scheme would involve quick penetration of the fort itself, rather than encirclement. The builders of the fort have already done that for us, encircling themselves with these high walls."
Hoess looked interested. "Please continue."
"This cleared strip, running around the entire position, how wide is it?"
"Fifteen," said Marlene.
"Excuse me." Hoess touched the side of his cap with his riding crop.
"Is this strip mined?" Charles held the picture so they could all see. He could smell Marlene's perfume and see the fine blond hair on the nape of her neck.
"Yes," said Hoess.
Concertina wire, booby-trapped."
"What's on the outside of the wire?"
"Maize, nearly one and a half meters high. The watch towers command an excellent view of the surrounding countryside and of the only access roads. These cross the mined strip like causeways, and are in full view of the towers for at least five hundred meters. At night the strip is illuminated by searchlights."
"These pits just inside the strip?"
"Bunkers, machine-gun nests."
"What about coming from behind and hitting the rear gate?"
"And cross an airfield as well as a mined area?"
"Just a thought. Not such a good one, I guess." He saw Marlene smile. "What about driving some livestock through the mine-field here, followed by an infantry assault?"
"Good idea, but very noisy," said Hoess.
"Livestock would be conspicuous," said Marlene, in her low, well-modulated voice. "There are none in the area."
"Show him the earlier picture, Marlene."
She gave Charles the other print, the same except for some minor details.
Charles pointed to the runway. "Two planes instead of one. And ... Yes!" He compared the two pictures. "Three vehicles are missing from the motor pool."
"Exactly!" Hoess flexed the riding crop in his hands, his eyes betraying eagerness. "What can you tell us, Marlene?"
"General Toral and his Americans from the Military Assistance Advisory Group do not believe the peasants' talk of the ghost army."
"Ghost army?" said Charles.
"Yes, they say the ghost army of General Miranda is sweeping silently over the plains, chasing the damned souls of the llaneros and that anyone who looks upon them will be taken to hell or will go mad. It is a curse which will not be lifted until the rains set in."
Charles shook his head in amazement. "I've never heard so much nonsense since I stopped reading American news magazines."
"That would account for the abandoned huts we encountered." Hoess chuckled. "I wonder what sort of ghosts eat a llanero's beans?"
"Our radio monitor reports an observation plane missing. A day later, a motor convoy was sent out toward the area in which radio contact with the plane was broken. Another aircraft would have gone out instead, but flying weather was bad. Yesterday, the convoy reported an action with bandits. A call was made for air support and a plane dispatched. After that, no further transmissions were received, despite efforts to contact the missing units by radio. Can you account for this, Commander?"
"Yes. We are the culprits."
"Did you see the fort today?" asked Charles.
"Yes, and I saw no unusual movement. They are planning a massive search for the missing units in the next few days, however. The capital has told them to wait for the return of the motor convoy but General Toral is impatient and sounds anxious over the radio. He wants more planes, but the capital asks what he is doing with the ones they've sent him."
"Things are tough all over."
Hoess snapped his fingers. "Not so, my dear Captain! We may not even have to blast down the gates. I think they will open them for us."
"Gentlemen, I must go back." Marlene closed her briefcase. "Well, Captain, I hope to see you again, soon."
Charles took her hand and saw the trace of a smile in her pale blue eyes.
"Here, Schützen, come help with this plane!" Hoess waved some soldiers over from cleaning their weapons.
Charles and the soldiers lifted the tail section and turned the plane into the wind. Marlene climbed into the cockpit. The engine was still warm and started with the first spin of the propeller. They dug their heels into the stubble of the pasture and held the rear stabilizer while Marlene revved the engine, blowing dust and stinging pieces of straw into their faces. When they let go, the plane seemed to leap into the air. Soon Marlene was circling above them, dipping her wings in leave-taking.
Hoess nudged Charles in the ribs. "An intelligent girl, Captain, single only because she is headstrong and difficult to please."
"The 'Ice Princess.' That's what old Fred calls her." There was a note of admiration in Charles' voice.
"That kind of ice can burn, my friend."
"Then I hope to go down in flames. Well, if you don't have any more entertainment, I'm off for a shower." Charles saluted and strode back in the direction of the windmill.
He spent the remainder of the afternoon with Hans, making sure the two captured trucks were roadworthy. The forty soldiers in their complement practiced quick exits from the trucks in-full kit. They were becoming adept at leaping from the backs of the trucks, landing silently and swiftly employing weapons at the ready.
"Just like peas flying out of a pod." Hans wiped his grease smudged face with his sleeve.
The sergeant came over to them. "Captain, the men say it's much easier with the tailgates down, otherwise they get tangled up with the benches."
"Good, we'll drop them before we get to the fort." Charles looked pleased. "No need to tell them every second counts."
"How do we look?" Jesus presented Kowalski and himself for inspection.
"Ghastly!" Charles grinned. "You look as if you've been trampled by a herd of horses."
"We look like real emergency cases, then."
"Yes, maybe even too far gone for treatment."
Jesus laughed. "Well, those bandits ambushed us, you know, and we barely got out alive."
"It sure looks that way."
"What about Hans' disguise?"
"Just smear a little more grease over his face until you're satisfied and give him a khaki shirt. He'll be driving the second truck, anyway. It's you two who have to make the right impression. You know what you're supposed to do, Kowalski. Think you can handle it?"
"Bastards!" Kowalski spat the words out bitterly.
"He means 'yes.'" Jesus smiled, his Sterling muzzle jabbing Kowalski in the back. "My, this ox blood does draw flies."
"That's what I like to see, Kowalski, co-operation, teamwork, the things that made America great!" Charles felt exuberant and slightly mischievous after his wash.
"Even in Spanish, I can tell you're a dirty Kraut, Capítan." Kowalski laid heavy, sarcastic emphasis on his rank.
Charles smiled and arranged the blood-soaked sling on the American's shoulder. "Shut up! You're not essential to this exercise. For two centavos I'd see you lying in the dust, and you wouldn't be covered in ox blood." He felt the man shiver beneath the gory bandages.
"There." Charles stood back, satisfied with his adjustment of the sling. "As far as you're concerned, you died on the trail, back there with your men and the scoutcar. If any of us live through this bit, we can consider ourselves damned lucky."
"You could be driving into a trap, Captain." This time there was no sarcasm in Kowalski's voice.
"Maybe. All we want is to get that gate open. Trap or not, we'll succeed in that."
"Well, gentlemen, it's nearly dusk." Hoess came over to take his leave. "We should be off if we are to arrive before daybreak. Good luck."
Charles brought his heels together and saluted. "Gute Reise Herr Kommandant. See you tomorrow, at siesta time."
They watched him mount his horse, now curried and brimming with energy, and gallop across the square to join the column in the orange grove.
Charles blew his whistle, and activity ceased. "Attention! We leave at dawn. The men who are not guarding the prisoner are free to visit their families. Any questions? If not, I'll see you all out here at oh-four-thirty hours. Dismissed!"
The air of the llanos brought some of its night-time dampness to them as the sun rose. Charles let in the clutch and drove off slowly, followed by Hans and the sergeant in the second truck. They returned the waves of some women and children standing m the square and passed an open doorway which framed the two old men in a brightly-lit room, the younger feeding the other maize porridge with a large spoon, overseen by a young woman who stood shaking her head. The smell of coffee made it all seem very homelike to Charles as they left the square and turned onto the bumpy dirt track.
Kowalski dozed in the front seat beside him, while Jesus, Sterling at the ready, sniffed the morning air. The ox blood had dried and the unconcern with which the two 'injured' men bore their apparently serious wounds made them seem more like refugees from a ketchup factory.
They drove at a businesslike pace, stopping once to allow the men to relieve themselves. It was late that morning when they left the barely-visible trail and turned onto a smoother, dustier road. Now they drove faster, leaving clouds of reddish dust hanging in the hot, still air.
Charles was down-shifting to take a steep length of road when he saw a soldier from the column waving them to halt. He drew up in front of the soldier and stopped, the truck engine idling.
"Good morning, Private." Charles leaned out the window.
"Good morning, Sir. Welcome to the rear of the staging area. We heard you coming when you were some distance away, and the commander sent me to stop you. The fort is only a few kilometers ahead, so you are to wait here."
They drove the trucks off the road and had no sooner finished camouflaging them than it was time to go.
Charles got down from the cab of the truck and held the door open. "Okay, Jesus, the driving's all yours. Don't get any funny ideas Kowalski. I'll be right behind you."
Charles put his submachine-gun on 'safety' and climbed into the rear of the truck with the men. He sat on the knees of one of the soldiers, while clinging to the framework of the truck with his left hand and aiming his Sterling at the back of Kowalski's head with his right. As the truck lurched out from under the trees, he saw rays of sunlight coming through the bullet holes in the dusty canvas top and smelled the gun oil, leather and perspiration of the twenty soldiers who sat on the low benches running the length of the truck's cargo section. They looked alert, but rode relaxed, swaying as the truck jolted over rough parts of the road. He wondered how many times they'd done this kind of operation, and where: Africa, most likely. Some of the men spoke Spanish with French accents.
Charles looked back at the second truck and saw Hans and the sergeant smiling grimly through the dust that rose from their passage. The sun blazed down, making the covered vehicles as hot as ovens. There was no breeze at all. A perfect time of day for a siesta in some cool, high-ceilinged barracks, he thought.
He looked at the road beyond Kowalski's head. They were approaching a sentry post on the outer edge of the cornfield. Two khaki-clad soldiers waved them on. The uniforms were in a bad state, but their previous occupants had probably fared worse. Sooner than he'd expected, they passed through the cornfield, crossed the mined strip and drew up to the gate. Just like that, thought Charles. It was so easy to get into the thick of things.
He motioned for the men to duck their heads and drew back to avoid being seen from the gateway. The soldiers bent over, their heads nearly touching in the confines of the truck. The two at the tailgate made ready with their bayonets. He heard exclamations of surprise and horror from the sentries.
"Quick, let us in!" shouted Kowalski, in a hoarse voice. "We have wounded."
"Very good," thought Charles. "I'll recommend him for an Oscar."
"Open!" cried one of the sentries.
Charles heard bolts drawn back and the squeak of hinges. He saw the gate begin to open and heard a sentry's rifle clatter on the pavement. The archers in the cornfield were doing their work. As they drove into the compound, he caught sight of black arrow shafts protruding from khaki shirts.
Jesus accelerated, leaving Hans' group to deal with the gatekeepers. Charles saw lines of parked vehicles, tanks and field pieces sweep by as they sped to the second gate. The truck had barely stopped when the troops spewed out upon the pavement and rushed the guards, one of whom was able to fire a shot before he was overwhelmed. Most of the men sprinted off to the barracks, leaving the remainder to open the gate.
Charles saw Hans' truck speeding up to them. Behind came the men of the column, charging through the open entrance of the fort. As the rear gate opened, he heard the engine of a plane revving for take off. Bursts of machine-gun fire and grenade explosions came from the barracks as they drove out and stopped upon the runway.
Charles leaped out of the truck and sprawled onto the runway asphalt as the plane's machine-guns opened fire. He realized the bullets were passing overhead and ran, crouching low, to the ditch beside the runway where Jesus and Kowalski had taken cover. Hans leaped in with them, quite out of breath.
"Sergeant, come here!" Charles tried to shout over the crash of grenades and the angry drone of the aircraft engine. "What's he trying to do?"
"He wants to hit the plane with the bazooka," gasped Hans.
Rockets whooshed from the plane, one making a direct hit on Hans' truck. Charles saw the sergeant drop the bazooka and fall, just as the truck burst into flame.
"No!" cried Hans, but Charles had already sprung from the ditch and onto the runway.
Hans and Jesus emptied their Sterlings at the plane, trying to distract the pilot, as Charles dashed to rescue the fallen sergeant. He reached him before the gasoline tank of the burning truck exploded, and dragged him away. The plane seemed to be coming closer as Charles worked his way across the runway, dragging the unconscious sergeant in a slow-motion nightmare. He could see the pilot's face by the time he reached the ditch.
"Kowalski, take his legs! Easy, now." Charles darted a glance at the plane. "What's that idiot up to?"
"He's taxiing toward the trucks." Hans slipped another magazine into his Sterling.
The pilot accelerated, set the brakes and jettisoned his napalm canisters which skittered down the runway.
"Quick, out of the ditch!" The rest of Charles' words were drowned by the detonations as the canisters reached the trucks and covered the center of the runway with liquid fire. Frantically, they carried the wounded man, cursing and stumbling over the recently plowed furrows that skirted the mined strip. Exhausted, they laid the sergeant down and collapsed upon the soft earth.
"He's made a perfect ground loop," said Hans. "Look, he's going in the opposite direction."
"Is he going to take off?" asked Jesus.
"With the wind and on half a runway? He's a fool!" Hans shook his head.
The pilot revved the engine to maximum, released the brakes and accelerated. His wheels lifted off the ground, but not enough to miss the concertina wire at the end of the runway. The plane nosed over, crashed into the minefield and exploded, raising a great plume of smoke and dust.
"How is he?" Jesus watched Charles loosen the sergeant's tunic.
"He's breathing all right. There's a bad-looking gash on his shoulder and a hell of a lump starting up on his head, but he doesn't seem to be losing much blood." Charles tore open a sterile bandage packet from his first aid kit. "Give me some more sulfa powder. Good. Kowalski, raise his feet a little higher."
Hans looked up. "Here comes a jeep. It's Hoess!"'
Charles saw the sergeant's eyelids move. "Wake up, there, Sergeant! Can't have you sleeping all day."
The sergeant tried to sit up, but Charles made him lie quietly.
"Sorry, Sir. Must have dozed off... Wait a minute, how did I get here?"
The jeep halted beside them.
"I'll tell you later," said Charles. "You missed out on some real fancy flying."
A trooper on horseback galloped up to the jeep and saluted. "Most of the sentries have been rounded up, Commander. They fled into the bush when they heard the firing. Not a single bunker was defended."
"Very good, Corporal. See that they are brought into the compound for processing." Hoess returned the salute and the soldier galloped away.
A breeze was starting up, idly stirring the flag which hung dispiritedly from the staff of the fort's headquarters. The prisoners assembled in the barracks compound looked equally listless and dejected as they faced the machine-guns of the column. Smoke from grenades tainted the shimmering air with the reek of explosive.
General Toral stood beside Commander Hoess. It looked as if the garrison were on review, except for the fact that General Toral was in his dressing gown.
"You are not lying to me, General." Hoess slapped his boot top impatiently with the riding crop.
"It would not enter my mind, Señor Commandante. As I told you, there were only two American advisors. One, you have captured. The other was in the plane which crashed on take-off."
"All right, I believe you."
"Now that we have settled the question of the missing American, please tell me what you intend doing with my men? lt is very hot out here and many have been wounded." The General shifted his bare feet uncomfortably upon the rough stones of the compound.
"Why, General, it must be obvious to you that we are too few to take this number of prisoners." Hoess waved his riding crop with casual indifference. "Open fire!"
Charles felt the second belt of ammunition go still in his hands. Jesus had stopped firing and looked over the smoking barrel of the machine-gun for any stirring among the wind rows of khaki. A flock of vultures circled overhead, squawking at the disturbance. One by one they settled on their customary perches atop the barracks roof and beheld the feast in store for them.
General Toral gaped in disbelief. His face was ashen. "But you let them surrender, Commandante. You asked them ..."
"You are mistaken, General. I merely allowed them to exercise their wishful thinking." Hoess calmly straightened his gloves.
The general strode over to the outstretched bodies and turned around, facing Hoess. "You are the Devil himself. Go on, damn it! Shoot me! I shall die with my men."
Hoess walked up to him and took his arm. "Come now, you are much too grown up for these histrionics."
"I don't understand." The general was completely flustered, denied his supreme moment.
"You forget the service you have to perform for your country. There are certain numbered bank accounts, some safety deposit boxes which you alone can provide. The return of stolen property is not only heroic, but good for your Catholic soul."
Toral's voice had become a croak. "You do me no favors."
"On the contrary, General. On the contrary." Hoess smiled.
"Kommandant! The message has been transmitted. Control acknowledges. The capital expresses puzzlement that we should report difficulties with our transmitter." The radio operator waited expectantly.
"Thank you, that is all. We move into the capital as soon as the men have had something to eat. Come along, General. Some coffee will improve your disposition."
Thunder clouds loomed on the horizon at dusk, bringing the smell of distant rain and a cool breeze. Engines roared in the darkened compound. Men ran purposefully among the vehicles. Orders were shouted and doors slammed. The column got underway.
"Just like the old days in North Africa." Hans threw the truck into gear and took up his position in the convoy.
"I could do with a bath," said Charles.
"That's right, just like North Africa!"