The book should be available now so this is the last snippet.
The Forever Engine – Snippet 48
Gordon smiled for the first time.
“Yes, there is that. Very well, we will march to Kratovo today, and then we will decide how to proceed after that.”
The Bavarians weren’t happy, but then who was? The important thing was they marched, and they kept their muttered complaints in German. Less than an hour through the woods brought us to the outskirts of Pribojska Spa. The town clung to the sides of a small valley and the mass of the mountains rose abruptly behind it, like a backdrop, covered with forests the color of dusty jade. The grain of the mountains ran from northwest to southeast, and our road to the east would take us along the foothills for a mile or two and then up and across.
A bubbling spring near the road let us replenish our water without having to enter the town. There were still people in Pribojska Spa. I caught occasional movement in a window, a door moving slightly to give someone a view, but the locals kept their distance. We weren’t in uniform, but we didn’t look like we came from around here. We looked armed and dangerous. The town was large enough to at least have police, but they were either gone or hiding as well. In a way, this was good for morale. It was spooky, but the feeling someone was afraid of us made the men feel more confident.
The road meandered, following the increasingly rocky and uneven foothills. Another hour of marching took us to Banja, a narrow string of whitewashed stucco houses, barns, and outbuildings sprinkled along either side of the road. We were greeted by a musket shot at two hundred yards — obviously a warning rather than an attempt to do genuine injury.
“What do you think?” Gordon asked.
The men had spread out into a skirmish line, easily finding cover in the broken ground, and so far they had followed the order not to return fire. The Bavarians stirred restlessly, though, eager for a fight. No, they were eager for an easy fight, a cheap shot at redemption for having run the previous night. A ramshackle mountain village defended by some guy with a rusty musket probably sounded like the ticket.
“I think we skirt the village to the north. If whoever’s in the village tries something, we’ll see it coming, have the high ground.”
“The Bavarians seem anxious to prove themselves. I wonder if it might not help things if we give them their heads.”
I avoided looking at him. He wouldn’t have liked what he’d have seen in my eyes.
“Worst case, there are a dozen armed men in there who tear the Bavarians apart once they get in close, kill or cripple half of them and break the spirit of the rest. Best case? A bunch of murdered villagers, probably a few rapes. Or maybe that’s the worst case and a bunch of dead Bavarians is better. Except they’re your men. It gets complicated.”
Gordon took off his cork helmet, scratched his scalp, and squinted up at the rocky ridge north of the village.
“You think you’re so bloody superior,” he said after a moment.
“Next time I tell you a story, I’ll make sure there are butterflies and kittens in it.”
He glared at me but said nothing.
We climbed the slope and made our way past Banja. The Bavarians grumbled until we got to a promontory with a good view down at the place. I called O’Mara and Melzer over and we squatted there on the granite, picking out the barricades by some of the walled gardens, the groups of two or three armed men moving from house to house, keeping us under observation. It wouldn’t have been the easy fight it looked like from outside. That gave the Bavarians something to think about.
Half an hour later, we scrambled back down the ridge and returned to the road. The path was straighter after Banja, but after a mile it began climbing steadily and conversation died away. Gordon kept up a good pace, so he had a good set of legs and lungs, but the Marines were showing signs of wear.
“Tell me . . . a story . . . about . . . your daughter,” Gabrielle said beside me between puffs for air.
I though for a moment and then told her, my story broken into the same respiratory data packets as her request.
“Little girls look up to their older male brothers and cousins, sometimes hero-worship them a little. When Sarah was about eight, we were at a family picnic. Her cousin Rudy — he was about twelve then — came over and said, ‘Hey, Sarah, go over and pinch Joey on the butt. It’ll really embarrass him.’ Joey was a friend of Rudy’s, not family.”
“What did Sarah do?”
“She looked up at him and said, ‘Forget it, Rudy. I’m not the clown in your circus.’”
Telling that story always made me smile, too, filled me with a warm feeling, a glow, but here it just left me cold and tight in the chest.
We walked in silence.
“I have no family memories,” she said after a while. “Thank you for sharing yours. Family is so important to people, I see this all the time. It gives great comfort, does it not?”
With the setting sun at our backs we trudged up the steep grade. Gordon called regular rest stops, but I saw some of the Marines having a hard time getting back up again after the breaks. Gabrielle wasn’t carrying as heavy a load as most of the rest of us, but with her shotgun and ammunition, it was pretty close. She was tiring, but so was I, so were all of us. It was a hard march. She didn’t show signs of weakening, though. Nothing wrong with her legs.
There’s a reason physical conditioning is so important. Soldiers have to do things like march for hours up a mountainside with a full pack and still do their job. Their job includes staying mentally alert, keeping their eyes open, thinking about what is around them and what it means, and that’s really hard if you’ve burned through all your energy reserves and are staggering along, using all your concentration to just put one foot in front of the other.
So that’s how we walked into the ambush.
It was pretty slick, as ambushes go. They caught us where the road leveled for a stretch. The right side dropped down and away at a shallow angle, a rocky field without much cover. A sheer embankment rose to the left, about two meters tall, with boulders and scattered scrub above that — excellent cover and hard to get at, on top of that steep cut.
A voice called out in a Slavic language from ahead of us, from a cluster of rocks near the road. As soon as it did, a dozen rifles appeared to our left from the brush and rocks above the embankment, and when we looked there a dozen more appeared to our front, around the rocks — a perfect L-shaped ambush.
“He says to throw down our arms,” Gabrielle said beside me, her voice shaking with fear.
He yelled again, more insistently. I looked around, but they had us cold. No cover to our right, no real way to rush the ambush site to our left because of the embankment, no way to do so to our front except in single file, raked by fire from our flank.
“Gordon,” I yelled. “he says to drop our weapons. We better do it.”
“What language?” I asked Gabrielle.