A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 19

A Pillar Of Fire By Night – Snippet 19

“No time,” Mrs. Miranda replied. “‘They’ll be along,’ said the man who took our oaths of enlistment.”

“No basic training . . . never mind, silly question.”

The old woman smiled. “I don’t need basic to cook. Neither do the girls. So, tell me where the kitchen is.”

Pointing at the hole, Ramirez, grimaced, answering, “Well . . . it used to be there. My exec”–Ramirez head inclined toward the junior tribune–“has requested new pots and such but . . .” He shrugged, apologetically.

“Never mind,” answered the old woman, firmly. “They told us enough of the details. We emptied out the restaurant, plus grabbed a few things from home. We’ll make do. But we need a place. And a stove; that we couldn’t move. And we’ll need fuel for the stove. Wood will do if you can come up with some.”

“I’ll get somebody right on that,” the tribune answered. “Top?”

“All the natural wood is pretty wet, sir,” the battery’s first centurion answered, “but we’ve still got some of the lumber that came in the containers.”

“Will that do?” Ramirez asked the old woman.

“I hate the waste,” she said, “but it should do.”

The XO added in, “And we’re supposed to be getting a new set of burners in the next couple of days, those, or a kitchen trailer. But . . .”

“Don’t worry about it. You get us food and something to cook on and we’ll cook. Clear enough?”

Both the exec and Top cringed, bracing for a verbal explosion. Ramirez only smiled, answering, “Why, yes, Madam, it is very clear. And we still have some food, canned rations.”

“Good. They’ll do. And if you could get us a twenty-liter can of water, and the wood I mentioned, we can start on some stew.”

“I’ll . . . ummm . . . get right on that, ma’am.”

“Excellent,” said the old woman. “Oh, and one other thing. We ran into a priest on the way here. He’s doing a funeral for another group but he said he’ll be along later today, along with some people . . . what was it he called them? Oh, yes, I remember; he said ‘graves registration.'”

Ramirez nodded, thinking, I’d better set someone to finding the cooks’ helmets. They should have survived even if nothing else did.

***

To one side, just above the lip of the crater, the chaplain’s assistant played a pedal powered field organ. The assembled battery, loosely formed around the hole marking the former cooks’ shack, sang in accompaniment:

“Yo soy el pan de vida.

El que viene a mí no tendrá hambre.

El que cree en mí no tendrá sed . . .”

Two makeshift crosses had been erected in the hole where the cooks’ shack had once been. The crosses were adorned with helmets, one fairly whole and the other nearly flattened. The flattened one, on closer inspection, had proven to have some bloodstains, along with a bit of flesh that was probably brain matter. Even though the other was clean, both helmets would be placed in body bags and buried in marked plots in one of the field cemeteries. At least it would give the next of kin a place to visit after the war.

“Nadie viene a mí . . .”

The voices all died to uncertainty as the sirens began afresh. The chaplain’s assistant looked as his boss, eyes querying, What now, Father? The gunners’ eyes all seemed to hold much the same question.

With the first organ-rippling gift from above shaking the trees, the chaplain made a quick sign of the cross at the assembly, shouting, “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, for God’s sake get under cover!”

***

Sometimes the raids came and went quickly. Sometimes they lasted quite a while. Sometimes–well, just that once–they seemed to target the battery. Other times, more usually, they struck elsewhere.

But the problem, thought a tall, broad-shouldered, slender, and olive-toned gunner known to the battery as “Blue-eyed Rodriguez,” is that as long as the sirens haven’t blown “all clear,” and as long as you can feel the earth rumbling under your feet, through the soles of your boots, you’re still scared shitless. It wears . . . God knows, it wears.

Since he’d brought his guitar along when mobilized, Rodriguez was the battery’s unofficial musician and ad hoc entertainment center. At least he’d play and sing something someone might want to listen to, rather than the official radio’s hourly rendition of Todo por la Patria with O Campo, Mi Campo on the half.

Rodriguez cast blue eyes up at the bunker’s little AM radio, sitting precariously on a shelf, and shaking from the bombs. The radio was, fortunately silent. Indeed, nobody had turned the thing on in weeks.

We need a new song, the guitar-playing gunner thought. Or a bunch of them. But maybe I can come up with just one. Now let’s see; we were singing “Pan de Vida.” Okay, as far as it goes. Nice tune. Maybe it could use some new words.

Aloud he tried, “We are the cannon of death . . . Under our feet you are roaches . . .”

Yeah, maybe something like that. Needs some work, though.

IV Corps Headquarters, Fortress Cristobal, Balboa

The sun long down, this late at night the headquarters was comparatively quiet. Across the bay, to the east, tracers crisscrossed through the sky, leaving green and red streaks burned on the retinae of any who looked. That was Arturo Killum’s tercio, the Eighth, hanging onto Tecumseh by their fingernails.

Occasionally, a brighter flash told of an incoming shell exploding over the bunkers and trenches of the defenders. As background, somewhere off in the distance, air pumps pulled the carbon dioxide from the shelter–it and many others–and spread it out on the surface so that no tell-tale trace would mark what mattered to friend or foe.

And I can’t even let them surrender. Not ever, thought Legate Xavier Jimenez, watching over the indicia of the fight from the relative safety of the zig-zag entrance into the shelter. They’re better off taking the pounding now, where they’re sheltered, than a worse pounding later, without that shelter.

“Hang on boys,” he said to the air. “It’s for a reason.” Turning, Jimenez walked down the damp ramp and then passed through the double curtain that kept the light from escaping. He didn’t have to count steps, so often had he made the same short trek. Each turn he took through the twisted corridor he took automatically, until, passing a couple of other thick canvas curtains, he entered into the dimly lit space set up for operations.

The first person he saw–no different this night than any other–was Corporal Sarita Asilos, manning the communications desk, lovely face lit by the various radio dials.

Does she ever rest? Jimenez wondered.

“What’s the word, Sarita?” he asked of the corporal, walking to her desk after entering the mold-smelling, dank and damp, concrete-enshrouded headquarters. The beautiful young corporal caught her breath, as she did pretty much every time her legate showed up. Corporal Sarita Asilos had a serious crush, all the worse for being so plainly unrequited. It was funny, too, because she had much the same effect on every other male in the headquarters–she being tall, slender, smooth of skin, fair of face, and most delightfully curved–that Jimenez had on her.

“No good words, sir,” Asilos said. “The Duque refused our request to abandon the outpost on the other side of the bay.” The woman sneered in the direction of the radio–same legionary issue model as graced the shelf in Blue-eyed Rodriguez’s bunker, adding, “And the enemy propaganda says that Carrera’s abandoned us over here because we’re mostly black and he’s white.” Her eyes turned sad, soft, plaintive, and perhaps a little moist. “It’s not true, is it, sir? The Duque wouldn’t do that, would he?”

“Truth is always the first casualty, Sarita,” Jimenez answered. “I know Patricio probably better than anyone does, to include either of his wives. For certain constrained values of ‘know,'” Jimenez hastened to add. “He’s got flaws in plenty, but neither racism nor disloyalty are among them.

“And if you consider the viciousness of the propaganda we’ve laid on the Tauran Union, well . . . our people aren’t rioting in the streets over what they say about us. Over in Taurus, though . . .”

Wickedly and cynically, Jimenez snickered. “Now, is he using us? Well, duh. But we all volunteered to be used for a higher purpose, so we can hardly complain about that.”

“I guess you’re right, sir. But those men on the other side are taking a hard pounding.”

Jimenez nodded. “Yeah, I know. I’m a little surprised the enemy came up with the logistic wherewithal to put in as heavy an attack as they have over there. But it’s unlikely, even if Carrera had agreed, that we’d have gotten the men out safely, not with them having to cross the bay since the road to Fuerte Tecumseh was cut.”

 

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