The call to action came much like any other. It was a bit earlier than usual, coming not long after dawn whereas mostly, though not exclusively, calls came in some time in the late mornings and early afternoons.
It was Andrew’s turn to respond and he waited with his troops for the helicopters that would take them to the LZ to arrive. While they waited, his captain briefed him on information that had come over the radio.
“There’s only a dozen of them, bringing half a dozen mules,” Captain Kergoat said. “You should be able to handle it, no problem.”
He nodded. These events weren’t so frequent that he could feel completely blasé about them, and he was still going through all the procedures and plans in his head. It only took about half an hour for the choppers to arrive, the same sort of time as usual, though this seemed to pass quite slowly. When they touched down he glanced across at his sergeant major who was already loading his half of the company aboard and needed no further prompting. He signalled his own team to do likewise, and climbed up last behind them. Anne was accompanied by her usual co-pilot. They always flew with one now, never knowing if a routine supply run might suddenly become a proper mission, though that hadn’t happened yet to Andrew’s knowledge. He took the headset that the co-pilot offered and put it on. Conversation, though it wouldn’t be heard much above the roar of the engines, was limited to ‘professional’ matters. She’d quickly learned that he didn’t like to chat when heading out on these assignments.
The information they’d received on the train they’d be attacking was limited. Andrew was relieved that he wouldn’t, as far as he expected anyway, be firing on kids as Hitu had had to do. His task was unpleasant enough already, without that added complication. No amount of planning could really negate the fact that he’d have to react to circumstances as they arose, but nevertheless it would help them in the early stages of the assault so he spent most of the flight going over in his head what needed to be done when they arrived. It was one of his own trails again, though not one he’d seen himself apart from the top by the border when they’d first found it, so he’d want to get a good feeling for how the land lay once they were up there. His sergeant major had probably already done this, while his team had prepared the LZ, and would no doubt have a few things to tell him when they landed, but there was no better substitute for personal experience.
The flight, as usual, was uneventful though they did encounter quite a bit of turbulence even at the low height they were flying at, so the ride was quite bumpy. Dismounting once they’d arrived was hurried yet almost casual. The men knew what they’d have to do and obviously weren’t relishing the thought. They weren’t privy to the same information he was, so didn’t know they wouldn’t be up against children as they’d probably have already heard Hitu’s company had been last time. It was something he’d need to be sure they were briefed on, before readying themselves for the final assault. He decided to do this at the LZ once the choppers were far enough away for their droning not to make him have to shout. That way he’d only have to say it once, instead of having to repeat himself to smaller groups as they settled into their positions. He waited until the sound of engines had fallen enough for him to be heard without shouting. He was answered by a relieved look on many of the faces looking back at him.
He conversed briefly with his sergeant major before leading his company to the trail and on to the site chosen for the ambush. This site didn’t benefit from a full gully, so they’d have to be careful not to be firing on their own comrades, especially the machine gunners if it became necessary to use them. It hadn’t so far in his own experience nor from anything Hitu had told him about his own encounters. You never knew though. He made a mental note to be sure to remind the gunners on his side of the trail and instructed the sergeant major to do the same on the side he’d be leading. It did, though, slope a little to the trail which would help.
He took a brisk walk up the trail while his team took up their positions on either side of it. As the sergeant major had reported, there was nothing there to cause him any concerns. He also checked out the sergeant major’s side of the ambush. The experienced men had chosen positions well. He didn’t want to change anything. He left the sergeant major to oversee things on that side of the trail and returned to his own team. Sergeant Flynn had settled them into position quickly and given them instructions on who to fire at first. There was nothing more to be done except settle in and wait for the traffickers to arrive.
He wasn’t quite sleeping when the first shots broke the silence, dozing maybe while he waited for the call from the forward observers he’d set up which would forewarn them of the ‘bad guys’ approach. Little patches of earth around him were springing to life as they were hit by bullets from behind. The radio that P. Mendez was carrying started to crackle, Sergeant Johanssen telling him they were under attack on his side of the trail as well. It seemed that the would be ambushers had been ambushed themselves, not something they’d been expecting nor that they had planned for. The trail below was suddenly full of people, all carrying guns and firing up at both sides of the trail. They were being fired on from two sides at once, and had no opportunity to pull back a bit to change the situation. The radio suddenly went silent, hit by one of the incoming rounds.
The deep throated roar of his heavy machine guns, and cackle of the lighter ones, was at least holding back their attackers for the time being. Groans coming from around him told him that some of his men had already been hit. Calls for medics soon confirmed this. He saw one of his medics rising to offer the desired assistance, immediately to be cut down by a hail of bullets which ripped through his uniform and caused little red patches to form. After the man fell he tossed and turned for a second or two then lay still. He recognised the solid bangs as his own rifles returned fire, but these were quickly getting fewer and fewer. Too quickly. It was unlikely so many guns would jam at once. He could only assume that the men firing them were getting hit and were wounded too badly to continue their defence.
From what he could hear the sergeant major’s team on the other side of the trail seemed to be fairing little better, though it was difficult to tell for sure. They were actually quite close so the sounds of their weapons weren’t easy to pick apart from his own team’s. He’d have better cover in the small trench that was beside him, though it would be a tight fit to crawl in next to the private already in it, firing alternatively down onto the trail then back into the jungle behind them. He started to crawl towards the position, keeping as low as possible. A sudden sting in his leg followed almost immediately by a warm sticky feeling as blood oozed out of the wound told him this move hadn’t been without cost. Still, he managed to reach the relative safety of the trench. The private already occupying it glanced at him, not quite grinning but seeming to be, and moved aside to let his lieutenant fall in next to him.
“I’ll cover the trail,” he called to the man. “You concentrate on the jungle – stop anyone coming at us from that side.” Yelling wasn’t needed, the private was only inches away, but the hail of gunfire was loud now so yelling seemed appropriate. His pistol would be better suited to the targets that might present themselves in this direction rather than trying to shoot into the dense bush of the jungle. He fired a couple of shots at a head he could spy peering towards them from the trail. He wasn’t sure if he hit his target or not, but the head disappeared and didn’t reappear again. Not at that spot anyway.
He marvelled that their opponents had let them settle in before starting their attack. They must have been there already when Andrew and his company arrived. If nothing else, they knew Andrew’s own force would be split in two to attack the trail. Letting his force get settled in was a mistake – one he hoped they’d pay for in the end and certainly not one that he’d have made. He cursed himself for not having sent out scouts to guard against this happening. They’d had it too easy before, lulling them into a sense of security which now, obviously, was false.
Darkness was still a long way off. That was a pity. All of his team had night-vision equipment, though it would be buried deep in their kits as they hadn’t been expecting to need it. He very much doubted that his opponents would have the benefit of such equipment and this could give him the advantage he needed. Mind you, with the darkness of the jungle that surrounded him maybe the equipment would prove useful after all. He dug into his own pack to find his night-vision goggles. He’d added them nearly last so they weren’t difficult to find. Pulling them quickly on he thought they did indeed help a little. They picked up body heat rather than relying on light, and he fired off a couple more shots at the targets they now provided. A groan told him that at least one of these bullets had found its mark.
He risked looking back towards where he’d last seen P. Mendez. His body was lying awkwardly, the radio he’d been carrying still across his back and silent. He could see Mendez’s chest slowly expanding and contracting so he knew that the private wasn’t dead, but he was injured badly enough not to try to make it to the relative safety of one of the prepared positions. They’d been lucky, in that this particular site had needed a good deal of work to make it ready, with deep trenches dug to fire from. This had been as much to protect them from their own comrades opposite as because there was only a sparse amount of cover across the trail at that point.
Pockets of earth erupted around him, and he quickly dropped down into the trench he was in again. His opponents were enthusiastic but not very good marksmen it seemed. He wasn’t sure but from the gunfire that had first erupted he thought there had to be at least fifty attackers in the jungle behind them, probably about the same number on the other side engaging the sergeant major and his half of the company. He tried the headpiece he was wearing. He’d almost forgotten he had it on. It had been silent since the first assault. There was no answer to his enquiries, only more silence. He hoped the sergeant major or one of the sergeants had called for backup. If they hadn’t done so themselves, surely one of the radio operators would have? There was little he could do here himself. He and the company were pinned down, only able to rebuff assaults not really in a position to counter-attack.
He thought for a second or two. He should probably try to get his own team across the trail to join with his sergeant major. They’d be stronger as one unit, more able to defend against the two sided attack they were having to contend with. On the other hand this would mean leaving the relative safety of their trenches. He’d been lucky, finding one large enough to accommodate both him and the private beside him. They were only intended to take one man each and dug for that purpose. They should at least try to get the trail clear. Effectively then they would be one unit. It had seemed full when things had first kicked off but now he thought about it there had only been a couple of dozen men attacking them from that direction.
It was time to leave the safety of this foxhole. He wanted to direct his team to concentrate as much as they could on the trail, and to find a working radio so that he could instruct the team on the opposite side to do likewise. Being an officer wasn’t all perks after all. He’d far rather stay here in the relative safety of the trench. Still this was his job, what he’d joined up for after all, and the other men in the company would be relying on him to do it properly.
He told the private next to him to provide covering fire and hoped his other men would do likewise once he was moving. He was tempted to use a stick to raise his helmet over the edge of the trench as he’d seen done in some of the films he’d watched. There may be advantages in this but it would also draw unwelcome attention to his position. Better to use the element of surprise that leaping from this hole would provide.
He was about to do so when the earth around the top of the hole erupted again. They were being targeted. Keeping heads down was difficult with only one rifle, especially when those heads were both sides of them. Maybe leaping out wasn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe the sergeant major or one of the sergeants would think the same thoughts and be in a better position to carry them out.
He suddenly remembered the satellite phone he was carrying in the belt around his waist. Of course! Why hadn’t he thought of it before? Still, they were only minutes into the attack, though it seemed far longer. He reached down and found it, the solid green LCD telling him it was still working.
He called his base first. Best to get help coming as soon as possible. He was glad the number was pre-programmed. He wasn’t sure he’d have been able to remember it otherwise. It wasn’t one he’d had to use very often if nothing else. He pressed the right combination of buttons and hit ‘send’ and was rewarded by the soft lilt of Corporal Hughes, one of the captain’s batmen. He cut through the corporal’s cheery greeting.
“Corporal Hughes, this is Lieutenant Hoch. We’re under fire and need assistance, over.” He realised as he spoke that he was using the telephone as if it were a radio, adding the obligatory ‘over’ to tell the person at the other end he’d finished speaking and was awaiting their response.
“OK, sir,” came the now business like reply. “The captain’s stepped out for a few minutes. Do you want to old on while I find him, over?”
“No, just let him know urgently, OK?” He followed this with the best description of their situation he could give – numbers and positions of their attackers and the fact that they were essentially pinned down.
“I’ll call back once I’ve spoken to my sergeant major, OK? In the meantime get your phone to Captain Kergoat as soon as possible. Not that I don’t appreciate the sound of your voice, but I’d rather it was him I was speaking to when I call back, over.”
Corporal Hughes agreed that he would do so, that he was already moving in fact. There was no more information to impart so Andrew hung up and pressed the combination of keys that would connect him to his sergeant major.
The phone rang for several seconds. He could actually hear it across the other side of the trail, its rapidly repeated single buzz somehow at odds with the ‘ring ring’ tone he was getting from his own phone’s earpiece. The phone clicked and was answered. It wasn’t by the sergeant major though but by Corporal Fischer, one of the experienced team he’d been assigned.
“Oh, it’s you sir. I was expecting a call from my Mum.” Andrew wondered at this light hearted comment. Everyone coped with stress differently of course, and no doubt this was just the corporal’s way of doing so. Even so, there was a time and a place …
“Let me talk to the sergeant major, over,” he said, deciding to just ignore the comment.
“Can’t sir, he’s dead.” The answer was now curt and to the point. “Sergeant Johanssen too. They both got hit in the first salvo. I think at least half the team this side did.” There was a bit of a pause before he added an ‘over’ to this news. Being a corporal, he didn’t have occasion to use a radio very often and he was, after all, actually speaking on a phone, so this method of communicating was pretty alien to him.
“Sounds like you’re in charge then corporal,” said Andrew. The news had come as quite a blow to him, but he didn’t want to sap the corporal’s morale any further by making a big deal out of it. “It doesn’t sound like you’re in much of a position to help launch a counter attack on the trail then, over.”
The corporal said that this was indeed the case, but that if the lieutenant really needed it he could no doubt manage something.
“No, that’s OK. Just keep your heads down and stop them from overrunning you. We’ve already got reinforcements on the way so it’s just a matter of waiting for them to arrive, over.”
There was no answer to his last comment, even though the call was still live. His own phone crackled a little and through its speaker he thought he could hear approaching voices talking excitedly in Spanish. He strained to listen harder before there was another click and the line went dead.
His leg was throbbing now and starting to hurt quite badly, not like the ‘wound’ he’d received on the last exercise back at the Academy. A shot of morphine would take away the pain but it would also dull his senses, something he really couldn’t afford to do right now. He wanted to share the bad news he’d just received with someone but the private next to him really wasn’t the right person. Bizarrely he seemed to be sleeping now, hunched over in the hole against its side. Andrew pulled him around. There wasn’t a lot left of the private’s face. The round that had hit him had exploded most of it and now all that remained was a mushy goo, still oozing blood from the first hole it had made.
Andrew didn’t hear the round that glanced off his helmet. Didn’t feel it either. One second he was looking somewhat horrified at the private next to him, the next … well, there was no next really. Everything just went black.
When Hitu and his team crept silently into the scene, around an hour later, there were only still bodies to be found lying mostly in the foxholes they’d fallen in. Try as he might, he couldn’t find his friend Andrew anywhere amongst them.