Authors: Richard Herman
An inner voice warned Vermullen that the APC marked the SA’s final effort. But they were out of Shipons and low on ammunition. “It will be trouble if they get it moving,” Vermullen said. “It must not break through.”
“Colonel, I never wanted to die like a rat in a hole.” Beck held up their last bandolier with four, thirty-round magazines. “I have two grenades.”
“Give me one.” Vermullen clipped the grenade to his equipment suspender and shoved two of the magazines into his thigh pocket. Beck did the same. “It has been an honor to know you,” he said.
Beck squeezed off three short bursts, emptying his magazine at the APC, which was now moving. They could clearly hear the tracks and the sound of the laboring engine. Beck ejected the magazine and methodically reloaded. “The pleasure has been all mine.”
The two men looked at each other. “Now,” Vermullen said. He rolled out his side of the DFP as Beck did the same. Both came to their feet and charged the APC and the advancing men, firing from the hip. “CAMERONE!” Vermullen bellowed at the top of his lungs.
Jill coaxed the Land Rover down the runway, inspecting the surface as she went. Ahead of her, and off to the side, the C-130 was still burning. She stopped and examined the mortar’s shallow crater. It wasn’t very big, slightly over four feet across and eighteen inches deep. Still, the blast had been deadly when Marci’s C-130 had flown through it. She remembered seeing some quick-setting cement in one of the sheds. It wouldn’t be too difficult to patch. She stood in front of the Rover, listening. It was eerily quiet, no echoing gunfire and the dull reverberations of mortars were silenced. Was it over? A sudden weariness washed over her and she leaned against the fender.
Her radio squawked. It was Rickert in the Paladin. “Major! Horses! Behind you! We’re coming your way.”
Jill turned and looked back. Two riders were coming at her at a full gallop down the runway. She jumped into the Land Rover and twisted the key. But it wouldn’t start. She ground the starter. The engine coughed to life and she jammed it into gear, only to stall when she let out the clutch. The Janjaweed were almost on her. She drew her automatic and emptied the clip. She missed. The two riders split as one circled around to her left, the other to the right. Her radio blared. “We threw a track! “ Rickert shouted.
She glanced at the disabled Paladin that was over a mile away. Its long barrel traversed and fired a round, more to distract the horsemen than to kill them. It missed and she could see the tall horseman on her right laugh. He was not the typical Janjaweed and rode his horse with a rare confidence. Even at thirty yards away, she could see his ornate saddle. Who the hell are you? she thought. Then she knew. She had seen his photos many times and briefed numerous generals on his activities. He was Sheikh Amal Jahel of the Rizeigat, the leader of the Fursan. He reined his horse around and came at her, bending over, his head against the horse’s neck. A jolt of fear and awe immobilized her as he bore down. How many times had she described him as a cavalier, not really understanding what that word meant? She raised her Colt .45 and squeezed off a single round. Again, she missed. Was it deliberate? She would never know but she would always remember the look of excitement and joy on his face.
The Porter flew by, cutting between Jill and the charging horse and rider. Allston pulled up and ruddered the Porter around, again coming at Jahel. The stalled Paladin fired again, deliberately missing but adding to the confusion. It was enough to drive both horsemen away from Jill. Again, Allston pulled up and ruddered the Porter around, still chasing Jahel. Jill turned around at the sound of hooves pounding on the runway. The other rider was less than twenty yards away and coming directly at her. It was BermaNur. Her anger flared, shattering the fear and awe that had bound her tight in a burst of anger and hate. “You fucking bastard!” she roared as she fired twice. BermaNur veered away unhurt and raced for safety. She let him go and turned. Jahel was cutting back and forth as Allston closed. The Porter’s left main gear touched the runway as Allston turned after him. Then he reversed and the right gear briefly touched. Jahel turned and fired his AK-47 from the saddle.
Round after round tore into the Porter and Jill saw a red mist paint the left side of the aircraft. The Porter pulled up and came back down, bouncing off the runway as it ballooned into the air. The turboprop engine roared as Allston fought for control. He slammed the Porter down and the prop hit Jahel. His head disappeared in a red cloud and the frenzied horse bolted to the right, still carrying its dead rider.
The Porter bounced out of control and tumbled down the runway, finally coming to a halt upside down. Allston hung from his harness as his hands moved automatically, shutting off the battery and twisting the fuel cocks closed. He passed out before he could hit the quick release on his harness.
BermaNur raced for the Porter and reined his horse to a halt. He dismounted and looked down the runway at the disabled Paladin. Men were running towards him but they were too far away to arrive in time, if he acted quickly. His eyes squinted in hate when he saw Jill running towards him. He would deal with her shortly. He jammed a fresh magazine in his AK-47, thumbed it to single-shot, and methodically aimed, firing a single round and hitting Williams in the left shoulder. He turned to the unconscious Allston. “
He raised his weapon.
He didn’t see Jill as she closed on him. She raised her Colt and fired on the run. “No way!” The slug tore into BermaNur’s back and spun him around. He fell to the ground and she kept pulling the trigger. The Janjaweed jerked violently as she emptied the clip. She reloaded.
“He’s dead, luv,” Allston mumbled.
Jill fired twice more and dropped the Colt. She ripped open the pilot’s door. Allston was still hanging upside down, half out of his harness as blood gushed from wounds in his head, chest, and left leg. She reached inside and applied pressure to the wounds as Rickert ran up. Tears coursed down her cheeks. “Help me!” she shouted.
The early morning light cast a long shadow down the row of beds and makeshift cots in the hospital’s main ward. Allston blinked, getting his bearings. He tried to move, but his body wouldn’t respond. A heavy bandage clamped his chest and his head hurt. He was vaguely aware that his head was bandaged and he could not see with his left eye. He managed to move his head enough to see who was sitting beside him. It was Jill. She was asleep, slumped over her right arm that was stretched out on the bed beside him. His left hand moved ever so slightly and his fingers found her hand.
She woke up. “You’re awake. Water?” She reached for a water bottle but he wouldn’t let go of her hand.
“The Herk?” his voice was barely audible. “Who was it?”
“Marci Jenkins,” she told him. “With Bard, Riley, and MacRay. I didn’t warn them off in time.”
His voice was stronger. “They knew the risks. Don’t go blaming yourself.” He squeezed her hand. “Williams?”
A little smile. “The nurses like him.”
“The mortars were terrible before the Paladin finally silenced them. We were lucky, only five cops were wounded, but there are over three hundred dead and wounded at the mission.” She gestured down the ward at the long line of beds. “Toby’s been in surgery for over three days.”
“They held and died in front of the minefield. Over half were killed and all but two were wounded. Special Ops is reinforcing the mission. It’s over – for now.”
A slight shake of her head. “They found Beck’s body in front of a burnt out APC with fifteen dead SA. His rifle was empty. But there’s no trace of Idi. They’re still looking. He’s a true missing in action.”
“He’d want it that way.”
She held his hand and wouldn’t let go.
Arlington National Cemetery
he long cortege of cars wound through the cemetery, following the four horse-drawn caissons, each bearing a flag-draped coffin. Jill glided their car to a stop. “We’ll have to walk from here. Can you make it?” Allston assured her he could as he got out of the rear seat. Ben, his lanky sixteen-year-old stepson, hurried around the car to help him with his crutches. Jill turned to Lynne who was sitting beside her in the front seat. She was still struck by the sheer beauty of Allston’s daughter. “I’ll meet you back here.” She pointed to the large group of Irregulars clustered around Susan Malaby. “I’ll be with them.”