Bag Men: Siege (Book 8)

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Episode 22

The Sacramento River crossing had been taken; Yuma advanced on the walls. A blanket of smoke unraveled over the fields, the no man’s land lying fallow between the city and its besiegers.

It would not lie undisturbed for long.

A long-devised stratagem lay ripe for planting and lacked only the required fertilizer. The impending dead would serve that purpose well.

So it had ended, that lesser battle of the first day, starkly disputed and piecemeal won and lost by commanders who carried no sure-fire plans stowed in their sleeves. They fought and held as best they could.

It passed and the board lay readied for the greater game which was to follow: the badgered Sackie brigades recoiled from the crossroads outpost that they’d tried to hold, and so recoiling rested on destined ground.

Who chose that ground?

And thus sat Yuma: poised to water field with blood, that the corpse-weeds might grow thick and tall and lend them wings to scale the wall.

Underwood Gaines, Sergeant, Yuma Army

Southern Gate, The Walls of Sacramento

12:01 p.m., April 12th, 2070

The frontline was Underwood’s cradle. War songs lulled him to sleep. Every night, the same.

Twenty years ago, his mother had squatted in the trenches and popped him out, wet, crimson, and screaming. The clash of steel against steel and the pop-pop of pistols from all sides drowned out his natal wail. That’s the “when” and the “how” of Bullhead City’s incorporation into the Kingdom of Yuma. So, Underwood was made a full-blooded Yuman the very minute he was born. Ever since, he’d lived by the only clock he needed, the ticking of machinegun fire. He measured his days in heads: friends lost; enemies killed; women known. One day, he’d lie down in his grave on some frontline, somewhere, and he would rest. But not today.

Today, Underwood felt he’d live forever. The hour of sweat and roasting guts had arrived, a promise of revenge and justice fulfilled.

Between the noontime sky, bright above, and the sand and brown, dried grasses below, Underwood advanced, just one member of a long, thin line of men driving the cattle forward to slaughter. By “cattle,” he meant the men and women the noble strategists had joined to form the Suicide Brigades. They were all remnants of conquered peoples who refused to submit to the king: Reds like the Sycuan Kumeyaay, Lakota, and a handful of Hopi, pulled from Ellay; the Deaf, the most recent addition (definitely good for nothing but being cannon fodder); some Death Valley scumbags whose names he didn’t care to repeat; a random gaggle of clods from various corners of the wasteland; hell, there were even a few Dollabills tossed in there, wide-eyed fools who just couldn’t stop screaming about their heathen god, “Tree Ghost”; and the Vegas Vees, of course, brought down by Captain Whittom and his men over the last couple of months. All of these groups and more had been slapped together and shuffled like a deck of cards. A faceless mass to be hurled at Sacramento’s defenses. Mines, mortar fire, whatever, the cattle would absorb the brunt of it. Then Yuma’s real fighting men would press forward and bring down those walls the Sackies had thrown up two generations ago. They’d done it to hide from Zachary, the horde, as it came marching from the East — that distant, mythical place. From the very beginning of both nations — way back in the mid ’30s — while Sacramento cowered, Yuma fought. That’s how it had always been. That’s how it still was.

But today it would end.

Those walls might be ten feet tall, made of several inches of solid steel, but there ain’t nothin’ unner the sun that can survive the wrath of King Davis.

Underwood gritted his teeth as he drove the cattle forward. He didn’t smile, though his heart knew joy. A war was the most solemn of endeavors; it wasn’t becoming of a man of action to smirk on the field of battle. A few nights from now, after the Sackies had been put to fire and sword, there would be a feast like you wouldn’t believe. A thousand fires would light the night sky, and a thousand pigs and chickens would die to provide meat for that glorious barbeque… The defeat of Sacramento would put Yuma that much closer to owning the whole, damn world. That would be something to remember, but first Underwood had to help ensure his side — the right side — won the day. God didn’t smile upon those idiots who grinned in slaughter. And, when you’re fighting the Devil, you need God in your corner.

War wasn’t a wonderful thing, in itself; good flowed from it. That is, righteousness and joy arrived wherever Yuma planted his flag, the royal standard. So, Underwood always told himself, anyone caught acting happy on the field was not only a fool but a bastard. No one should crack a grin as long as his brothers were dying. No one. Only after the victory had been consolidated and the reconstruction began — when the conquered territory was reshaped into the likeness of Yuma — only then could you rightfully celebrate. Laugh, get plastered, remember the fallen. Rinse and repeat. That was the only life fit for a God-fearing subject of the one, true king. No more, no less.

Only after the end of Sacramento could there be real happiness. With this single thought burning within the stove of his mind, Underwood fueled his forward march, screaming bloody murder at the crowd of slow-moving sub-humans that went in front of him. For the most part, their eyes, like those of any natural-born slave, showed not a hint of malice. There wasn’t any fight left in them. They were dead in the water, having accepted the nearness of the inevitable. As the wall lurched closer with every high-kneed step, their heads sunk just a little lower, their shoulders slouched. For the most part.

There were some exceptions.

Every few minutes, one or two of the slaves would break free from the moving corral and sprint to the east or west. Nine times out of ten, a warning shot sufficed to quench their sudden thirst for freedom. Occasionally, though, Underwood felt it necessary to put a bullet in one of their backs. As needed, on a case-to-case basis.

He found himself wondering where they thought they might go, these runners. Why bother? All the world would fall to Yuma, before long. It was unavoidable. Nowhere was safe from justice, and those who made themselves enemies of justice could never outpace their own sins. They’d all die, horribly.

Still, just because death would come for them eventually didn’t mean they could excuse themselves on this day; today, they performed a vital function, as previously mentioned: to take some of the weight off of Yuma’s shoulders. Underwood thought about how his brothers depended on this sacrifice of slaves. Can’t let the sub-humans shirk their duty, the one time they might be useful. Then: Sometime, you’re going to have to face the music. Might as well be today.

Aside from the cowards who tried to flee, there was another group that didn’t fall into the dead-eyed, weak-willed, jelly-limbed category like the rest of the cattle. For all the deserved abuse you could sling at them, fear was the one sin you couldn’t pin to the Vegas Vees. Underwood had fought them during the guerilla skirmishes of ’68; he’d guarded them when they were POWs; and, now, he saw them march resolutely toward death, unblinking, undeterred. They stared down into the jaws of hell with clear eyes, expressionless. They didn’t complain, either. Enemies or not, you just had to respect that kind of pride.

The Vees took it a step further than acceptance, though. Having no love for the Sackies, themselves, the Vees brought their own weapons to the battle — thinking, no doubt, that if they must fight, they’d give it their all. Some carried spears of wood and iron with coils of rope or chain attached. Others, wearing armor covered in spikes of split bone, lugged weighted grappling hooks. The latter had shoved their way to the front of the line, apparently determined to be the first to scale the walls of Sacramento.

It was almost beautiful to behold. Too bad they were just Wild-Childs — sub-human.

A semi-automatic pistol in one hand, Underwood cracked his whip at a pale face who dared to glance back at him. Unexpected — just before he recoiled in pain at the lash across his shoulders, the slave’s features, his expression, scarred the inside of Underwood’s eyes. The man had dark hair and light, light skin. His sad, sinking, squinty eyes betrayed his inferior lineage — clearly some kinda Gook. You didn’t get many of them, in those days, in the kingdom, so Underwood inferred the guy probably came from one of the small tribes conquered in the past year. By the pained hand gestures the man made to the one next to him, Underwood knew he must be one of those handicapped sub-humans from over near Fortaleza — or, where Fortaleza used to be, that is.

Underwood shouted, “You get your eyes facing front, slave, or I’ll make you damn sorry you’re giving me trouble.”

The handicapped man made no sign that he had heard his master’s order. Underwood whipped him a second time, to be sure. Nearly bent double now, blood oozing from the bright red X on his back, the Gook didn’t look back again.

It was right then that the first mine went off.

The Suicide Brigade ranged half a mile from end to end. The herd of cattle was, here, in the middle, at its thickest point, about five men deep. Underwood and his fellow prodders kept about two feet, give or take, between each line of slaves — enough rope to minimize casualties per mine, but not so much that the slaves would get any funny ideas about making a break for it. Therefore, the explosion went off only about fifteen feet ahead of the nearest Yuman, which happened to be Underwood. The shrapnel shot out from the burst mine, eviscerating the man who’d stepped on it and knocking down the two on either side of him. The latter pair went down screaming; the first was dead, torn to shit, before he hit the ground.

At the sight and smell of so much gore, of course, the cattle near the explosion nearly broke. Underwood cursed them all, hurling his voice at them, battering them into submission with words where possible and with bullets when needed.

“Forward! Keep movin’ forward,” he roared.

Another mine went off. The process repeated: shouts of alarm and fear; escape attempts; quick executions. Rinse and repeat.

The sweat pouring from between his collar bones down, down under his vest, Underwood brushed the back of his whip-carrying hand across his face. He mopped the grimy moisture from his brow with his sleeve.

Then he heard the whistle.

He had to admit, even he was afraid. They couldn’t turn back, though. If the Yuman cattle drivers faltered even for a second, the Suicide Brigade would break and scatter. That could not be allowed to happen.

The whistling grew louder, drew closer. When the mortar shell dropped, the blast took with it a good ten slaves or more… and one Yuman.

Goddamn you, Sacramento, Underwood raged, though his face revealed nothing except complete concentration. Cowards behind your damn fence.

Now the mines were pop-popping to the left and right and just in front of Underwood. Whenever a gap formed in the ranks of the cattle, the Yumans pushed the flanks of the herd inward, closing those holes with more bodies. The herd, therefore, was thinning — and quickly — as mine after mine shredded those being driven relentlessly forward. The mortar shells fell like rain, now; Underwood couldn’t hear himself think anymore, let alone the commands he bellowed at the dumb cows now sprinting ahead. There was no safety to be found on either side, so the cattle naturally dashed headlong toward the walls looming in the middle distance, across the field. Underwood found he didn’t need to prod anymore; he only had to keep pace with the panicked bipedal animals.

He nearly fainted from the ringing in his ears. Another blast knocked him to the ground and the air from his lungs. Crawling along the dirt, as soon as he could stand, he pushed himself upright. His right side was now covered in guts; in his hair, he wore a crown of brain matter and teeth.

And that’s when the gunners along the wall and in the towers opened fire.

A curling road of fire ran along the wall. Some kind of oil trap? Or just so many burning bodies? Underwood could hardly think. He stumbled after the remnants of the herd.

It wasn’t until he looked up that he noticed they were almost all dead. The slaves. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, driven like an ever-shrinking spear toward the heart of Sacramento, clearing a path… all gone now.

He could hear nothing, now — nothing except yet another keening whistle. Just above him, he thought. On pure instinct, he leapt aside. His body was pitched through the air by the force of the blast and slammed into the dirt.

The world swam before his eyes, a kaleidoscopic blur of blues and purples, greens and whites.

Where am I?

Jarred to his core, for a moment he couldn’t remember if he was five years old or fifty, and his life could have been a dream to disappear upon waking.

He stood up on shaky legs, panting. He looked around — looked but did not see.

Fingers dug into his shoulder, gripped the lapel of his vest, pulled him to the ground. He swiveled his head, stared into the eyes of the Yuman beside him, unable to hear a word of what was being said. Then his vision focused and he read the other man’s lips: “Stay. Down.”

His thoughts clearing again, Underwood shouted, “I can’t hear anything. I can’t hear you.”

No answer. Maybe his brother-in-arms hadn’t heard him, either.

They lay there, together, behind a mound of upturned earth, a smoking upheaval caused by a burst mine, the shards of which still gleamed white-hot all around them.

A breathless moment passed during which Underwood peered over the mound toward the walls where the last of the Suicide Brigade had just been shot to pieces by heavy rifle- and machinegun-fire. He still couldn’t hear them, but he could see the jeering Sackies on the wall throw up their arms and shake their guns in the air. Celebrating.

Their celebrations stopped, however, when, maybe a minute later — what felt like an eternity to Underwood — a series of unsteady vibrations made the two men in the crater flip onto their backs. The vibrations grew in intensity until Underwood recognized them as footfalls. Lots of them.

Hell yeah! They’re here. It’s time.

His hearing returned in time for him to catch the raucous shrieks pushed from a thousand Yuman throats as the infantrymen sprinted toward the wall. The field had been cleared by the cattle; now the men would fight.

The man next to Underwood clapped him on the shoulder, saying, “We’ve done our job.”

“The hell we have,” said Underwood, rising to his feet as the charge passed him. “To the wall!”

With that cry, he followed just behind the sprinting infantrymen. Most of them were armed with swords and hatchets, the weapons of the common foot soldier — Underwood knew these well from his years serving as a Cleaner. About a hundred of them, scattered all along the line, dragged with them steel ladders with hooks welded to the top.

Underwood couldn’t keep himself from whooping as he caught glimpses of the other cattle prodders springing to their feet to join the first major melee. All hands on deck!

Finally, as they drew close to that final barrier between them and the Sackies, the Yumans cried out in battle-crazed joy: more than half the Vees rose from where they’d lain on the field and, taking up their spears and hooks, charged right alongside Yuma’s finest.

They musta been playin’ dead, Underwood thought. Clever bastards. No wonder it took Yuma years to beat them into submission.

The sprays of machinegun fire tore through the charging Yumans and Vees, but the vast majority slapped against the walls. There, the Sackies had trouble hitting them due to the angle. Thirty seconds later, the ladders clanged against the steel, rising, rising.

“Ready? You boys ready, damn it?” someone screamed.

The response was deafening. Underwood’s still tender eardrums, immersed in the din, threatened to burst, but he didn’t care. The men were climbing up the raised ladders now, iron weapons in hand.

Those few Yuman officers, like Underwood, who owned a firearm, shot any head, hand, or weapon that peeked down at them from over the ramparts. Thus covering the ascent of their men, Underwood and his brothers ensured that, by the dozens, Yuma poured into Sacramento’s last sanctuary.

The Vees lobbed their grappling hooks up and over, the metal spikes catching support beams on the opposite side. Sometimes, they dug into one of the wailing defenders instead. Meanwhile, the Vee spear-throwers provided some cover for the climbers. A few of their loosed projectiles harmlessly struck the wall and tumbled to the ground, but most punched right through the body armor and helmets of the Sackies.

And so, man after man flew over the wall; many were gunned down as they climbed, and others were thrown bodily down. But hundreds eventually had cleared the steel barrier — the screaming coming from the other side grew vicious, hellish.

My turn, Underwood thought. Without a doubt in his heart, he slammed up the ladder, rung by rung, hot on the heels of the last man to climb it. And, seconds later, pulse threatening to split his head and chest wide open, he kicked his feet over the wall.

He landed firing his pistol. One-two-three, four, five — click, click, click. He tossed the weapon away and yanked the sword from a dead man’s grip.

The defenders closest to that patch of the wall had mostly been hacked to pieces. More were coming though. Plenty more where they came from.

Maybe, in the savage heat of the moment, Underwood only imagined he saw it, but he’d later swear he hadn’t been hallucinating when he saw the Sackies actually hesitate in their counter-charge. Only for the span of a few seconds. But it was there. It happened; they hesitated when they saw the blue-painted, bone-clad, white-eyed Vees fanning out in front of them. Hot froth tumbling from their grimacing lips, the Wild-Childs stayed low to the ground, running on all fours, ducking and weaving in between barricades and buildings.

A fully armored, anonymous black figure stepped forward then. On its body armor were painted big white letters. Underwood couldn’t read, but he knew his alphabet; the letters: BPH. The figure gripped a long staff in its hands and, standing a good ten feet in front of its friends, got down on one knee. It turned the staff up towards the charging Vees and a burst of flame erupted from the end of the shaft. The explosion engulfed three of the Vees rushing the Sackies and, when it cleared, nothing much remained of them.

The Vees, as a whole, screeched like wild cats; when they broke upon the Sackies, seconds later, they came from every direction at once. Spears knocked aside the butts of rifles and punctured leg and hip and gut. The Vees’ iron blades often burst through and out the other side of the defenders’ bodies, impaling them. The battle had transformed, for the most part, from a gunfight into a melee — the Vegas Vees’ strong suit.

The Yumans neared the end of their charge as the Sackies unleashed everything they had; the drone of shots fired was like the world’s biggest swarm of bumblebees buzzing directly overhead.

Underwood, at the front now, leapt over a pile of Vee and Yuman bodies and thrust his sword into the throat of the nearest Sackie. Then they were all around him, his enemies. They encased him, shooting from all sides.

Underwood barely registered anything other than his enemies running toward him, away from him, into him, encircling him. He stabbed and sliced and drove the blade around and around, biting deep, drinking deeper. Blood sprayed his face and hands until the sword slid in his slick palm, but he gripped it tightly — tighter than he’d once held onto his own son’s hand as the infant gurgled with a bullet in his neck.

And when the red curtain drew itself over his vision, he knew no more.

Austin Alexander Whittom, Captain, Yuma Army

Campsite Field Hospital

1:33 p.m., April 12th, 2070

Early afternoon light filtered into the pavilion through the gently waving entrance flap. The mood within contrasted with the slow breeze. The hustle and bustle of mad-eyed medics and nurses coupled with the stink of anesthetic and airing battle wounds made the place a worthy tribute to a lesser circle of hell.

“Amputation’s the only thing for it, captain,” said Dr. Daniel Dakin, a grungy-bearded redhead who happened to be the king’s own surgeon. “Ain’t no savin’ that ther’ leg, or I’ll eat my hat.”

Austin scowled up at him from the field hospital bed. The stretcher’s uncomfortable frame had warped, leaving the canvas loose and folded into a lazy “v” shape. As a result, Austin, writhing in agony, lay suspended two feet above the ground in a pool of his own juices, which collected along the length of his spine. Somehow, however, he found it within himself to feel mildly grateful; the moans and shrieks of agony emanating from the beds all around him indicated that there were many worse off than he.

“Amputation,” Austin repeated with a sneer. “Why, doctor, what d’you take me for, exactly, huh? I know how it goes, with you in particular. You’d recommend amputation at the knee if I’d o’ stubbed my toe. Hell, you’d take my leg if I had an earache. Well, no thank you. I’ll take my chances with settin’ the bone.”

Dakin reared up as if he’d been slapped. “Sir, you’re delirious from the fever. Ain’t in your right mind, son.”

Gritting his teeth as another wave of pain and nausea rocked him, Austin said, “I assure you, I’m of sound mind. Now get to settin’.”

“B-but — the gangrene.”

“Doctor, despite how good I’m bearin’ it, I’m still in a lot of pain, God help me, and if you don’t start treatin’ me properly, I swear I’ll call in the guards and order ’em to beat you fifty shades of black and blue.”

Dabbing at his moist forehead with a yellowed, crusty rag, Dakin stuttered a few more weak protests as he readied his surgical tools in their tin tray beside him. “Nurse,” he called, and a floppy-titted bimbo flounced over to the side of the bed bearing a confused look on her face.

She leaned over Austin, giving him a full view of the goods. He thought to himself, At least, if I die today, I’ll go with a pair of sweater puppies in my face. And she ain’t half bad lookin’, neither. Even if she is a bit over the hill.

“Nurse, antiseptic,” said Dakin.

The bimbo uncorked a bottle of clear grain liquor. She passed it to Austin, saying, “For the pain.” She helped him take a couple swigs. Most of the booze glided down his chin and neck. Dakin jammed a leather belt between the captain’s teeth. Then the nurse upended the bottle over his torn up shin and knee.

Oh my god oh my god oh my—

When he came to, Austin was disoriented. He screamed for his brother before he remembered that his brother had been dead for twelve years.

“Where am I?” he asked, his throat raw. “Can I have some water?”

“Yessir,” said a man he didn’t know, pushing his palms into his knees as he rose from the folding chair to fulfil his captain’s request. As he poured water from a jug into a tin cup and passed that cup to Austin, the man said, “You’re in the field hospital, cap’n. You been out for hours on account o’ the operation.”

Austin looked around. The tent’s occupants were quiet, asleep for the most part. Except for the few moaners slipping unwillingly into death’s embrace, the field hospital was remarkably still and dark. Night had fallen. Several fat candles served mostly to emphasize the shadows of men tossing and turning throughout the pavilion.

Austin gulped down the water he’d been offered, choked a little. “Who’re you?”

The man, his voice low and gruff, said, “Sergeant Gaines, Underwood, Third Regiment.” He saluted and winced when his fingers brushed the bandage over his right brow.

“That’s Cleanup Crew, if I’m not mistaken. Under General Bray, that right?”

“Yessir.”

“Well, what the hell you doin’ here, man? Sergeant seems an awful high rank to waste on babysittin’.”

This Underwood fella took a minute before he answered, probably so he could best figure how he to proceed with tact. “It’s an honor to watch over you, cap’n, sir. But the God’s honest is that I ain’t here just for that. I was wounded, see. Just two hours after you was, if my reckonin’ ain’t off. The royals put me here for a two-birds-one-stone type o’ situation.”

“Huh.” Austin nodded. He felt glad for the distraction from the searing pain, so he figured he should keep the man talking. “So. You must’ve been leadin’ the Suiciders.”

“Yessir.”

“Well. How’d it happen? You got hit. Where’d they get ya?”

Underwood pointed to his thigh — he had walked with a limp when he’d gotten the water — and sighed. “Plugged me while we was in retreat. My own damn fault, really.”

Austin grimaced in sympathy. He still didn’t dare look down at his own shin. Swallowing his fear, he asked, “Why you say that?”

“My orders never included goin’ over the wall.” He shook his head. “But that’s what I did. We all did. Permission to speak freely, sir?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“Fuckin’ bloodbath out there, cap’n. We was too blind to see it clear-like. But, boy, we really let ’em have it. Until it got to be too much for us.”

More than a distraction, Underwood started to seem genuinely interesting to Austin now. Maybe it had something to do with his eyes, so damn calm in spite of everything. Guy was like a stone with eyebrows.

Austin said, “Then what happened?”

Underwood’s expression caught at the crossroads of a smirk and a grimace. “Well…”

Underwood Gaines, Sergeant, Yuma Army

Sacramento

12:39 p.m., April 12th, 2070

Underwood was hip-deep in the guts of a Sackie soldier when the red mist cleared.

The sun was so bright. It was like he’d been living in a cave all his life and was seeing real light for the first time. He squinted, blinked. There was blood in his eyes. Not his, he didn’t think. Someone jostled him.

He looked up. “Brodowski,” he cried, hearing his own voice as if from very far away.

“Jesus, Gaines!” The blond, broad-shouldered man gave one of his patented goofy grins. The effect was more off-putting than normal, what with the flecks of jawbone and brain matter sprayed in a horizontal slash across his cheeks and chin.

Brodowksi clasped Underwood’s forearm and pulled him up. “We gotta bug out,” he said, sweeping his hand behind him to indicate the unfolding carnage.

Underwood, unsteady on his feet, weight in his heels, took a moment to get his bearings. As he did, he witnessed a head spin through the air in front of him. All around, blurs of movement fought each other, swords clashing against rifles, screams of pain rippling outward from the growing mounds of corpses. Point of pride: a large number of the dead belonged to Sacramento.

“Done all we can do,” Brodowski yelled into his friend’s ear. He and Underwood ducked as they heard the rattle of machinegun fire. The bullets whizzed over the tips of their short-cropped hair and buried themselves in a Yuman infantryman who’d been poised to deliver with his two-handed hammer the finishing blow against a squirming Sackie. The Sackie’s hands dropped anyway. He was as good as gone.

“We done all we can do, here,” repeated Brodowski as he ran forward.

Underwood, right on his ass, shouted, “Get to the gate. The gate!”

Something snagged his ankle, then, and he fell on his face. “Goddammit!”

He glared behind him into the ash-blackened but defiant face of a dying Sackie who just wouldn’t let go of Underwood’s boot. Suddenly, the man’s neck snapped to the side and flopped into the bloody mud. Brodowski’s iron-toed kick had killed him instantly.

“We’re getting’ outta this together, fuck it,” he said, yanking Underwood up a second time.

There was no end to the Sackies, it seemed. They were like roaches: pop one, a million more crawl out from the drains and gaps in the floorboards.

Yeah, we done what we came here to do. Underwood thought. Scared ’em good.

He recovered his sword and grabbed a second one. Brodowski at his side, he swept through the chaos, making a beeline for the gatehouse. If they could find the mechanism to open the doors, they could beat a retreat. Oh, they’d come back in force next time, don’t you worry. This was just a pinprick, a little needling to show Sacramento Yuma wasn’t scared of them. Or anything on earth, for that matter.

There were a few twitchy little Sackies huddled together in front of the gate, holding their box formation, but they were singularly focused on the swarm of infantrymen charging them head-on. When Underwood and Brodowski jumped into their midst from the side, they caught their enemies totally off-guard. The Sackies’ rifles didn’t do no good in such close quarters; Brodowski’s axe and Underwood’s swords ripped at their necks and faces, punched through their body armor like horse hooves splitting a rotted wooden gate. Absolutely soaked with blood by this point, the Yumans stood back to back, each screaming for their brothers to join them there. “The gate! The gate!”

And that rallying cry was heard by all of the survivors. Of the original thousand, maybe a hundred remained, but they were the strongest hundred, the bravest. These veterans gathered and formed a line three men deep, awaiting Underwood’s orders.

“Get that goddamn gate open,” he shouted. “The rest of you, hold this position.”

Another round of gunfire tore through the front-most line. Yumans dropped in droves. The Sackies seemed to have learned their lesson; they stayed far away, picking the infantry off with methodical precision. But then the gate creaked open behind them, powered by some kind of electric motor Underwood couldn’t see (Fuckin’ Sackies and their hi-tech cheating — finally working in our favor, for once). As the braces popped off in sets of two, the metal doors swung open.

“Retreat,” cried Underwood. “Retreat!”

All discipline flew out the window, then. The men turned their backs on their enemies and sprinted like the Devil himself gave chase.

Ain’t no shame in retreating. Underwood thought to himself. We’re just strengthening the next strike. Besides, me and Brodowski wasn’t even s’posed to be here.

The Sackies, for their part, poured out of the gate, taking potshots at the Yumans. But they stopped when Underwood and the others were out of range, conserving their ammo, satisfied with having stayed their execution for a day.

Just fuckin’ wait ’til tomorrow, bastards.

Then Underwood heard a boom like a metal drum dropped from five stories up. He spun around to see Brodowski had gone down. Gut-shot.

“Sniper,” Underwood yelled and he doubled back even as his comrades practically flew toward camp.

Considerably fewer than a hundred would make it back that afternoon, but Underwood was going to make damn sure that his old pal Brodowski was one of them.

“Fuckin’ leave me,” Brodowski hollered as he saw Underwood approach.

“Fuck you,” said Underwood as he stooped. He threw his friend’s weight over his shoulders, turned, and ran like hell.

Jesus Christ, camp was still so far away. But he kept at it, pumping his legs, breathing like the bellows of a furnace. He was sweating from everywhere, his muscles burned, but he kept going.

He could hear the sharp whine of bullets flying on either side of him, narrowly missing each time. How long would that luck hold, though? Then he thought, Shouldn’t somebody be coming out to meet us? Where was his relief?

The soldier to his left stopped, dropped, and rolled, taking the one behind him with him. Underwood didn’t — couldn’t — stop to gawk; he was at carrying capacity.

Still so far to go, too.

They say you never hear the shot that kills you. The Army brats always thought that was just womanly superstition, some mystical horseshit you tell your kids to get them to shut up for twelve seconds in a row.

Well, before he knew it, he was falling and he didn’t know why at first. He was on his belly, with Brodowski flopped on top of his lower half, before the pain spike traveled to his brain and let him know he’d taken one in the meat of his leg.

Brain totally overloaded by flare-ups — danger, danger, danger — he couldn’t think straight.

Ain’t just an old wives’ tale, huh.

Somewhere amid the noise, though, he found the one useful bit of information — get to camp — and he acted on it.

There’s nothing tougher on this earth than a fighting Yuma man. So he’d been taught since the day he was born. His first memory: watching his adoptive dad wrestle a wild mutt, twisting and jerking until he had it by the jaw and snapped its neck. Ain’t nobody tougher than a Yuma man.

So, he told himself now, this ain’t shit.

He rolled out from under Brodowski’s limp weight — bro wasn’t talking anymore, must’ve been knocked unconscious — and flipped his friend onto his shoulders. Rising from where he kneeled, he took it one step at a time, and every step was hell.

He remembered nothing of those minutes he spent clearing the last quarter mile until he fell, exhausted, a few hundred feet outside of camp.

At some point, he heard himself hollering, “Medic, medic.”

It took forever for someone to come for him and Brodowski. When they did, Underwood blubbered, “My friend’s hit. He’s hit,” and he didn’t shut his trap until a nurse clasped him by his cheeks and said, “He’s dead. He’s not breathing. He’s already dead.”

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