Chapter 6
Howling Wind

26th of Thirdmoon, Saintclair 12
Near Rodrigo Basin, Neveland

Because Junker-class air cruisers weren't designed to carry a complement of Marine Fusiliers, the armory was small, with only a couple dozen rifles and about as many pistols. It was the happy task of Second Section's armorer, Chief Corporal Crabbe, to find room for all of Second's weapons and any of the Blackamoors' armaments they weren't carrying at the time, plus the ammo for all of the above.
"'Scuse the mess, sir," Crabbe told Root as he opened up the door to the armory.
Sticking to protocol, he closed the cage behind him. Even in a slacker garrison like Berenice, no armorer with half a brain left the armory wide open, not even for friends. Once he fished out his clipboard with the sign-out sheet, Crabbe asked Root, "What can I get ya, sir?"
"Get me my Barkley and Martinique with 20 rounds for each."
"How 'bout I make that 24 rounds a' the eight-mill so ya can reload three times even?"
"Sure."
The Barkley Model 245 was one of the more common service revolvers in circulation. It was light and cheap, but it lacked stopping power. It could get usually the job done, but there were times when you could empty the chamber on a determined target and still not bring it down.
When it came to taking down targets, that was Martinique's job. Martinique was Root's trusty Model 237. While the 237 had been replaced by the 260 as general issue, a number of 237s remained in use, particularly for snipers.
As Crabbe was handing over Martinique, Corporal Crus asked, "You think you're gonna need that, sir?"
"Fortune favors the prepared," Root replied.
"I thought it was 'Fortune favors the bold.'"
"Hasn't been my experience."
There was a dark edge to Root's answer. Crus picked up on it and went quiet.
"Where's the scope?" Root asked Crabbe.
"Just a second," Crabbe said. After a few moments of rummaging through the crates on the deck, he produced the scope and handed it to Root. "Here it is."
Root checked to make sure the lenses hadn't gotten cracked and then fixed the scope to the mount on Martinique. Crabbe then handed over a pistol belt with ammo pouches. Root double-checked the ammo count and then made way for Fourth Squad to get their weapons. After them, Smitty claimed his well-worn hunting rifle and with everyone armed, they went to pick up Smitty's dogs and sled. Just as one cargo bay was adapted into a motorpool, the other had to serve double duty as a kennel. The dogs were all on edge, just as Smitty said they were before they even left town. Between the switch and harsh language, Smitty got the dogs along.
At the quarter deck, Major Pulver was standing in as Officer of the Deck as all the actual officers were otherwise occupied. Root saluted him and said, "Lieutenant Maartens, requesting permission to go... Do you still say 'go ashore' for airships?"
"Yes, sir," Major Pulver replied. "Matter of convention. And your purpose?"
"Scouting mission."
"I'm sorry, sir, but the loading ramp was damaged. It won't extend."
"Great," Root said with a sigh. "Now what are we supposed ta do?"
"We got rope, ain't we?" Smitty said.
Now, six men rappelling off the side of a ship was one thing. Lowering down eight dogs and their sled was more of a challenge. Root and Smitty went down first while Fourth Squad stayed up to let down the dogs. Once the dogs were all harnessed to the sled and everyone had their snowshoes on, Root double-checked his compass to make sure they were heading in the right direction.
"Alright, people," he said, "let's move out. The weather's only gonna get shittier. Eyes out. We might have company out there."
Cale Russo's kid brother Tony looked down at his olive parka and quipped, "Maybe we'll be lucky and they'll be as easy to see as we are."
"No one likes a smartass, Tony," Root said.
The new parkas were reversible, so you could switch between olive and white depending on the conditions, but the government wasn't kind enough to send some of them up with the Junker Jorg. Hopefully it wouldn't be a problem, but more than likely, it would be.
About ten minutes in, before they were even off the mountain, the wind picked up and started to bring snow with it. It was only going to get worse from here. You couldn't go too fast in snow even when the weather was clear. The more Root thought about it, the 30-hour deadline he gave the rest of Second Section seemed grossly optimistic.
Maybe it should've just been him and Smitty. Going at the dogs' pace would've been so much faster. Then again, as soon as the scouting mission was over, Tofels would just send them out again, so the present course meant that fewer people would be caught in this weather. He hoped the others appreciated their sacrifice.
Although the wind was making it a bit of a moot point, this was still a tactical movement, so there was no talking. Smitty and his dogs were an exception, but they were up ahead a ways. The lack of conversation made the journey all the more drudging, but if they didn't catch the attention of the enemy that may or may not even be out there, a little drudgery was a small price to pay.
About six hours passed and if the weather had been clearer, they might have almost made it to the target. As it was, it was almost impossible to tell how far they'd gone. You could hardly hear anything over the wind and could barely see ahead of you because of the snow. Root could just barely make out the shape of Smitty ahead of them. And then it happened.
Smitty fell off his sled. Only he didn't just fall.
About a second later, Root heard the shot. With that kind of delay, the shooter had to be at least 500 meters away. How could he hit a moving target in weather like this? Judging by the way Smitty fell, the shot came from their right. The shooter was going against the wind and still hit his target in one shot.
All this went through Root's head in a fraction of a second. It had been so long since the last time he had been under fire, but it all came back like a reflex. Normally, he'd keep it quiet to avoid giving away his position, but he had to make sure Fourth Squad knew what they were up against.
"Shooter, two o'clock!" he shouted. "Get down and find some cover! Don't shoot unless you've got a target! And for God's sake, don't make a sound unless your damn life depends on it!"
Root very nearly joined Smitty when a bullet went through his parka, coming just a sench or two short of tearing a nice hole in his guts. He pretended to go down, but while this ploy may have saved his life, it wasn't so fortunate for Tony Russo.
"Lieutenant!"
He started running toward Root and took one in the chest for his trouble. Root hoped none of the others would make the same mistake.
"Tony!" Private Jingo cried.
Another shot. A tortured gurgling sound. The delay was the same. The shooter wasn't moving. He didn't need to.
Without making any big movements, Root tried to line up a shot. He still needed something like a muzzle flash to guide him, but anytime his target shot, another person died.
Shots. These ones were close. Behind him. It had to be either Clemens or Vincentes. Crus had better trigger discipline. He didn't think either of them would have a bead on the shooter, but he couldn't say anything lest he give away the fact that he wasn't really down.
He just barely caught a glimpse of the muzzle flash not far from where he was looking.
"Augh! Oh, God! I'm hit!"
Private Clemens. All that noise wasn't going to help him. Root tried to find his target where he saw the muzzle flash, but the shooter must've had proper winter camo. Another muzzle flash. Clemens made a sound, but it was his last. Root had to take the shot.
Snipers prided themselves on the 'one shot, one kill' principle, but Root didn't have that luxury. He emptied all five round in quick succession in a close group around the source of the muzzle flash. Did that do it?
Tense seconds passed without another shot being fired. Root pulled a stripper clip from his ammo pouch and reloaded Martinique.
In as low a voice as would carry in the wind, he said, "Crus, you still with me?"
"Here, sir," Crus replied in kind. "Everyone else, they're... they're dead, sir."
"What happened to Vincentes?"
"He took one when you were shooting."
So even while he was trying to take down the shooter, Root managed to lose another one of his men.
"Hopefully I got the bastard responsible," he said, "but we need to make sure. Did you see where the muzzle flashes were coming from?"
"No, sir."
Root pointed out the location.
"You see where I'm pointing?"
"Yes, sir."
"Up the side of that mountain. We gotta move and move fast. Stay low and keep your distance. Get ready to put a few rounds in him if you see him. He may be down but not out yet. He probably has a spotter with him at least if not a whole damn platoon waiting there with him."
"Shouldn't we just head back, sir?"
"And lead them back to the Jorg? No. You ready?"
"Ready, sir."
"Then let's move."
Root got up and started moving toward the target. He didn't get far when the dogs started acting up. Naturally, they were stirred up ever since Smitty was shot, but now it was getting even more heated. Some were barking their heads off and others were frantically trying to chew through their harnesses. Something was coming.
Root followed where the dogs were looking to catch sight of it. It was huge white wolf, at least a meter tall at the shoulder, barreling full-tilt right at him. Root took aim and started firing, but the wolf nimbly darted side to side to dodge his shots. After three failed shots with Martinique, Root switched over to his Barkley. The first shot was a bit wild, just to keep the wolf from coming straight at him. It gave him just enough time to shoulder Martinique so he could steady the Barkley with both hands.
Crus started to open fire on the wolf. The damned thing was so fast, though. It seemed like nothing could hit it. The wolf threw itself bodily into Root, knocking him down, then trampled him as it sprang onto Crus. Why it didn't try to finish off Root first, he didn't know. Crus was screaming as he struggled to fight off the wolf. Root could barely breathe. More than just having the wind knocked out of him, he had to have broken a few ribs. That didn't matter, though. He had to help Crus.
Rolling over, he felt a shock of pain from his injured ribs, but he ignored it as best he could to take aim and squeeze off a shot. The wolf yelped, but it wasn't a kill shot. The wolf let go of Crus and ran off. Root fired off a few more shots as the wolf disappeared into the distance, but it didn't seem like he managed to hit it again. He didn't think it would come back, but he kept his Barkley in hand. Just to be safe, he reloaded the chamber. He wanted it to be full in case the wolf actually did decide to try its luck by coming back around. He cursed himself for his hand fumbling as he fished the bullets out of his ammo pouch.
Once it was reloaded, he crawled over to Crus, saying, "Crus, Crus, are you okay?"
Crus moaned, "No... God, no..."
Apparently Crus managed to hold the wolf at bay with his arm, but the bones were crushed beneath the torn sleeve of his parka. A little spray of blood squirted up at the pace of his slowing heartbeat. Root had to work fast.
"Hang in there, Crus," he said as he fished out Crus' field dressing. "I'm going to have to tie it off."
He tied the field dressing just below the elbow, pulling it as tight as he could. He then got a section of a tent pole out of Crus' pack, tied it to the field dressing and started to turn it like a valve until the little spurts of blood stopped. He then tied the tent pole in place as best he could with the tails of the field dressing. If it held, there was a fair chance he wouldn't die of blood loss before they got back to the ship.
"Are you with me, Crus?" Root asked.
Crus moaned. He was pale from blood loss. Root patted his cheek to try to bring him around.
"Come on back, Crus. I need you to stay awake."
Crus' eyes fluttered a bit. Root shook him by the shoulders to bring him back around.
"Come on, Crus, I need you to keep it together. I need to check on the others, see if anyone else made. You stay awake until I get back. Copy?"
"Copy, sir," Crus said weakly.
Root unsteadily rose to his feet. As he looked out to where everyone else was, he decided against leaving Crus behind. He took off his pistol belt and Crus' too, connecting them to make a sling to drag Crus over to the dog sled. The dogs were still agitated, but they weren't barking anymore. Apparently the wolf was gone.
Root let Crus down and went over to Smitty. He was dead. Heartshot. Nothing Root could do for him now, but maybe he could help Crus.
"Sorry, Smitty, but I'm going to borrow this," he said, unwrapping the scarf around Smitty's neck.
He took Smitty's scarf and used it as a makeshift cravat sling for Crus' ruined arm. The less it could move around, the better.
Next up was Tony. At first it seemed like he was still just barely hanging on, but it must have just been some post-mortem spasm. Jingo had a big hole in neck and at least half the blood in his body soaked into the snow. Clemens was slumped over a rock he had tried to take cover behind and Vincentes was right next to him with nearly half of his skull blown off. Root rolled over Clemens to see one shot to the gut and another to the chest. The chest shot went through and busted the radio he was carrying. Root tried to turn it on just to see, but that one shot was all it took. At very least, Root wanted to let the Jorg know what had happened. That wasn't an option, though.
He went back to the sled and unloaded all the gear that was packed on it. Part of him thought to gather up the weapons and ammo, but Crus could go into shock at any time and saving his life was Root's first priority. He took the bivy sack from Tony's ruck because it was closest and got Crus inside. With a fair bit of effort he loaded the bundled Crus onto the sled.
"Hang in there, Crus," Root said as took hold of the reins. "I'm gonna get us outta here."
That would prove to be easier said than done, though. The dogs weren't too keen to listen to him, his chest was hurting something fierce, and the wind and snow started whipping about him more intensely. If that wolf or the sniper didn't come back to finish the job, the weather alone might prove more than enough to kill off both him and Crus before they ever set eyes on the Junker Jorg again.