by Mike Vanderboegh
(Another chapter of "Absolved", an upcoming novella)
Nothing had worked out like it was supposed to, but that was combat.
It had been true in Iraq and it was true here.
Who was it said "no plan survives contact with the enemy"? Laidlaw wondered. Whoever it was had been shot at and that was for sure and certain.
Laidlaw had been shot at. He'd been shot at a lot during one eventful period of his young life. A couple of them had even connected. Once in al Nasiriyah on the first tour, but that had been barely more than a scratch. He was almost embarrassed to take the Purple Heart. On his second tour, he'd been hit hard in the left leg. It was an inch shorter now, but after his rehab and discharge, he could still maneuver.
But at least then he'd been fighting with other pros. This - well, this was an invitation to die with stupid newbies. They were a danger to themselves and a danger to him and it was a damned shame that a bunch of them were sure to die this day and it was all so preventable.
Or at least, it had been.
Time's up, Cathcart, you idiot.
Laidlaw looked to his left, across the street. The leader of his militia unit, Charles Carlos Cathcart (didn't his daddy like him?), peeked around the corner at the objective and almost lost his head to a burst from one of those Brightfire pricks with a SAW.
Cathcart jerked his head back, his face pinched, white as a ghost, his hands visibly trembling even from here. Their eyes locked briefly, the entreaty plain to Laidlaw. HELP ME, said the look.
Cathcart broke contact first, looking at the ground. Jeez, he didn't even think to bring a steel mirror to look around corners.
Well, hell, I tried to tell him, didn't I? Didn't I?!?
Cathcart, Laidlaw knew, didn't have a clue about what to do next. Neither did about 95% of his unit, which included veterans as old a 56 and kids as young as 14, some of 'em girls. Hell, most of the "veterans" had never been seriously shot at by somebody who meant it and knew how. They had DD-214s, sure, but it was the nature of the military that the overwhelming majority of vets were support troops, rear echelon pogues, what his Daddy in Southeast Asia had called "REMFs."
And Cathcart, who had a knack for getting people to follow him but an inability to lead, had been a vehicle mechanic. Oh, his heart was in the right place, and he had guts - but his brain was still trying to catch up.
And time was something Cathcart no longer had, Laidlaw knew.
Well, it wasn't like I didn't try to tell him. Cathcart's problem was that he was too lazy and too desperate to be liked by his people to insist on the training they'd needed before this day. Oh, they'd gone through some half-hearted FTXs, but when Laidlaw had tried to get serious about them, Cathcart had undercut him.
Wouldn't even let me condition them properly, Laidlaw thought bitterly.
"We're not the Airborne," Cathcart had whined in explanation, "we're militia."
"My guys do it," he'd insisted, "even Bobby Marcus and he's 16 and a couch potato before I got ahold of him. Now he's a lean, mean kid. He ain't a killer yet, but he will be if he has to."
Didn't make a dent in Cathcart. He just didn't know what was coming down the pike then, and now he hasn't got a clue what to do about it.
Before Laidlaw had joined up, the most Cathcart would have his people do was paintball. PAINTBALL, fer cryin' out loud. OK, maybe you got some phys ed out of it, but it taught all the wrong tactical lessons. People actually thought concealment was cover. Besides, what was cover for a paintball wouldn't even be noticed by a 5.56 or 7.62 NATO projectile on its way to rip out your guts or blow off your head.
Well, those weren't paintballs eroding the bricks six inches in front of Cathcart's nose, blowing chips and dust all over the place.
NOW do you understand the DIFFERENCE?
Oh, hell, get a grip, he told himself. If Cathcart lives you can tell him "I told you so," but he knows that already. How am I going to get these good people through this without ALL of them getting killed?
Especially, he thought selfishly, ME.
Laidlaw looked behind him at his squad arrayed along the outer back wall of the auto parts store. Good, he noted with pride, they were set up the way I taught them, 360 all round, weapons ready, eyeballs seeking danger. Scared as shitless as Cathcart, but they were ready in spite of it.
Training did that.
Manny Shinstein, his assistant squad leader, was smiling. Yeah, Manny had been here before too.
Shinstein cocked his head in Cathcart's direction and began to hand sign.
"He's shitting bricks, isn't he?"
Manny and Laidlaw shared an unusual circumstance for folks who lived on the same street in a small Tennessee town. Both their wives were deaf. Funny how things worked out that way. But Manny was good people. An ex-Marine, Shinstein had been to Fallujah twice. Billie and Sheri had met at some function for the deaf, and become immediate friends. That drew Manny and him together. It didn't take Laidlaw long to forgive Manny Shinstein for being a jarhead.
They discovered they had a lot in common, including a sick sense of humor that started with Monty Python and got worse as well as a mutual penchant for playing the Dropkick Murphys at a decibel level beyond pain. When the neighbors complained, Manny told the cop with the face and sincerity of the choirboy he'd never been (he was after all Jewish) that since his wife was deaf, the only way she could enjoy music was by the vibration and didn't the cop know about the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Crazy bastard got away with it, too. The neighbors even apologized.
Laidlaw winked back at Manny. Truth was, Shinstein had a bad case of PTSD, and how he kept a lid on it was impressive to Laidlaw. Getting rocked by three IEDs will do that to you.
CRAP, LAIDLAW, GET YOUR MIND OUT OF IRAQ AND WRAP IT AROUND THIS LITTLE TACTICAL PROBLEM HERE, his brain screamed at him.
I've been down this street a hundred times, he thought, yet I can't visualize what's on the other side, across the street from the auto parts store. That's something else bullets do to you, they mess with your mind. I've got to get a look at these bastards and work it from there. First, I gotta make sure Cathcart doesn't do anything stupid while I'm gone. He waved to get Cathcart's attention and began to hand signal. Finally Cathcart nodded, and the relief was plain on his face.
Well, thought Laidlaw, he really did pay attention when we covered that in the first FTX after I joined up. Good.
Signalling Manny to hold where they were with the rest of the squad, Laidlaw pointed out two of his troopers to follow him. They trotted down to the old wooden back door of the store. The squad adjusted behind them. I'll bet there's a iron bar on the other side.
Bill Bushatz, a young kid fresh out of high school who had started as fullback all four years, was the designated entry man. The boy was big enough to tote the entry tool without strain and muscular enough to use it.
His dad had been arrested in one of the first ATF raids of Operation Clean Sweep, but when Laidlaw got to the unit, Cathcart had Bill carrying his radio and being his general flunky and dogrobber. Laidlaw spotted the boy's true worth and persuaded Cathcart to let him have him "temporarily." After getting used to Laidlaw's ways, Bushatz refused to go back to being a flunky. Which, of course, is what Laidlaw had expected.
The squad leader pointed his desire, and Bushatz took out the hinge side of the door, low, high and in the middle -- one, BAM, two, BAM, gasp for breath, three, BAM, CLANG!. The door sagged inward, but was caught by the bar. Reaching around the splintered doorjam, Bushatz' battle buddy John Reynolds got a grip on the bar, pulled upward, shoved in and released it. With another clang it hit the floor. With another shove, the door followed. They entered precisely per the MOUT drill he'd taught them, the tactical lights on their weapons penetrating the gloom of the back of the store.
Once inside, they halted, looking, listening, letting their vision adjust, weapons still at the ready. It was a Sunday, and no one was in the store. Laidlaw spotted a set of old wooden stairs leading up to the second floor. Signalling Bushatz to remain, he and Reynolds moved up the stairs, and then forward down the upper hallway.
The floor was thick with dust. Nobody had been up here in years. Laidlaw moved cautiously up to the begrimed, cob-webbed window that overlooked the street, which was now a battlefield. Reynolds automatically took up station covering the rear.
Again, Laidlaw felt a tightening of his throat in pride. Reynolds was another kid, still in high school, what was he, maybe 17? He had never heard a round come uprange in anger. He too was scared to death, but he was doing his job, simply because he'd done it so often in training it was second nature.
Ignoring Cathcart's wimpy FTX scehdule, Laidlaw had worked his guys hard for months, every spare minute they could all get together. Constant physical conditioning. Classroom sessions followed by walk-through rehearsals in the abandoned metal fabricating plant down by the river, or up in the national forest forty miles away, then full-blown exercises with blanks and disorienting bird bombs and home-made pyrotechnics rolled by Manny -- what he called "my Shinstein Shitters."
Twice he'd fired live rounds over their heads or down well-marked lanes to the side so they would know what an incoming round sounded like.
The fire outside had slackened. Brightfire's waiting for us and Cathcart's waiting for me.
OK, fine. From the shelter of the brick wall flanking the window, Laidlaw studied the scene, taking care to keep out of the light that fitfully streamed in the dirty glass as clouds paraded past in front of the late morning sun. Backing up deeper into the gloom, he repositioned himself on the other side and looked down and across the street to the west this time. Memory now filled in the rest of the picture he could not see.
The one-story stone building that Brightfire had taken refuge in was a law office and stoutly built. This was Water Street, so named because it ran haphazardly along the river to its back. The ground sloped steeply behind the buildings on the opposite side of the street, through brush and trees on the bank. The reason Brightfire had chosen this building was burning merrily in front of it. Tires shredded by the ambush it had escaped only because one of Cathcart's nervous troops had allowed himself to be seen, the Hummer belched black smoke that swirled down Water Street in the stiff breeze.
A dead mercenary sat upright behind the wheel, slowly barbequeing. What did that leave, five of them? Four?
Laidlaw's squad had been assigned the kill zone of the ambush, and even after it was blown they managed to get the other two vehicles in the convoy, the lead Hummer and and the five ton truck full of detainees. By some miracle, only two of the now-liberated prisoners had been wounded in the process. That, Laidlaw reflected, was another cause for pride. The squad leader had made sure that all of his men and boys, and one girl, could shoot. And when it had come down to it, they'd shot well.
But the trail vehicle hadn't entered the kill zone and although one of the security elements had luckily shot it up enough to stop it, the mercenaries, aside from Mr. Crispy there, had made it to the law office. Lucky for them. Probably the stoutest building on Water Street.
OK. Their reaction force has got to be mounting up by now. Air cover probably inbound NOW. What, fifteen minutes, maybe less? We're running out of time and we ought to be fading -- right now.
Leave 'em? Burn 'em out? The stone walls wouldn't burn, that was for sure. We've got no heavy weapons. What I wouldn't give for a couple of Javelins or even an AT-4, although the stone structure looked stout enough to turn an AT-4.
M203. In the windows. Hell, yeah.
He'd seen one down on the road in the kill zone and ordered it policed up. Who'd got it?
He keyed his squad radio. "Manny, send up that M203 and all the rounds we got."
A pause, and then: "Cathcart's looking like he's about to do something."
"Shit! Tell that dopey bastard to keep his dick in his pants, I've got this thing licked."
"I'm trying . . Oh, SHIT!"
Cathcart had been sweating ever since Laidlaw had disappeared into the building. WHAT was taking so long? They had to go, didn't he know that? They had to finish this thing NOW, before help arrived.
It didn't help that the squad on his left flank was commanded by Duke Conners, a guy with more testosterone than brains who had watched too many war movies over his 36 years. Conners noted that the SAW firing at his people seemed to be unable to depress its muzzle enough to engage them. The tracers were going head high and no lower. This was his big chance. If he could just get in there and toss some of their improvised hand grenades in the side windows this would be all over. Connors knew that Cathcart was uncertain. That damn Laidlaw was just nervous in the service.
Big bad veteran. So what?
This wasn't so tough. He'd talked Cathcart into it, and now he, Duke Conners, was going to finish this thing.
It would have been worse if fully half of Conners' squad hadn't disobeyed him out of inexperience, indiscipline, fear or uncommon good sense. When Duke ordered the entire squad to keep low and charge the building, only five people followed him. The rest hung back, firing in support but not venturing from cover.
For two seconds, maybe three, long enough to take them past the point of no return and fully into the middle of the street, the SAW continued firing high.
Then it shifted.
Not one of them made it, either to the stone building or back to safety. Duke Connors' spine was, in part, blown out his back along with chunks of gut and muscle and as his legs quit working he pitched headlong onto the pavement. He bounced once and slid to a stop on his face. Duke's vision flickered long enough to register the fact that his 16 year old son Jeff lay dead three yards away, his head exploded.
Then Duke Conners died. The lumber mill supervisor hadn't watched enough war movies to keep from being fooled by the oldest trick in the machinegunner's book, one that dated back to the first World War.
Cathcart watched the destruction of Conner's squad in horrified disbelief, focusing on the small form of young Jeff Conners, still twitching and jerking as the gunner played part of another belt across the corpses, in an effort to get one of their friends to do something stupid in reaction. Filled with equal parts of wrath, hatred and guilt, Charles Carlos Cathcart obliged him and stepped from cover to engage the gun. A Brightfire rifleman, firing from another window, put a bullet through his head.
Jenny Wilson delivered the M-203 to Laidlaw just as Conners' valiant but doomed half dozen broke from cover. By that time, Laidlaw had moved to the front office to the left off the hallway and eased up the window until he had an unobstructed shot at the law office's front windows. Wilson's chest was heaving and her eyes were wide, but she'd shouldered that M16A2 with the grenade launcher since the ambush. And it was she who'd put two rounds through the officer in truck's cab, thereby saving at least some of the detainees from murder. Laidlaw had been resistant when she insisted she wanted to be in his squad. He knew it was because she was sweet on Bill Bushatz.
But try as he might, he couldn't run her off. He tried running her into the ground, grinding her down in PT, picking on her for every dirty detail. He couldn't scare her and he couldn't run her off. She not only did her job and carried her own weight, she had better military sense than most of the rest of his squad, always awake and alert, always THINKING. He had her marked for Corporal if she stood up to seeing the elephant. Well, she had. And now she watched her squad leader with intensity, curous to see how this unfamiliar weapon worked.
Laidlaw heard the round that fatally compromised the integrity of Cathcart's braincase, and saw the window it had come from. OK, bastard, you first. He keyed the mike. "Manny, four rounds, take it when I'm done." "Roger. Four rounds."
They were easy shots and Laidlaw was well experienced with the 203. With the range so short, he didn't even flip up the sights. The first HE round sailed through the window hole and blew up within, debris flying out the window. Laidlaw switched to the other front window to the left of the door and did likewise with it. Then he put two rounds into the doorway. The first hit the top hinge and blew the door partially out of the jam and down, creating a hole that the fourth and final round sailed through, exploding deep within the building.
Instantly Manny took the squad across the street and assaulted the law office. A few muffled bursts and it was over. Manny came out a minute later, hoisting a Squad Automatic Weapon over his right shoulder.
By the time the first Brightfire gunship came over the ambush site and then floated down to the river and hovered over the law office, the militia, now commanded by Lawrence "Larry" Laidlaw (nobody called him Lawrence) had vanished. Even the bodies of their fallen had been policed up.
Laidlaw watched the chopper circle ineffectually through 7x50 binoculars from a distant tree line. He turned to the young and old men and women (no boys and girls now) who were nearby and ordered, "Move out."
One thing was certain. There was going to be a lot more training in their future.
A whole lot more.