Lieutenant Jonathan Blake leaned against the door of his humvee, eyes vacant, and stared out at the pristine snow as the convoy drifted forward. Two feet deep mostly, unplowed; some of the snowdrifts were three or four times that height.
Heavy woods and mountains marched on either side of the twisted road, an uninterrupted and threatening phalanx of grizzled soldiers, armed with storms and floods against the unwary intruder. Gusts of wind sent a dusting of snow back into the air in a swirling mist and cut visibility sometimes to nothing.
Blake had dark circles under his eyes, and those circles had their own dark circles. His uniform was sweat-stained and filthy; the computer-generated camouflage pattern had lost its pixilated look after weeks of hard use. At least it didn’t smell too bad—he’d used so much soap in his last hand-washing of the uniform that it still gave off antiseptic fumes. He’d sewn the tear in the crotch a couple weeks ago, but that repair job had begun to give out—as was his patience.
For weeks, nonstop, he’d rolled with his platoon from town to town, back to the depot, back to the towns. Delivering supplies, trying to build up electricity, trying to rebuild… everything.
Today’s mission was no different: another tiny one-light (if that many) town in the middle of fucking nowhere, at the end of a long, twisted mountain road. Power and phones knocked out—presumably by the snow and ice. He’d never seen so much snow in his life, and every time he left the camp he asked himself the same question: why the hell did I ever leave Florida? A mountain back home would be ten feet above sea level, and a cold winter might mean a light jacket. Not this never-ending ice-bound world of hills and ice, teeming with wildlife, abandoned coal mines and inbred elementary school graduates. Wild and wonderful, my ass.
That was one attitude he had to keep to himself. Though his sense of the ridiculous had often gotten him into trouble in college and infantry training, he’d only once made the mistake of making a smart-ass comment in the hearing of Captain Wellstone, the new company commander. Wellstone didn’t think new Lieutenants were worthy of a sense of humor. Blake had a bad feeling he’d have more trouble with the Captain in the future.
Nor had Wellstone done a very good job of reintegrating the replacements with the folks who’d gone through the brief war three months earlier.
Blake’s predecessor, his platoon sergeant and half-a-dozen other members of his platoon were all killed in January; even more were injured. More than half of the faces in his platoon were fresh replacements, most of them straight from Fort Benning’s infantry training center. Whenever they had a few days of rest back at Camp Wingham, the tension in the barracks was palpable between the combat veterans and the replacements. Blake had wracked his brain, trying to work out a solution to that problem, but with no luck. After all, he was a replacement himself. Lieutenant Dale Wingham, namesake of their godforsaken camp outside Charleston, had been blown away by a sniper.
Blake looked over to his left. Behind the wheel of the humvee sat Specialist Jim Turville. Turville had only been back with the unit for a week: he’d been shot through the throat and spent two months at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington. He seemed to be okay now, but he moved pretty slow, and he probably shouldn’t have been out on this mission if they weren’t so shorthanded.
They moved slowly; the tires rustled in the soft, heavy snow. Four times now they’d had to dig the column out, when they’d gotten buried in drifts too big to drive over even with the huge tires of the humvees. Turville looked bored as he stared out, but alert, eyes darting from place to place.
“You feeling all right, Turville?”
“Yes, sir. My throat’s still a little achy, but I’ll make it.”
“All right. Just don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“No problem with that, sir. I’d just as soon stay right here warm in the truck.”‘
Blake smiled. According to the platoon’s non-commissioned officers, Turville had been in continual trouble for the first six months of his tenure in the Army. Then, out of the blue, he’d shown remarkable heroism in combat. During the murderous fire when their unit had been ambushed, he’d run out into the open to rescue their wounded platoon sergeant. The move diverted fire from the rest of his platoon, allowing them to run to safety.
The platoon sergeant was killed anyway, and Turville was shot in the throat. The bullet not only missed the artery, but also missed crushing his windpipe; then bruised one of the vertebrae and passed out the side of his neck. Luckily it had been freezing cold then—just like it was now. The cold had served to slow the escape of blood, so instead of bleeding to death, he’d half frozen instead.
Turville didn’t know, but their former company commander had filed an award recommendation for the Silver Star. He wouldn’t get it: they’d probably downgrade it to a Bronze Star or Soldier’s Medal or something of the like. Standard operating procedure was to submit an award for a much higher level than was expected, because everybody knew that each grade in the chain of command would knock it down one level.
All that aside, Turville’s miraculous survival had turned him into something of a good luck charm for the platoon. And, given the extreme shortage of decent replacements, that meant that he was probably getting his own fire team—whether he liked it or not.
Turville said, “Sir, I think I see somebody over there.”
“In this snow? Where?”
“Look right over there, sir.”
Blake looked. Two hundred meters ahead of them, to the side of the road, stood a man in white, baggy, hunting gear; rifle slung over his shoulder. The man waved at the convoy through the shroud of misty, blowing snow.
“Flash the lights at him and honk the horn, let him know we’re coming.”
“Yes, sir.” Turville flashed the headlights. As they approached the man, Blake got a better look. He was gaunt; dark circles under his eyes, beard overgrown and filthy. Deep-set eyes stared back at Blake.
A moment later Turville slowed the humvee to a stop at the side of the road, next to the man.
Lieutenant Blake leaned out. “You need a ride somewhere?”
The man grinned, and his teeth gleamed inside his heavy beard.
“Oh, no. I don’t need a ride. It’s you who’s gonna need a ride.”
Blake recoiled. “What the hell?”
As he cursed, he saw the men. At least twenty stepped out of the woods, most of them armed with automatic rifles. All of them wore various patterns of camouflage, hunting clothes, anything not bright colored, anything to blend in with the woods. They all had beards, looked haggard and weak, as if they’d been living in the woods even through this hard winter.
“Lieutenant, put your hands in the air. You too, over there, driver.”
Turville didn’t hesitate. He raised his hands, his face impassive.
Blake said, “I don’t know what this is—”
“Shut up. Get out of the vehicle. We’re commandeering this column for the West Virginia National Guard.”
“The West Virginia National Guard? I don’t think so—the National Guard is under Federal authority now.”
The man smirked.
“Oh. Is that so? Well, in that case, I guess I’m jes confiscatin’ it for me. I’m the head of the local militia.”
Blake looked back and forth. Turville’s hands were in the air—he wasn’t going to offer any resistance. They only had eight men on this convoy. They had no escort. The trucks were loaded with supplies: water, generators. Well, this may be one of those times when discretion is the better part of valor.
Captain Wellstone was going to be pissed.
“Look, can I just call in, so you guys can get away, and I won’t have to walk all the way to Charleston?”
“Well, the way I see it, you got two options. You can walk into Whitesville. It’ll take you about two hours, and you can call in from there. Or, I could just shoot you dead right here, and then I won’t have to worry about nobody coming after me. Understand?”
Blake slowly he raised his hands.
One of the men opened the door of the humvee. Blake looked back at the other vehicles in the column. The two men in the other humvee had been disarmed just as easily, as had the truck drivers.
“Got any weapons?”
“Just what you see.”
Briskly, the men patted him down, confiscated his M-16 and the forty-five caliber pistol at his belt. He also had two hand grenades in a pouch. They grabbed those too. Not good.
“Check ‘em for phones.”
The search revealed his mobile phone—they took one from Turville as well. After the search was completed, the men got into the trucks, waved with a grin, and drove away into the snow.
The eight soldiers stood in a loose circle, seven of them looking to Blake for a solution. One he didn’t have. Blake said, “All right, gentlemen, looks like we’re going for a walk. We’re screwed, but we might as well be warm while we’re at it. Whitesville is four miles that way.”
He pointed down the snow-covered road. “Let’s move out.”
“Uh, sir?” Turville said.
“What is it?” Blake asked, expecting a complaint, or at the very least some criticism.
“Do you think the Army will reimburse me for my phone?”
For some reason—probably inappropriate—the question struck Blake as hysterical. He let loose a loud belly laugh as he turned toward the town.
“Why not, Turville? What’s a few hand grenades and automatic rifles, next to your missing cell phone?”
Turville’s blank stare just caused Blake to laugh even harder. “Come on, Turville. Let’s get walking.”