A Reluctant Hero
November 7, 2013
"Jeez Mom, let me sleep longer!" Josh Warner whined as he was shaken awake. He cracked an eye open, finding only darkness. "It isn't time for school yet!"
"IT'S 0500, CORPORAL!" the tall sergeant in digital camo fatigues barked sharply, nudging the sleepy soldier with the toe of his boot.
"Sorry, Sarge," Josh responded quickly. "It's been so long since I had a good night's sleep. I forgot where I was."
"Sedro-Woolley, soldier. The attack kicks off in two hours," Sergeant Cooper answered. He added wearily, "It's been too long since any of us had a good night's sleep."
"I'll get Tyler and do a quick check of 'Homewrecker's' gun system," Josh said as he unwrapped himself from his sleeping bag.
"That's static, Corporal," the sergeant answered. "I'm going over to talk with Captain Frye at company HQ for a couple minutes. See that everything is ready in twenty."
"Will do, Sarge," Josh agreed readily as he peeled out of his sleeping bag. He shook Tyler Serna, the draftee private slumbering beside him. "Out of bed, Tyler. Sarge wants us to run diagnostics on the gun system and make sure everything is ready for this morning." Josh glanced past Tyler and saw an empty sleeping bag lying beside his friend. Zach Rice, the tank's driver, must be up and getting the big M1A1 Abrams tank ready for battle.
Josh headed outside to relieve himself. The morning was chilly, probably close to freezing, but it still felt better than it had in Canada during the cold, wet month he had spent there. That time ended abruptly two weeks ago when the Chinese broke through the I Corps line northeast of Vancouver. Josh looked east at the Cascade Mountains. The first hint of orange foretold the sun's rise. The sky was cloudless and the stars sparkled overhead. That beat the damn mist and fog he had seen further north when they held the line near Chilliwack.
Josh forced memories of the God awful retreat out of Canada and the Battle of the Border from his mind. He walked over to 'Homewrecker, ' the big M1A1 tank that was the center of his life since the war started ten months ago.
"How's our girl?" Josh asked Zach Rice as they met. Zach was checking bogey wheels and track on the left side of the tank, closest to the municipal shed where the men in their company bedded down last night.
"Everything's static, Josh," Zach reported as he ran his hand over a big gouge in the sloping front armor of the tank. A Chinese tank round had left the mark three weeks ago when the round failed to penetrate. "This is a great ride."
"That she is," Josh agreed as he climbed up on the tank and inside. Josh lit the inside of his tank with red, night vision saving light. He got to work checking the gunnery computer. He knew the routine well by now. He had completed basic training and advanced individual training at the army's armor center in Fort Benning two years ago.
Tyler Serna joined Josh in the tank turret a couple minutes later. The eighteen year old draftee watched closely as Josh ran through the gunnery system diagnostic. The Fremont, Nebraska native had been with the 'Homewrecker' crew for two and a half weeks and had a lot to learn. The army drafted Tyler two days after he graduated from high school earlier that year. He spent four months at Georgia's Fort Benning doing basic and AIT (advanced individual training) at the Armor Center.
Serna arrived at the front in Canada after Lt. Patrick Williams and Sergeant Aaron Dolan were killed by a Chinese bombing raid during night time resupply. Lt. Williams commanded 'Homewrecker' and also the First Platoon of Company C, 1st Battalion, 185th Armor. Loss of two men of the four man tank crew shook assignments up radically.
Josh switched from driving the 'Homewrecker' to being the gunner and second in command in the tank. Zach took the driver's seat, giving the new guy, Tyler Serna, the loader's job. Charlie Company's CO, Capt. Dennis Frye, assigned his company sergeant (senior enlisted man), David B. Cooper, to take command of the First Platoon. He also took Lt. Williams' place in command of 'Homewrecker.' First Sergeant Cooper was known as D. B. around the company. Sergeant Cooper's mother was horrified forty-two years ago when the hijacker, D. B. Cooper, jumped into infamy by hijacking a plane and parachuting into the Washington forests and history. She tried valiantly to keep her six month old son's name David, but the rest of the world nicknamed him D. B. The sergeant long ago accepted the nickname.
Josh liked Sergeant Cooper. He was demanding but fair. He treated the men in his platoon well and saw to their care, feeding and general welfare. Most important, he had rallied the spirits of the men after the platoon lost two of their four tanks and ten of the sixteen men in the initial fighting in Canada. That was emotionally hard in a National Guard outfit like the 41st Division's 81st Heavy Brigade Combat Team. All the members of their platoon hailed from Seattle or Olympia. Josh had trained with and known every one of those fallen comrades since he joined the guard two and a half years ago.
Josh joined up to earn a scholarship for college. His father, Robert, sold tires for a living. His mom, Laura, worked as a receptionist in a doctor's office. Josh was gifted with computers and had the grades to go to Stanford for an Information Technology degree. His family didn't have the money for tuition and Josh couldn't get enough scholarship money to swing the pricey university.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down when he graduated from high school in 2010, so he figured it would be safe to join the National Guard. He worked for Geek Squad, fixing computers and helping people with their software while he earned enough money to get through four years at the prestigious college. Josh did his six months of active service soon after joining up at Fort Benning, Georgia at the Army's Maneuver Center (MCoE).
Josh's local armory in Olympia housed C Company, 1st Battalion, 185 Armor, so Josh ended up as a tanker even though his ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) indicated he would be an excellent computer tech for the Guard. Josh did well in tanker school and got along with the other, older members of his company back in Olympia. The Guard demanded a weekend a month and two weeks each summer from their members.
Josh liked his job with Geek Squad. He'd much rather be back home in Olympia dealing with WANs, raid arrays and configuring people's hardware and software than sitting in a cold tank running diagnostics. God, how he hated the damn Chinks. They turned his comfortable world upside down ten months ago. If only it were a dream...
0615 Hours, Sedro-Woolley
Zach Rice maneuvered the Homewrecker into the end of the line of tanks departing the municipal maintenance yard where their company spent the previous night. C Company was on the tail end of the 1/185 Armor Battalion's march through Sedro-Woolley to the start line on the northwest end of town. Abrams tanks from the 1/303 Cav would follow their battalion.
Sergeant Cooper had briefed the entire platoon on the plan for the attack half an hour ago, before the big column got on the road. The 41st Division would attack due west, two brigade combat teams abreast, across the plain towards I-5 and Burlington. Their 81st Heavy BCT would take the right side of the attack. The 116th Cav BCT would attack on their left. The 41st BCT would follow in reserve, ready to assist wherever needed. The 82nd Cav Regiment would protect the flank of the attack. The 2nd Infantry Division would cross to the north side of the Skagit and be ready to reinforce the attack, if needed, or exploit the breach with an attack north to Bellingham and Deming.
Sergeant Cooper coolly talked with the other tanks in the platoon as they clanked north through the town. Josh Warner watched their progress through town on the aiming scope of his gun. Josh bit his lip nervously as they rolled forward. He had been in the thick of eight or nine battles in the past three weeks, but he still felt frightened about what was coming. He glanced over at Tyler Serna, his loader. He could see that Serna was pale and sweating, even in the red light illuminating the tank interior.
Tyler caught Josh's glance. He attempted a halfhearted smile and leaned close to Josh. "Does it always feel like you're about to shit yourself?" he whispered nervously. "I sure could use a joy stick right now."
"Huh?" Josh whispered back.
"A boom," Tyler explained. Josh gave him a blank look. "Ganja? Weed?" Josh furrowed his brow as he realized what his crewmate meant.
"You can't do pot in the army," Josh declared quietly. "The army will ship you off to someplace worse than here if they catch you lighting up."
"Worse than being in an attack at the front lines?" Tyler asked. "What's worse than here?"
"How about outside as an infantryman?" Josh replied. "I'd rather be in Homewrecker listening to bullets ping off our sides than outside cowering in the mud."
"Well ... yeah," Tyler agreed.
"Are you doing pot now?" Josh asked. "That'll get you in deep shit with the Sarge."
"No, my last time was the night before I reported for basic," Tyler responded.
"Didn't they test you for drugs when you got to basic?" Josh asked. "They washed half a dozen guys out for drug use when I did basic."
"They don't anymore," Tyler explained. "They're drafting guys now. If doing some weed could get you out of the army, they wouldn't be able to keep any draftees. They did find out about me doing weed. I had to do a lame-ass drug awareness lecture and get tested every week during basic."
"Keep the drug shit out of here," Josh cautioned. "Sarge will have a fit if he hears about you doing that stuff."
"I know," Tyler agreed. "I won't do it. I came through the so called 'Battle of the Border' and it was ... well, nothing. We never even saw any Chinese. I can't help wondering ... you know, what it's going to..." Josh was quiet for about five seconds. "It's just ... well ... all of this..."
"Scares the hell out of you," Josh said, completing Tyler's sentence. "I understand. I've been in action a dozen times in the past three weeks. It scares the hell out of me too. Don't worry. Sarge is a good commander. He'll spot the right targets for us. You keep feeding me shells and I'll blow the sons-of-bitches to hell. We WILL come through this OK."
The two sat quietly as their tank rattled north through Sedro-Woolley. D. B. Cooper had overheard most of the whispered conversation between his subordinates. Tyler's past drug use wasn't a surprise to him. He got a head's up from the S1 at the BCT to keep an eye on Tyler. Watching out for draftees with a past history of drug use was now SOP [standard operating procedure] for the army.
D. B. thought Josh handled Tyler's past drug use and worries about how he'd perform in battle well. D. B. was pleased to find the young corporal was turning into a quality soldier. They formed a bond the afternoon and night they spent helping hold off the Chinese breakthrough of the Chilliwack line. The two had worked without a loader, both helping with the task as their other duties allowed. Josh had an eye for gunnery too. He had taken out at least a dozen tanks that night. D. B. had seen instructors at Maneuver Center that didn't shoot as well as his gunner.
The column turned left onto the Cook Road out of Sedro-Woolley and headed for their start line. About two hundred yards west of the townhouse development that marked the extent of Sedro-Woolley, they followed their battalion due north to form up. The Abrams from the 1/303 Cav from their BCT were forming up on the south side of Cook Road.
The ground rumbled at 0650 hours, as the nine 155 mm batteries tasked with supporting the attack opened up on the Chinese infantry line a mile distant from the start line. Lt. Colonel Owen's "Move out!" crackled across the radio network ten minutes later. Zach Rice put Homewrecker into gear and rolled forward, maintaining alignment with the other tanks in C Company.
Josh turned back from his station, patted Tyler on the shoulder and gave him a thumbs-up. "You keep feeding me shells. We'll come out of this just fine." Tyler acknowledged the encouragement with a nauseated half smile and a nod.
The 140 Abrams rolled across the plain. D. B. Cooper swiveled his command turret aft and saw the Bradleys of his BCT and Strykers of the 116th Cav following behind the tanks, carrying their infantry support. The long line of tanks churned forward across the fields for a couple minutes, not drawing any reaction from the Chinese troops they were approaching.
"Maya Alpha-6, I have Tangoes on the hill north of me," Maya Alpha-5 reported. Maya Alpha-6 was the call sign for Alpha Company's commander. Tangoes referred to the NATO phonetics letter "T", designating targets. Maya Alpha-5 was on the far right of the 1/185 Armor's line of tanks.
"Maya Alpha-5, ident[ify] Tangoes," Capt. Frye asked. "Make sure it isn't the Cowboys [82nd Cav Regiment].
"Gook BMPs," Maya Alpha-5 answered. "Must be twenty plus."
"Roger. Vanilla or..." Maya Alpha-6 queried. The Alpha company commander wanted to know if they were the standard infantry fighting vehicles carrying 10 Chinese troopers or one of many variants armed with guns, rockets or anti-tank missiles. The answer came in a rush, but not from Maya Alpha-5.
Josh Warner found the answer too as a searing light streaked across his night vision gunnery screen. Zach Rice saw it too, out his vision slot. "Fuck!" Zach growled over the local comm channel. "Fucking missiles."
Sgt. Cooper spun his command turret around to spot the new threat. He was in time to see three American tanks explode to his north.
Multiple heat blooms blossomed in Josh's scope. "Sarge!" Josh announced. "We got ZHZ99s in front of us. Multiple incoming rounds..." Josh knew the heat signature of the Chinese main battle tanks by now.
"Here's Tango-1, tank," Sgt. Cooper announced as he swung his turret back to face the threat to their front. The target cursor appeared over one of the Chinese tanks, only its turret visible on Josh's screen. The enemy tanks must be hull down.
"We got canister in the tube, Sarge," Josh warned. The 120mm shell contained 1,100 3/8" diameter tungsten balls. It was deadly to infantry within 2,000 feet but would have no effect on armor at more than three times that range.
"FIRE!" Sgt. Cooper growled.
"Identified, 2,342 mikes," Josh announced as he locked his aiming reticle on the target Sarge indicated and adding that the targeted tank was 2,342 meters away.
"Up," Tyler confirmed. It was the loader's job to confirm that a round was in the chamber.
"On the way!" Josh said a split second later. He understood the Sarge now. It was faster to waste the canister round than to unload the round and replace it with the proper round. Josh pressed the fire button a split second later. The Homewrecker shuddered as the big cannon blasted a canister round towards the enemy.
"Tank, sabot, Serna," Sgt. Cooper ordered. This round was meant to kill tanks. Tyler manhandled the 49 pound round into the breach of their cannon.
"Identified, 2,328 mikes," Josh announced as he prepared to fire at Tango-1, the Chinese ZHZ99 tank in front of them.
"Fire!" Sgt. Cooper announced.
"On the way!" Josh pressed the button. The gun barked as it shot out the depleted uranium projectile. The sabot peeled off the uranium bolt as the projectile left the cannon. The bolt needed about a second and a half to travel across the valley. The small dense bolt punched through the thick armor of the Chinese tank, flaking and spalling slivers of metal and sending them throughout the crew section of the tank interior. The Chinese crewmen were sliced to pieces with barely time to realize they were hit.
Josh and Sgt. Cooper both saw the satisfying puff of smoke waft from the turret hatches as the round hit home.
"Cease fire," Sgt. Cooper announced before he placed his targeting reticule on another Chinese tank. "Tango-2, tank, sabot."
DDddooonnnnGGGG! The Homewrecker shuddered when a Chinese round plowed into the Chobham armor of the big M1A1. Josh glanced back at Tyler. The young man's eyes were the size of saucers. "That's the good sound," Josh mouthed to his crewmate. "Our armor held." Josh turned back to his gunnery computer. "Identified, 2,277 mikes to Tango-2."
"On the way!" Josh pressed the button, sending another depleted uranium bolt at the Chinese. A second and a half later he watched the explosion as his shot hit home.
"Cease fire," Sgt. Cooper announced mechanically. "Tango-3, tank, sabot." Josh was zeroing in on the new target when their tank was rocked by a large and very close explosion. Sgt. Cooper wheeled to find Red-12 (call sign on the platoon radio net – it was also known as Maya-Charlie-12 on the battalion command net), the tank that joined their platoon two days ago, with smoke pouring out of the popped open hatches. Cooper watched as a blackened crewman tried to crawl out, only to slump over, half in and half out of the tank.
"Identified, 2,253 mikes to Tango-3," Josh announced.
"On the way!" Josh answered as he hit the button. This time he didn't see the satisfying explosion of a dead Chinese tank. "2,231 mikes to Tango-3."
Sgt. Cooper didn't get time to answer. The whole crew heard the whoosh followed by the Baa-wumpf of an explosion on the back of their tank. Homewrecker rocked as the missile hit.
"Red-16, this is Red-13, over," a voiced announced of the platoon radio link. Re-d3 was the call sign for the third tank in Sgt. Cooper's 1st Platoon.
"Go ahead, Red-13," Sgt. Cooper announced. Josh and Tyler looked around their compartment. The halon fire suppression system hadn't activated. The tank hadn't been penetrated.
"You took a chink missile in the back of the turret," Red-13 reported. "Pretty big fire on your rear deck and back of your turret. Looks like your personals are going up in smoke." Abrams crews stored their sleeping bags and pads, as well as their personal gear in bins on the back of the turret, outside the armor.
"Take out Tango-3," Sgt. Cooper commanded. "Serna, give me the extinguisher."
"On the way!" Josh said as he pressed the button. "Are you sure you want to pop the hatch? It's pretty unfriendly out there."
"That fire is a big spotlight on our tank," Sgt. Cooper explained. "We've got to get it out or we'll attract the attention of every Chinese tank from here to Bellingham."
Tango-3 blew up in a spectacular fireball as Sgt. Cooper popped the commander's hatch open. Josh smelled the smoke from the fire outside. The Chinese ZHZ99's turret must have flown 50 feet in the air before crashing back down. Most likely their shot touched off the propellant in a Chinese shell.
"I've got Tango-4," Josh announced. "Tank, sabot." He knew Sgt. Cooper would want him to keep up the fire on the Chinese while the Sarge was busy putting out the fire. It was how they worked three weeks ago during the eighteen hour fight to plug the breach in the Chilliwack line. "Identified, 2,199 mikes to Tango-4. Sarge, get in. I'm ready to fire." No answer. "Sarge?"
Josh glanced back at his sergeant. Instead of standing on a rung of the ladder where he could get his head and torso outside, the sergeant's boots were on the compartment deck. His knees were buckled. Josh looked up and saw a red stain spreading down the front of his sergeant's camos.
"Tyler!" Josh barked, trying to hide his own panic. "Check the Sarge!" His intonation managed to convey his urgency to Tyler. Tyler maneuvered around to the command position.
"He ain't got no head!" Tyler wailed when he managed to get to Sgt. Cooper.
"Stay inside!" Josh ordered. "I'm firing." He rechecked the range. "2,168 mikes ... On the way!" Their cannon boomed as another bolt of depleted uranium flew across the fields to the Chinese. Josh stayed with his scope long enough to see Tango-4 disappear in a cloud of smoke.
Josh squeezed around to get to see the sergeant's condition himself. It looked like Cooper's head had taken a direct hit from the Chinese 125mm shell. Little remained of his commander above the neck. "Push Sarge's body onto the turret top," Josh commanded. "We don't have room for him in here." Josh didn't add that he knew Tyler would freeze up if he had to share the compartment with the headless corpse of their sergeant.
Josh flicked the comm switch to put himself on the platoon link. "Red-13, this is Red-11, over."
"Go ahead Red-11," Red-13 responded.
"Sarge is dead," Josh reported, trying to keep his voice as even as possible. He really wanted to scream, but it wouldn't do anyone any good.
"You sure, Red-11?" Sgt. Holder, the commander of Red-13 and now the senior sergeant in their platoon.
"He took a 125 (125mm shell) in the head," Josh answered. "Yeah ... I'm sure."
"Red-13 is now Red-16," Sgt. Holder reported over the platoon net. This confirmed that he was assuming command of the 1st platoon.
"Red-11, can you keep your unit in action?" Sgt. Holder asked Josh. "We need everybody."
"Is the fire out on our back deck?" Josh asked.
"It is, Red-11," Sgt. Holder responded.
"We're good to go then," Josh answered.
"Continue in line with the rest of the platoon," Sgt. Holder instructed. "Aztecs are taking care of the chink BMPs. Fire at will at the Tangoes in front."
"Wilco [Will comply]. Out," Josh answered into the radio. He switched back to the internal comm. "Did you get Sarge stowed up top, Tyler?"
"Yeah," Tyler answered shakily. "I got the body up top."
"Body?" Zach interjected. "What happened?"
"Sarge took a round in the head," Josh explained. "Keep in line with the rest of our platoon and continue forward."
"You got it, Josh," Zach agreed.
He scanned his gunnery screen for his next target. "Tango-5, tank, sabot!," Josh ordered. "Identified, 2,017 mikes," he called out automatically, as he was trained to do. No one was paying attention to the firing data anymore. "On the way!" The round hit home, blowing up another Chinese tank.
Josh switched over to the platoon comm link, so he could hear any orders Sgt. Holder might give. Sgt. Holder was temporarily in command of the 1st Platoon again, now that Sgt. Cooper was dead. Josh got the gist of what was happening off to his right. The Chinese missile BMPs had shot up and put most of Alpha Company (Aztecs) out of commission. Lt. Colonel Owens ordered Bravo Company to deal with the threat.
Josh took a shot at another Chinese tank. He didn't achieve the satisfying explosion but the tank ceased firing at the Americans. A second shot produced a cloud of smoke, indicating a clean kill. Josh was lining up a shot on Tango-7 when a loud Ka-CHUNK rattled the Homewrecker. The tank immediately lurched left and spun around on its left track.
"Back the right track immediately!" Josh yelled. "Get us facing the enemy again, Zach!" The Abrams' front armor could stop Chinese 125mm shells from penetrating at 2,000 meter range. The side armor wasn't as thick and could be vulnerable to hits there.
Zach managed to point the Homewrecker generally toward the west and the Chinese tanks that had been firing on them since the start of the battle.
"Red-16, this is Red-11," Josh announced into the platoon comm link. The only answer he received was a tremendous explosion off to his right that shook and rattled the Homewrecker.
"Holy shit!" someone squawked on the link. "Red-13 just took a gook missile in the ass."
"Josh, I ain't got nothing on the left track," Zach interjected.
"ID yourself, soldier," a voice demanded. Josh recognized it was Capt. Frye. "Maintain radio discipline. Who is this and what is the status of Maya Charlie-13?"
"Hernandez from Red-14, sir," Sgt. Hernandez of Red-14 reported. "Red-16 is burning like a Roman candle. The crew's KIA, sir." Josh recognized the voice of Staff Sgt. Luis Hernandez. He had been in this Guard unit for half a year, after completing his five year, active duty tour. Luis chose to join the Guard so he could enjoy the camaraderie of a unit rather than serve his remaining time in the Army Reserve. Josh and Luis had gotten to be friends in the past six months.
"You command 1st Platoon now, Red-14," Capt. Frye instructed. "What's the status of Red-11?"
"We took a hit in the left track or boogie wheel, sir," Josh responded. "We're immobilized but we can keep shooting at the Chinese."
"Good for you, soldier," Capt. Frye said. "Give us covering fire. Red-16, guide on Red-25 to your right. Conform to 2nd Platoon's actions."
"Wilco, sir," Josh responded. Luis Hernandez from Red-16 responded affirmatively too.
"Take the gunner's seat, Tyler," Josh instructed. "I need to get in the cupola and see what the hell is going on around us."
"Me?" Tyler squeaked.
"Get a grip!" Josh commanded. "Load a sabot round in the gun and get in the gunner's seat. I'll find us a good target." Tyler didn't answer but did take the gunner's seat.
Josh noted the blood coating the area around the top of command cupola. He forced down the bile trying to rise in his throat. There wasn't time now to mourn Sgt. Cooper. He needed to pull himself together and help Zach and Tyler survive.
A quick scan to his left and right showed way too many plumes of dark, inky smoke rising from the carcasses of dead American tanks. A few crewmen who made it out alive were retreating away towards town. Some of his battalion and some of the tanks from the 1/303 Cav continued advancing west. Josh forced himself to look west towards the Chinese. He found a target and placed his targeting reticule on it before announcing "Tango-8."
"Um ... Uh..." Tyler murmured.
"Pull it together," Josh demanded. "This is just like in training, Tyler."
"I ... dentified... 20 ... uh... 91 meters," Tyler managed. "Mikes ... I mean mikes." Josh felt the turret swing around as Tyler put the aiming reticule on the target. The cannon elevated slightly too.
"Fire!" Josh commanded.
"On the way!" Tyler announced. The big 120mm cannon belched and sent another depleted uranium bolt towards the Chinese.
Josh noted with satisfaction as the turret blew off the top of the tank he had targeted. "Good job, Tyler."
"I got the mother-fucker!" Tyler chortled. "I got the bastards!"
"Tango-9, tank, sabot" Josh announced, placing his targeting reticule on another Chinese ZHZ99 tank.
"Identified, 2,115 mikes," Tyler announced.
"Fire," Josh ordered.
"On the way!" The cannon boomed and sent another bolt at the Chinese. Josh didn't get to see the results of the shot. The tank they targeted belched fire and smoke. Josh swore he could see the shell coming directly at them. He flinched instinctively, even though it would give him no protection. He was dead if the shot hit his command cupola. If it hit in front or in the turret, they were safe.
DdddoooonnnnggGGG reverberated through the crew compartment. Josh looked out to find that the shell hit neither hull nor turret. Their cannon barrel was indented and the last four feet was bent down at a weird angle. The cannon tube had taken the hit for them.
"We're out of commission, guys," Josh announced. "That one bent the cannon tube." Tyler had another shell in his arms, ready to place it in their cannon. "Stow that shell back in the ammo hold and seal it up. We're not firing anymore until they get us a new track and a new tube."
"Red-16, this is Red-11," Josh announced on the command comm link.
"Go ahead, Red-11," Sgt. Hernandez responded.
"Good hunting, guys," Josh said. "Red-11 took a hit in the cannon tube. It's bent to hell. We're going to have to sit this one out."
"Roger that, Red-11," Sgt. Hernandez responded. "Hang loose and wait for tank recovery to come and get you."
"Wilco," Josh answered.
"What now, Josh?" Tyler asked. "Do we take a walk back to town or stay here?"
"I think we stay inside our tank," Josh answered. "We're too far away for the Chinese tanks to take us out. Zach, how about you lay down some smoke for us?"
"You got it," Zach agreed.
"Smoke?" Tyler asked.
"I want us to blend in with all the dead tanks," Josh explained. "Homewrecker's taken enough hits for the day. I want the Chinese to ignore us."
"Makes sense," Tyler agreed.
Josh scanned the horizon again. He noted with satisfaction that the tank that put their cannon out of commission was dead. Their turret was upside down beside the smoking tank body. He continued swinging his cupola around to the northwest. He could see a thin line of Abrams tanks a few hundred meters ahead, continuing the advance on the Chinese lines. He scanned further north. He saw maybe half a dozen Bravo Company (Inca) tanks engaging the Chinese BMPs firing missiles at their battalion. He couldn't pick out more than two runners among the Alpha Company tanks closest to the Chinese hill. Some of the Bradleys from the 1/161 Infantry were burning too.
Josh swung his turret around past the plumes of smoke marking other American tanks lost earlier in the battle. The sight to the south and south west wasn't as grim. The 1/303 Cav and the 116th BCT further south were faring better against the Chinese. Josh swiveled around to the west again and watched the battle proceed for a couple minutes.
"Tangoes!" someone unidentified shouted on the command net. Josh was still monitoring it. "There's a shitload of gook BMPs coming out of the woods. Multiple Tangoes to the north!" Josh swiveled his turret to face north. He lost his breath as he watched at least fifty BMPs drive out of the woods into the fields. Some were infantry carriers. More were missile or cannon armed. As soon as they cleared the edge of the woods, another fifty appeared behind them and drove out onto the north end of the field. ZHZ99 tanks appeared next.
"Fuck!" Josh growled. "We need to get the hell out of here ... NOW!"
"What?" Tyler gasped.
"Get the M16 and any sidearms we have," Josh ordered. "We're going out the belly hatch."
"Why would we..." Zach asked. Pings from Chinese machine gun bullets off the Homewrecker's armor answered Zach before Josh could explain. Zach grabbed the M16, while Tyler grabbed three M9 pistols. Josh took a thermite grenade after his friends exited and placed the grenade as he was taught at Armor School. Josh hurriedly squeezed out the bottom of the tank and crawled around the front left track to take shelter on the southern, less exposed side, of Homewrecker.
"Give me a pistol, Tyler," Josh demanded. "Let's get the hell out of here! This thing'll blow in a few seconds." Josh took the pistol Tyler offered him before the three dashed east across the field, hunched over as they tried to present as small a target as possible. The grenade blew when they were about 75 meters away. The puff of smoke and the men's movement attracted the attention of Chinese machine gunners. They dove for cover behind a wrecked Abrams as the Chinese found their range.
"I didn't expect to be a crunchie today," Zach remarked. Tankers sometimes referred to infantrymen as "crunchies" for the sound of their bones cracking if they got run over by a tank. It wasn't a term of endearment.
"Better a live crunchie than a dead tanker," Josh agreed.
"I don't want to get captured by the chinks," Tyler added. "I've heard all about how sadistic those sick bastards are."
"Nobody's getting killed or captured," Josh declared. "We'll get back to Sedro-Woolley, hook up with our unit and get a new tank. We'll be fine." He peeked around the end of the tank. "Fuck! The chinks are through Alpha already and engaging Bravo Company. We've got a couple minutes, at most ... to get the hell out of here."
"I'm static with that," Zach declared.
"Let's head for that tank over there," Josh said, pointing towards Maya-2 without recognizing the remains of that tank.
"Together or one at a time?" Tyler asked.
"All together," Josh answered. "We're going to attract attention from the Chinese either way. The third guy would be toast for sure if we went one at a time."
"You take the lead, Josh," Zach offered. "Follow Josh, Tyler."
"Haul ass, guys," Josh said. "Keep intervals ... we don't want the chinks getting all of us with one burst."
Josh dashed as fast as he could manage across the open field. He glanced back when he was half way to the burnt out tank. Tyler was about twenty feet behind him. Zach was a little further behind Tyler. The Chinese gunners spotted the three men fleeing and targeted them. Bullets were uncomfortably close when Josh dived behind the wreck of Maya-2.
Josh looked back in time to see the bullets dancing perilously close to Tyler's heels. He dove for cover behind the tank. Both watched Zach stumble about forty feet from safety.
"Go! GO! GO!!!" Josh shouted to his friend as Zach stood. The delay was too much. He sprinted for cover. The next burst of machine gun fire raked across his body. Zach fell to the ground, about three feet from safety. Josh crawled ahead to his friend, grabbed him by the shoulders of his fatigues and heaved. Tyler helped pull when Josh got Zach behind the tank.
"FUCK! Fuck ... fuck..." Zach snarled. His strength was ebbing quickly. Josh and Tyler surveyed the damage to their friend. He took a bullet in the left thigh. It wasn't too bad. Another bullet ripped into his belly. That wound was pouring his life's blood onto his fatigues and the ground. A third shot hit Zach in the chest. That wound wheezed as Zach struggled for breath.
A look of surprise came over Zach's face. "Josh ... tell my..." Josh grabbed his friend's hand. " ... Mom..." Zach sputtered and a bloody froth came out of his mouth instead of words.
"I'll tell your mom your last thoughts were of her," Josh said. He felt Zach squeeze his hand slightly before he went limp. Zach's eyes went unfocused. "Rest in peace, buddy." Josh looked up at Tyler. Tyler was in shock, staring blankly down as the dead body of his crewmate.
"C'mon," Josh said as he shook Tyler gently by the shoulder. "Take the extra M9 from Zach. We have got to get out of here right now if we don't want to end up like him." Josh grabbed the M16 from beside his buddy. "Stay with me, Tyler. OK?" Tyler took the pistol and nodded his agreement silently.
Josh scouted for cover. The nearest was the small patch of woods about 200 meters southeast of the wreck of Maya-2, back at the start line for the attack that morning. "Follow me," Josh instructed as he pointed towards the woods. "Go to ground if the Chinese zero in on you. We'll crawl the rest of the way, if we have to." Tyler nodded yes. Josh took a deep breath and added, "Let's do it!"
"I'm right behind you, Josh," Tyler answered as Josh sprinted across the open field. Josh almost reminded Tyler to keep an interval but then figured 'What the hell?' If he got hit, Tyler wouldn't be much help, given his current mental state. Josh didn't blame Tyler. He remembered back to his first day in combat. Lt. Williams and Rob Dolan had helped him calm down ... a whole lot. He was the senior NCO now and he needed to do the same for Tyler. If they kept their wits, they could get out of this mess and back to safety.
The two men caught the attention of a couple Chinese machine gunners halfway to the woods. The gunners laced the ground all around Josh and Tyler. Both men dropped to the ground and hugged it for dear life. Josh turned his head north, to try to spot the Chinese as he pressed himself to the dirt. Miracle of miracles! They were in a shallow depression and the Chinese were out of sight. Another burst of bullets whistled over them, scant inches above their prone bodies.
"Crawl, Tyler!" Josh demanded. "We have got to get out of here." The two men crawled for the woods, careful to keep from exposing themselves. The Chinese gunners knew they were there and laced the area with fire. The shallow depression provided just enough cover to save their lives ... for now.
The three minutes it took them to crawl into the woods were the longest three minutes of their lives. They paused to look back when they were inside the trees. A small group of farm buildings was four hundred meters north of their position. Chinese tanks and BMPs were about a hundred meters north and west of the farm buildings. Josh and Tyler exchanged glances. They both jogged south through the woods, safe from aimed fire. Stray bullets whistled through the trees as they headed south for Cook Road.
They reached the edge of the woods at the back yards of four houses that fronted Cook Road. Josh glanced west. Chinese tanks and BMPs were approaching from that direction, maybe a thousand meters away. He looked south. South of the road the 116th Cav BCT was beating a hasty retreat for Sedro-Woolley and the bridge over the Skagit. Chinese tanks were firing down the road, preventing anyone from leaving the battlefield that way. Josh and Tyler stayed in the southern edge of the woods, working their way east to Sedro-Woolley.
The two soldiers started towards the road, planning to stay out of line of sight and fire on the north side of the road. Multiple simultaneous explosions forced them to head northeast, away from Cook Road.
"Are they mortars?" Tyler puffed as they dashed across the field.
"No ... Millers," Josh replied as he puffed.
"Multiple Launch Rocket System," Josh called as they cleared the 150 meter wide farm field and made it to the cover of a house, and a couple sheds that were set back a couple hundred meters from the road. They had been fortunate when they crossed the open field. The woods they just escaped kept them from view of any Chinese machine gunners.
Josh looked north. He found the Bradleys of the 1/161 Infantry that should be supporting his battalion's attack were retreating back towards Sedro-Woolley. Chinese BMPs and tanks were chasing after them.
"Where the fuck are our tanks?" Tyler demanded.
"I don't expect there are many left," Josh answered. "Our platoon lost three of our four tanks. Last I saw before we bugged out, Alpha and Bravo were hit harder than us."
"We're in deep shit, aren't we?" Tyler asked.
"Up to our eyeballs," Josh confirmed. Both men looked towards Cook Road. They could hear heavy vehicles moving down the road from the east towards them. Josh motioned for Tyler to follow him when they could see that it was a column of six Strykers moving towards Sedro-Woolley at high speed.
The two dashed across the yards, waving and screaming, trying to attract a ride to safety. As they got closer to the road, they saw Chinese tanks pursing the 116th Cav's Strykers. The vehicles roared by the desperate men without slowing. Either the 116th troopers didn't see them or they weren't willing to risk stopping. The Chinese tanks were around 800 meters behind them. The troopers probably choose wisely. The last Stryker was hit by a Chinese 125mm shell and exploded when Josh and Tyler were about fifty meters away.
Josh and Tyler dashed east for the next property. The various sheds gave them some cover from the Chinese. Chinese machine gun and tank fire continued down Cook Road. Another of the Strykers that passed them blew up as they passed through the first lot into the backyards of more houses on the next street.
"I think we better stick to cover for a while until we get to the street that goes back to the bridge," Josh suggested.
"No argument from me," Tyler agreed. They ducked through side yards and across a residential street. The houses seemed deserted. The civvies must have left in a hurry when the town was evacuated. Some garage doors were open. They dashed between two more houses, across the back yards and past more houses, finding themselves at the end of a cul-de-sac. The street led north.
Josh and Tyler looked at each other. Josh shrugged. "It's a short street. We probably move faster and work our way south again from the next street." Fences, bushes and a hedge had slowed their way through the last block of houses.
The two soldiers sprinted 50 meters to the beginning of the cul-de-sac and ran east on the connecting street. They found the north-south street they wanted 100 meters ahead. They turned the corner and headed south ... BOOM! Boom ... boom ... ka-boom.
Artillery was shelling Cook Road where it came into Sedro Woolley. Josh and Tyler swerved north, dashing between houses again. They clambered over two more fences before nearly tumbling down a slope into a retention pond in the next development. They managed to keep out of the water as they trudged around the pond. They climbed another chain link fence to get into the next street. Chinese shells were still raining down on Cook Road, a hundred meters or so to their south.
Josh figured they were still west of the bridge, so they dashed between houses on the next street. There was an open field behind these houses. Tyler spotted a group of Bradleys, due north of them. They were driving down the road on far side of the field that ran from northwest to the southeast. Josh and Tyler sprinted across the field, yelling and waving for a ride.
The field was bigger than they expected. It was probably 350 to 400 meters across. The Bradleys flew by without stopping for them. Josh and Tyler stopped on the side of the road, panting and searching for safe haven.
Two Abrams tanks were up the road about 600 meters from them. They were blocking the road just past the edge of Sedro-Woolley. The two tanks were holding off the approaching Chinese tanks and BMPs. Josh and Tyler silently thanked the two crews from their battalion, whoever they were, as they dashed down the road for the center of Sedro-Wooley.
They realized they were running down F&S Grade Road from the road sign when they passed Hawthorne Street. The road intersected with West Borseth Avenue 270 meters ahead. Josh's first instinct was to go south on Borseth, but both men paused when they looked down the road and saw it turn and go west a few hundred meters ahead.
Instead the two soldiers dashed into the Lawrence Industries plant – at least that was what the sign in front of them said the plant was called. They ran about 500 meters diagonally across the plant, probably following the old path of F&S Grade Road. The next road they found ran north and south. It was wide and had on-street parking.
"I think this one will get us through town," Josh speculated. Tyler followed as his leader ran south. The two had no doubt where they were on the next block. They were in the center of Sedro-Wooley. They ran south past the deserted buildings – passing cafes, drug stores, banks, hardware stores and more. They passed an outdoors store on the next block. The owner was advertising specials on winter sleeping bags, winter coats and waterproof boots.
Josh chuckled to himself. In another time and place he would spend an hour in that store browsing through their offerings. Josh's family went camping frequently when he grew up. He knew and loved the beauty and quiet of the Cascades. What he wouldn't give to be up in the mountains, fishing along one of the peaceful lakes.
The next four blocks were lined with homes instead of stores. Josh and Tyler could hear shelling, the chatter of machine guns and the boom of tank guns off to their west. The two managed to extricate themselves from the worst of the fighting. The street they were following, Metcalf, dead ended at Nelson Street.
Josh and Tyler faced a chain link fence protecting a long parking lot. A series of one story buildings paralleled the parking lot along Nelson Street. Josh looked west and saw the street turn abruptly and go north. On a hunch, Josh pointed east towards a school building. Josh thought this looked like it probably was the town's high school. The two soldiers jogged down to the main school building and turned the corner to head south on Third Street. They stopped abruptly as they turned the corner.
"Help," an overloaded teenaged girl begged. "Help me please." Josh and Tyler couldn't help but stare at this seventeen or eighteen year old vision. She stood about 5'-6" tall and had exactly the right curves to drive teenaged boys crazy. She wore white, very stylish and tight fitting jeans, a Sedro-Woolley letterman coat (obviously from a male admirer) and the latest in women's sneakers. Josh recognized them. His sister Ashley had begged her parents to get her the $200 fashion statements for Christmas last year. She had to settle for what she termed "bo-bos" instead.
The girl was burdened with two large suitcases, a smaller suitcase and an overstuffed day pack. The end of a cord and the business end of a hair dryer stuck out the top of the day pack. "Can you help me?" the girl begged. Tyler's eyes neared bugged out of their sockets as she straightened up and thrust her chest subtly forward towards the two soldiers. "Plllleeeaaasseee?" she begged, syrupy sweet.
"Sure!" Tyler blurted. "We'd be happy to." Any neutral observer knew Tyler was a goner already. Anything that this pretty girl asked for – he'd do it instantly. Josh could see the attractiveness of the young girl too, but the ominous sound of machine gun and rifle fire to the north and northeast of town focused Josh's attention on the task at hand – survival.
"What in the fuc ... uh, hell are you doing here?" Josh demanded. "I thought they evacuated the civilians a week ago."
"They didn't start evacuating the town until two days ago," the girl answered sharply. "The army wouldn't allow anyone to leave in their cars. They made us come to the high school and take dirty old buses out of town."
"Why didn't you take the dirty old bus?" Josh responded.
"My family had to go in the last group," the girl answered. "My dad is the emergency management director for the town and had to stay around. My mom, Mike and I refused to leave without Dad."
"That still doesn't explain why you're the only one out here," Josh said.
"Obviously I needed to get a few things before the bus left," the girl sniffed, like Josh was a moron for not knowing that. "I want to know where the last bus is. It isn't supposed to leave for another twenty minutes."
"The Chinese changed the timetable," Josh commented dryly. "If you want to discuss the matter with them, stay right here. They'll be here in about five minutes." Josh turned to Tyler and added, "Let's move it! We need to get to the bridge before they blow it." Josh started down the street. Tyler, who had both of the girl's large suitcases, started to follow. "Drop the damn suitcases!"
"But..." Tyler stammered. Josh stalked south down Third Street. Tyler looked back at the girl apologetically, dropped the suitcases and followed Josh.
"You can't just leave me here!" the girl shrilled.
Josh turned back towards her and retorted, "Leave the God damned hair dryer and shit and come with us." Josh started down the street again.
"But I need my things," she protested.
"I'm sure the Chinese will be happy to help you," Josh called back as he walked.
"The Chinese!" the girl squeaked in fright. "You know what the Chinese do to girls they capture."
"Then leave the fucking shit and come with us," Josh called out as he continued south. Josh managed to suppress a smile when he heard the girl curse and then run to catch up to him and Tyler. The last thing he needed now was this bitchy cheerleader type girl making things difficult for him and Tyler. Still ... he couldn't leave her behind for the Chinese to rape and probably kill.
"I'm Tyler Serna," Tyler explained when the girl caught up with them. Josh stared due south and hustled down the street past the high school building.
"Molly ... Molly Lawrence," the girl answered in reply to Tyler. The sounds of the fighting were getting close to them. They were headed downhill, almost certainly towards the river now. Hopefully they'd be across the bridge and on the south side of the Skagit in ten minutes or so.
Josh paused briefly when they got to Jameson Road, a street leading west. He decided to head closer to the river rather than going towards the Chinese position.
"Does the asshole in front realize that this isn't the fast way to the bridge?" Molly asked Tyler. Josh forced back a smart remark, spun around and faced Molly.
"That way is faster?" Josh demanded. "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," Molly responded sharply. "I've lived this hick town full of lumberjacks all my life. I KNOW the way to Seattle."
"Thank you," Josh responded, trying to force a smile to his face. He did appreciate having someone who knew the town helping them. "Let's hustle before the Chinese catch us." Josh jogged off west on Jameson Road without waiting for comment from the other two. They followed behind him. They got halfway past the football field when Josh realized what was in the distance – the town's maintenance yard where they spent last night.
"Let's hustle!" Josh demanded. "I know where I am now." They three jogged down the street towards Route 9, on the other side of the maintenance yard. They could see Humvees, Bradleys, trucks, Strykers and an occasional Abrams tank flying down the highway at high speed. Random Chinese shells were dropping around the highway.
They were past the end of the tennis courts at the end of the football field when they spotted something new. The American vehicles had stopped. Between the maintenance buildings, they spotted two Chinese tanks on Route 9, heading south. The tanks were shooting up any vehicle within reach further down the highway.
"FUCK!" Josh growled as the group abruptly stopped. The Chinese gunfire from the north was coming closer too. It couldn't be more than a couple blocks away.
"What if we followed this line of woods over here?" Tyler suggested pointing to a line of trees heading south-southwest.
"Is the bridge that way?' Josh demanded as he stared at Molly.
"Those trees grew up where the old railroad line went," Molly answered. "The railroad bridge is right beside the highway bridge."
"Let's go," Josh directed. The threesome took about three steps south towards the woods when a massive series of explosions detonated in the direction they were heading. The cloud of smoke and fire seemed centered on the river valley, a little less than a mile ahead of them.
"Was that the bridge we want to cross?" Tyler asked. He clearly was more frightened than he had been since they got into the town.
"Don't know," Josh answered. The explosion was centered right on the river, near where the woods they planned to follow ended.
"That is where the old railroad bridge is at," Molly added. "Would the army blow it up?"
"In a heartbeat," Josh said as he motioned for the group to continue south. Thirty seconds later a second series of explosions reverberated through the river valley. They could see chunks of concrete and steel fly up above the tops of the trees in the distance. He motioned for the three to stop. "THAT was the highway bridge."
"What do we do now, Josh?" Tyler asked, nervously. Josh could see the cumulative effects of D. B. Cooper's beheading, Zach's death and all the near misses the two of them had were ungluing his friend.
"Simple," Josh answered. He managed to hide the quaver in his own voice. He was in charge and he needed to keep their confidence up. "Survive, evade, resist and escape." SERE was the military acronym for their survival training. "How far up river is the next bridge?"
"Over twenty miles," Molly answered. "It's the one in Concrete." Josh and Tyler furrowed their brows at the name. "Concrete is a town a couple towns upriver from us."
"We'll never make that ahead of the Chinese," Josh said. "We need a place to hide and we need it damn quick."
"What about the high school?" Molly offered. "I know it real well."
"Too big," Josh responded. "The Chinese are going to use it for an HQ, a medical center or a supply dump. I guarantee the building will be crawling with Chinese in about ten minutes."
"What'll we do?" Tyler asked.
"Let's find some house in the middle of town," Josh suggested. "Something non-descript. Something that the Chinese will ignore."
"We could hide at my house," Molly suggested. "It's a couple blocks east of the school."
"Point the way," Josh agreed. The three took off east on Jamison Street, past the school again. They ran a couple blocks east of the school when Molly pointed north at the next intersection.
"My house is two blocks up this way," Molly offered. The sounds of Chinese troops were getting much closer.
"We don't have time to go that way," Josh announced. "We're going to grab a house on this street." He dashed half way down the block, surveying the available hiding places. He chose a small house with a couple large pine trees and some overgrown shrubs in desperate need of trimming in the front yard.
"This is Mrs. Gill's house," Molly said.
"I doubt she'll mind if we hide here tonight," Josh said as he pushed between shrubs to the front door.
"She won't," Molly agreed. "I had her for second grade. She retired a couple years after I finished her grade. She won't mind at all." Josh tried the front door. It was locked. The three hurried around to the back. Josh was ready for break a pane in the door's window when Molly waved him off. "No one worries about locking all their doors. It's Sedro-Woolley. Nothing ever happens here."
Josh tried the door and went right in. Tyler and Molly followed him inside. Molly went for the light switch. Josh knocked her hand away.
"We're keeping a low profile," Josh explained. "Let's find an interior room with no windows. We can hunker down, keep quiet and hopefully the Chinese don't notice us until we can work out a plan to get over the river. Tyler and Molly agreed to Josh's plan. They found the bathroom was the only room that did not have exterior walls. Molly had a seat on the toilet lid. Josh and Tyler sat on the floor. The men broke out MREs from their backpacks, sharing one with Molly. Molly was hesitant but eventually decided that the vegetarian lasagna wasn't too bad.
They were half way done with their meals when the heard the sound of Chinese tracked vehicles on the street outside. The Chinese drove down the street but no one checked individual houses. Molly, Josh and Tyler sat immobile and silent as they listened. Josh broke into a big smile when they heard the sound of the BMP recede into the distance.
The three finished their meal in the dark room. The sounds of the fighting could be heard in the distance. Josh estimated that the sounds were most likely over on Route 9 near the river. They decided after another half an hour it was probably safe to spread out more inside the house, as long as they stayed away from the windows.
They ended up in Mrs. Gill's living room. Josh lay down on the couch to try to catch a little rest. Molly and Tyler sat on the floor since the other chairs were too close to windows. Tyler purposefully sat close to Molly. He was still a horny teen and she was a good looking girl.
"You a senior in high school?" Tyler asked quietly. "You're too attractive and grownup looking to be any younger than that."
"I AM grownup already," Molly snipped. "I AM eighteen ... well, almost ... though I'm stuck in that stupid high school for another half year."
"Really?" Tyler responded. "I'm eighteen too. I graduated last June ... the seventh of June. We're almost the same age. When's your birthday?"
"Next month ... December 10th," Molly answered.
"Cool! A Sagittarius," Tyler said. "You're thoughtful ... a positive person ... outgoing..." Tyler didn't notice Molly's raised eyebrows as he continued. "Libras are good matches for Sagittariuses. My birthday is January 23rd."
Josh had his eyes closed but he hadn't fallen asleep. He listened as Tyler tried to attract Molly's interest. Why would he try to get somewhere with astrological signs? That was so lame.
"Uh-huh," Molly allowed to Tyler's astrological reference. She dealt with horny teen-aged boys every day at school.
"I know this has been a tough day for you," Tyler offered as he edged closer to Molly. "Getting left behind ... separated from your family ... hiding out from the Chinese ... I'm here for you if you need anything." Tyler misread the signals as Molly stiffened.
"I'm here if you need a shoulder to cry on," Tyler offered, " ... or if you need a hug." Tyler slipped an arm around her back and held her left shoulder. He pressed against her right side as his other arm went around her tummy to complete the hug. He was about to lay his head down her shoulder and give her a hug when she bolted.
Molly stood, spun around and smacked Tyler hard on the cheek with her hand. She jumped away, snarling, "Keep your God damned hands to yourself, you ... you ... fucking perv." Josh sat up from the couch and pulled his revolver, ready for action.
"I just..." Tyler stammered. "I wanted ... I..."
"You wanted to score," Molly snorted. "As if ... I'd never consider doing it with a smelly, dirty draftee like you," she sniffed.
"I'm sorry," Tyler whined.
"Jesus! Be quiet you two," Josh shushed. Molly finally noticed Josh had drawn his gun on her. She stood stock still. "Your noise is going to bring the whole fucking Chinese army down on us."
"I'm sorry, Molly," Tyler said is a low voice. "I didn't mean that. It's been a tough day and everything. I just wanted to reassure you."
"I don't put up with groping!" Molly insisted.
"Nor should you," Josh agreed as he put his gun down again.
"I really just meant it as a hug," Tyler insisted. "I'm sorry."
Josh lay down again and closed his eyes. Molly sat on the floor across the room from Tyler. She looked arrows at Tyler for a few minutes. Tyler continued groveling and talking with Molly. Josh managed to nap for a little while. By the time he woke up again, Tyler had managed to mollify Molly. They were talking quietly, though at opposite sides of Mrs. Gill's living room.
"Is the other guy always such a hard ass?" Molly asked.
"Give Josh some slack," Tyler responded. "It goes beyond us getting our asses kicked by the Chinese today or us having to hide out to avoid capture. The commander of our tank was beheaded by a chink shell this morning. Josh has been working with him for two and half years. After we lost sarge our tank got put out of commission. Zach, Josh and I had to bail out and run for our lives. Zach got laced by machine gun fire. He died in Josh's arms. They were really tight."
"I didn't realize," Molly answered quietly.
"As days go, this one is about the suckiest you could ever have," Tyler said.
"Did he really need to ditch my things?" Molly asked. "What am I going to do without my things?"
Josh was awake. He propped himself up on one elbow. "Look, Princess," Josh said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "If Tyler and I carried your suitcases when we tried to get away, we'd both be dead now. The Chinese would have caught us ... for sure. You'd be some Chinese squad's fuck toy now. Is that what you want?"
"No," Molly answered quietly. "You don't have to call me Princess. I have a name."
"I know your type," Josh shot back. "Miss Perfect ... homecoming queen ... head cheerleader ... the girl with the perfect hair, the perfect clothes, the perfect friends and the perfect life ... who make everyone else's life hell."
"We didn't have homecoming," Molly snapped. "They canceled the football season for this damn war." Molly relaxed her anger momentarily and admitted, "I was supposed to be the head cheerleader, if they hadn't canceled the cheer squad."
"Your name's Lawrence," Josh continued. "I suppose the big plant on the north side of town is your daddy's."
"My grandfather's," Molly snapped. "What of it? My family is just a normal family. Dad works for the phone company and mom works at a doctor's office."
"Second generation well-to-do," Josh retorted. "Life's been handed to you on a silver platter. You don't get the situation we're in. The Chinese are outside that door and they will KILL you at the drop of a hat. Everything about your privileged life is gone ... forever. If we're smart ... and lucky, we might live until tomorrow night."
"Listen to Josh, Molly," Tyler added. "He kept me alive so far. We're in good hands."
"What I need is information," Josh declared. "Princess, you told me that the nearest bridge upriver is at Concrete ... like twenty miles upstream?"
"Twenty-two miles by road," Molly answered. "Why don't we get my dad's car? We can get to Concrete in half an hour that way."
"And don't you suppose the Chinese might shoot first and ask questions later when they see a car drive through town?" Josh answered. He paused for a moment. "Though ... it's not a half bad idea. We could hike out of town and grab a car from one of the farms outside town. We might not get noticed by the Chinese that way. Anyway, I want to get across the river sooner than if we head upriver. Does anyone have a boat of some kind in town? Where would we find one?"
"There's a boat launch along the river south of town," Molly said. "Maybe we could find one there. There are eight or ten houses fronting on the river. I know those people have fishing boats, canoes and row boats. Would that work?"
"It would," Josh agreed. "Let's get some rest and go after dark. That will give us the best chance of getting across the river without being seen."