It was starting to get chilly as the last of the sunset faded away. Hank Foss didn’t shiver as he walked down toward Overwatch Three, but he could feel the desert chill sinking into his bones. The nearness to the river only accentuated it. It wasn’t near freezing yet, but mid-forties in the desert at night can still sap body heat quickly.
He had to admit that he wasn’t quite as robust as a retired Gunny as he’d been as a hard-charging Lance Corporal. The cold bit a little more, his knees ached a lot more, and it took more effort to get up, whether in the morning or the middle of the night.
But I ain’t dead yet. And there’s still work to be done.
The gravel crunched underfoot as he and Huntsman walked down Paul Estevez’s driveway. The Rio Grande river valley was deathly quiet in the winter evening, making the sound of their footsteps strangely loud. Even the wind was barely a whisper. A coyote yipped and howled in the distance, but there was no telling how far away it was in the otherwise unbroken desert silence.
The lights were off. Texas had fared somewhat better than large swathes of the rest of the country when the grid had gone down, and some intermittent electrical power was coming back. But the key word there was “intermittent.” It had been on for about six hours in the last week. Everything else in Lajitas was running on generators, batteries, or was back to the 1800s.
The two Triarii infantrymen, dressed in desert khakis and full combat gear, their M5E1 rifles hanging on slings in front of them, would have been incongruous in a resort town like Lajitas even a few months before. But when they stepped up to Estevez’s door and knocked, the portly older man didn’t even blink when he cracked the door open.
“What do you want?” Estevez was wearing sweats and house slippers, lit from behind by a roaring fire in a hastily-installed steel drum wood stove. A lot of those had been going into houses as winter came on and the electricity still wasn’t reliable. Not all of them had had good results, either. A lot of people had already died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to poor stovepipe installation.
“We’re just here to check on the overwatch position, Mr. Estevez,” Hank said. “And to make sure that everything’s all right.”
“Everything’s fine, except for a damned machinegun nest on my property.”
Hank sighed quietly, though he didn’t let his annoyance show more than it normally did. His hatchet face and semi-permanent scowl tended to get the impression across, anyway.
They’d been over this many times. Only the pressure from the rest of the local militia, not to mention Sheriff Trujillo, had finally prevailed to get the overwatch position placed in Estevez’s back yard. He’d even conceded the fact that it was the most logical position, but he still bitched about it at every opportunity.
“Well, then, have a good night.” Hank wasn’t going to rise to the bait. He was too tired.
Huntsman hadn’t said a word; in fact, he hadn’t gone all the way up onto Estevez’s porch. The younger man had been in the running to be a squad leader; in fact, Hank still had him pegged to fill a slot if one opened up. But he didn’t like dealing with the more combative civvies in Lajitas, and Hank couldn’t say he blamed him.
He turned and stepped down off the porch, not bothering to look over his shoulder as Estevez shut the door. Huntsman fell in at his flank as he started around the two-story house and toward the dug-in Overwatch Three.
“That was pleasant as always.” Huntsman might not have liked to deal with the locals much, but he’d opened up a bit within the section. What was left of it.
Hank scanned the rocky, barren hills that loomed above the Rio Grande. This was a bit of a change from the section’s previous assignment in Phoenix, but in a way, he couldn’t say that he minded. Sure, they were still right on the front lines, as much as the likes of Estevez might want to deny it, but it was a lot quieter in Lajitas than it had been in Phoenix, never mind San Diego.
San Diego. He still had nightmares about that last stand in the hotel overlooking the Naval Base, months later.
Tom Wallace would never say as much, but Hank suspected that the losses they’d taken in San Diego were a large part of why they’d ended up working a Combined Action mission with local militia on the Rio Grande in the Big Bend area of Texas. That, and the fact that Hank had seriously ruffled some feathers in Phoenix before going to San Diego.
They still weren’t up to full strength. Everyone was spread thin.
He and Huntsman rounded the back of Estevez’s house and paused, within sight of the low dugout that was Overwatch Three. They waited, as the breeze whispered by and another coyote answered the first.
Hank felt his scowl deepen. They’re still learning. Only a few of the militia are vets, and neither Costa nor Peterkin have any experience. They’re bound to forget some stuff.
Except that while he was waiting for a challenge from the guys who were supposed to be on security for the whole village, somebody could very well sneak up and roll a frag into their position.
He knew that the likes of Estevez would have sneered at the ridiculousness of the suggestion. Hank’s section, re-designated Tango India Six Four, since they were no longer part of the Phoenix unit, had fallen in on an odd situation.
A lot of the local ranchers knew the threat that hung over Lajitas as well as anyone who had worked security near the border did. But a lot of the local residents and even more of the tourists who’d gotten caught at the golf resort when the lights had gone out were of a different sort.
Lajitas was, after all, the site where thousands of people met to freely wade across the Rio Grande every year, in an act of “civil disobedience” to defy the government’s ability to secure the border.
Many of them would be the first ones that the cartels would rob and murder.
It had led to some distinct pushback when the Triarii had showed up, working hand-in-hand with the Texas Rangers’ Border Recon Unit, to train a militia unit to secure the border crossing. There wasn’t any Border Patrol presence in Lajitas; they were all either up north in Presidio, or down south in Del Rio and Eagle Pass. Which meant that the locals knew that their ford across the Rio Grande was a fucking superhighway for smugglers.
Not all of the locals had resisted forming the local defenses because they were bleeding hearts. Many had resisted because they were afraid of what would happen if they openly resisted the cartels. Hank couldn’t say he entirely blamed them. He’d been fighting these savages for months.
“Friendly,” he hissed through clenched teeth as he got up and moved toward the Overwatch position.
He heard rustling in the sandbagged dugout just ahead, and a whispered, “Shit!”
“That’s not the challenge and pass, Costa.” He slid into the pit, narrowly avoiding landing on Peterkin. “Why the fuck weren’t you watching your six?”
“We were focused on the crossing,” Peterkin whispered.
“Not good enough. How many times have I told you that you’ve still got to maintain rear security?” Hank kept his voice low, but let his anger bite through it. He wasn’t quite as pissed off as he made it sound, though. He just needed to get it through to these two kids—and the two ranch hands almost were kids, being still in their early twenties—just how serious their situation was. “We’ve got eyes on the most likely crossing points, but there’s nothing that says the bad guys can’t come across elsewhere and work their way down the river toward us, especially if they’ve been paying attention and noticed that we’re watching the crossing.” Or somebody in town has told them about it. “You’re the northernmost post. You’ve got to pay attention.” He squinted through his NVGs toward the river. Still quiet. “Now, what’s the challenge and pass?”
“Donald Duck.” Costa still sounded a little confused as he repeated the name.
“And the parole word is ‘Darkwing.’” Hank looked over at Costa, who was looking back and forth between him and the river. “What is it, Costa?”
“Nothing.” Costa hastily turned his attention back to his sector, peering over the ancient M-60 that had been dredged up from somewhere Hank didn’t care to speculate about. For all he knew, it had been from one of Colonel Santiago’s friends’ personal collection.
Or, it had been in a cache of old military weapons that had been slated for DRMO, and had instead been diverted and buried for later.
“Spit it out.” He settled back against the sandbags.
“It’s just…’Donald Duck’ seems really random for a password.” Costa was still fairly hesitant. “Wouldn’t ‘Rio Grande’ or something work better down here?”
“And if you were one of the bad guys, how easy would it be to finish ‘Rio?’” Hank asked.
“Oh.” Costa sounded a little downcast, though Hank suspected that his tone was mainly because he’d just realized that he’d asked a dumb question.
“Yeah.” He shifted his position slightly; his knee was already starting to ache, having his boot up against one of the ammo cans. “’Donald Duck’ is even probably too easy, but the key is, it has to be something that the enemy isn’t going to easily guess, or easily pronounce.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” Costa still sounded a bit chagrined.
“That’s why we’re here,” Hank said. “Training and experience count for a lot.”
He was about to ask them to walk him through the turnover they’d gotten with the two-man team they’d relieved, but his radio squawked in his ear.
“Actual, this is Five.” He frowned. That sounded like gunfire in the background. “Be advised, we are taking effective small arms fire from the hills to the west. At least one belt-fed; we’re getting pinned down here.”
Hank didn’t hesitate. “Actual copies all. We’re on the way. Break, break. First Squad, this is Actual. Rally on the vehicles, time now.”
He turned to scramble out of the dugout, but paused to clap Peterkin on the shoulder. “You boys keep your eyes peeled. We could be in for a long night.” Then he hauled himself up, out from under the camouflage netting, heaving himself to his feet. Huntsman was still crouched on a knee outside, his head up, scanning the river through his old PVS-14s, his rifle resting on his raised thigh.
“Let’s go.” Hank didn’t pause, but started toward the road, stretching his legs out with each stride. Don’t run. Never run, until you have to. He knew that his boys, after everything they’d been through in Phoenix and San Diego, wouldn’t be bothered, but they had the locals to think about now. And seeing one of the Triarii running, as the distant echoes of gunfire rolled across the desert from ten miles away, might just start some of them panicking.
Huntsman kept up. The man was built like a fireplug, but he he’d always had the endurance of a much leaner man.
The two of them had been making the rounds on foot. Lajitas wasn’t that big, and they needed to save the fuel and the wear and tear on the vehicles for emergencies. Like this one.
They walked fast out of Estevez’s driveway, back onto the road, and headed up toward the hotel at a good clip. The sounds of gunfire were still distant, attenuated by the distance and the rocky hills between Lajitas and Terlingua, but it didn’t sound like anything was slowing down.
It took a few minutes to cover the distance. Most of the rest of the squad was already on the vehicles and getting ready to move when they got there.
“Ettiene!” Hank’s voice cracked across the courtyard. “Two minutes!”
“We’ll be ready in thirty seconds!” Ettiene LaForce could almost have been Huntsman’s twin, except that where Huntsman was a ginger, LaForce was dark, blunt-featured, and sported a thick, bristling handlebar mustache. LaForce had been a squad leader, back when the section had been at full strength. Now that they were down to what amounted to two thirteen-man squads, LaForce had become Hank’s right hand in First Squad.
They’d had to do a lot of restructuring after San Diego. Some still weren’t too happy about it.
“Mount up!” Hank suited actions to words as he clambered into the right seat in the old, beat-up F350 that had become his command vehicle. Bishop was already in the bed with a Mk 48, clamped into the removable gun mount that they’d jury-rigged in Tomas Zinni’s shop, up the road.
He pulled the door shut and his hand went to the PTT switch wired into his chest rig. It had two buttons: one for the section net, one for the militia net. “Mike Actual, Tango India Actual.” Getting the locals to use callsigns over the radio had been another uphill battle, won when he’d pointed out what the cartels could do with last names if they ever managed to listen in.
“This is Mike Actual.” Will Grant’s drawl still sounded faintly lackadaisical over the radio, even with the gunfire sounding off to the north.
“Tango India Two is under fire; we are moving north to support them. Mike security will be on their own while we’re gone.” Hank had developed a fair bit of trust in Grant’s capabilities over the last few weeks; the man might sound like he didn’t give a damn, but he was conscientious, hard-working, and had grasped the basics of light infantry tactics faster than some of the militiamen who had prided themselves on being Afghanistan, Syria, or Kosovo vets.
“Roger that.” Grant didn’t sound particularly disturbed. “You need any of us to go along?”
“Negative.” Hank had always planned on keeping his squads as the primary react forces. His boys had a lot more training and experience than the militiamen. “Just make sure your boys are staying alert; this might not be the only attack tonight.”
He almost didn’t hear the footsteps running up to the side of the cab until a head loomed in his window.
“Hank! Take me with you!” The speaker was short and skinny, his hair longish, his voice still relatively high-pitched. “I can fight!”
“No.” Hank stared at the boy. “I told you already, Arturo. You want to help, you stay up in your eagle’s nest and watch and report.”
“The answer is no. Now get clear; we’re rolling.” He pointed forward, and Reisinger stepped on the gas, starting the truck toward the road. Arturo jumped back, standing at the side of the parking lot, his hands down by his side, dejected.
The four vehicles, three pickups and an old but well-maintained surplus HMMWV, roared out onto Highway 170, heading northeast toward Terlingua.
“Sooner or later, the kid’s going to need to get his feet wet, Hank.” Reisinger didn’t often voice his opinion on how Hank ran the section, but he’d been increasingly thoughtful since San Diego. A lot of them had been; the events of the last few months had a way of making a man think about what’s to come.
“He’s fourteen.” While he recognized that Reisinger was being more thoughtful about things, he wasn’t in the mood to discuss this. Particularly not on their way to a firefight, at almost nine o’clock at night.
“Lots of fourteen-year-old boys found that they had to grow up and be men back in the day.” Reisinger was concentrating on the road while he talked, which was good. The PVS-14s weren’t great for depth perception, and driving while blacked out and wearing them was tricky.
“That was back in the day. And he hasn’t got the training. Like I told him, if he wants to help out, he needs to stay out of trouble and keep an eye out.” Hank kept his voice even, though he was starting to get angry about it.
Arturo had showed up in town shortly before the Triarii. His parents had been green-card holders working one of the ranches up north, but had fallen afoul of one or another of the cartels that were trying to establish routes across the ranch itself. Both were dead. Arturo had fled, and ended up in Lajitas.
Once the Triarii had showed up and started organizing the local militia to defend the village and the river crossing, Arturo had started following Hank around. Hank had given him a job as a lookout, mainly to keep him out of his hair. But he’d also noticed that the kid was skin and bones, and seemed to sleep wherever he could find some shelter for the night. So, he’d grudgingly taken it upon himself to make sure that Arturo got some food, water, and always had a place to sleep.
He wouldn’t admit it out loud, but he’d be damned if he’d let the kid become another bullet sponge—which was exactly what he’d be if he tried to fight without a lot more training than he had.
Reisinger subsided. He might have a point, but he knew better than to argue with his Section Leader while they were en route to a fight.
The three vehicles raced up the highway, the black bulk of the hills falling away as the road threaded out through the flatter, tortuous terrain of the desert.
Hank scanned the desert as they went around the curve and headed toward the tiny airport that served the Lajitas resort. He was pretty sure that the golfers weren’t the only ones who used it—and anyone there right at the moment was probably not a tourist.
But the airport was dark and still as the patrol sped past. Wherever the bad guys had come from, it wasn’t from there.
Hank kept his eyes peeled, staring hard through his NVGs as he scanned the road and the surrounding desert, tensing up a little as they plunged into a curve partially occluded by a cut through a low, rocky hill.
He saw movement ahead, just before a brilliant, flickering muzzle flash erupted just around the side of the hill, tracers reaching toward the windshield.