Getting By
Chapter 22

Copyright© 2010 by Shakes Peer2B

John Hipa gasped between sips of water. His normally grey mount was almost black with sweat, except where white salt and flecks of foam ran in irregular lines down her sides and chest. Matt and Heather had to fight with the bridle to keep her away from the watering trough, giving her, instead, small sips of water from a bucket.

"It's a very large caravan," John panted, pointing east and north, "Over a hundred armed men, and not inclined to stop and talk. We tried to approach them, weapons down, but they shot at us. Their weapons are mostly automatic rifles of various makes and models. I saw a lot of AK-47s. The vehicles are just assorted commercial vehicles, but it looks like they've welded more metal on the sides for armor, and mounted machine guns and the like on most of them. We thought they might be headed to the coast, but when they turned off the highway, I figured I'd better warn you. These guys are bad news and they're either coming here, or they're going to pass near here."

"Thanks, John," I told him, while General Lee got on the radio and started getting people into position. "You've done us a big service here, and I, for one, am grateful."

"It's all part of the deal, Gav," he answered. "You've kept your part of the treaty, and we'll keep ours."

"Well, treaty or no, I'm grateful. Go on into the mine and get something to eat. It's probably best if you stay here until we know how this is going to fall out. We can communicate with your chiefs through the encrypted radios we gave them, so you don't need to risk your neck getting the message to them."

"Thanks," John said, "but if there's going to be fighting, I don't want to be sitting here on my butt. If you can use me, tell me what to do."

"That's General Lee's department when we're on a war footing, but I suspect he can always use a good recon man."

With that, we turned expectant gazes on Lee, who was just finishing up his initial round of orders. Behind him, the compound came alive with armed citizens rushing to their assigned posts.

"Until we know whether they're coming here, or just passing through," he said, "we're just taking a 'wait and see' approach. I've got all the outposts on alert and everyone's responding as they should. We'll know more in a bit. You rode here all the way from the 95 junction?"

"Yeah, we first saw them over in Arizona, and trailed them for awhile before trying to approach them, but when they shot at us, we figured we'd better try to get an idea of their strength and weapons and warn you and the rest of the People. They've got SUV's acting as outriders and point vehicles, the rest are, as I said, commercial trucks with added steel plating, except ... Well, there was an unarmored bus. Its windows were too dark to see who or what was in it, but it seemed odd that they hadn't added armor or weapons to that one, too. It was hard to get a headcount, as well. We counted at least a hundred, but there could have been two or three times that many in the cargo boxes of the trucks, depending on how much of that space was reserved for supplies. The bus could be carrying forty or fifty, as well."

"All right. Good job. About how fast would you say they were moving?"

"No more than about fifteen miles per hour. As you know, the roads haven't been maintained out here. Sand has blown over most of them, and these guys aren't really equipped for operation in the desert. They get stuck a lot, but they're getting good at getting unstuck."

"So, probably half an hour before they reach the point where they decide to turn west, keep on to the south, or come up to our front door. I recommend you use that time to get food, water, and a little rest. We'll know more about how to proceed when they show us what they're planning."

About twenty five minutes later, Lee and I were in the Command Center when sentries and the video feeds from the Metal Storms showed us the intruders. They reached the decision point to the northeast of the Citadel, and didn't even pause, but continued south.

"Get me strength assessments," General Lee said quietly, as others in the command center issued the communications necessary to carry out those orders.

"What do you figure they've got under the tarp?" he asked, indicating the elongated mass that was being towed behind one of the trucks.

"Field piece," one of the veterans replied, "or rocket launcher. Bad news, either way."

We kept close watch on them as they continued southward. The People trailed them discreetly and reported on their progress.

Over the next few days, we got reports back from the People who were keeping an eye on the convoy. The caravan made its way to the main part of the Twenty-Nine Palms Marine base on the south side of the military reservation, where the town of Twenty-Nine Palms was.

According to the scouts, they went straight to a particular warehouse. The People got close enough to overhear the big guy who was leading them as he and a couple of his men went into the warehouse, and said his accent sounded Russian. When he came out, the Russian was fuming.

When he found out which warehouse they had entered, General Lee conferred with Gunny.

"That's what I thought," he said when they had finished talking. "That's the warehouse where we picked up the Metal Storms. The S.O.B knew exactly where they were supposed to be, and since he doesn't seem to be a military type, he might be the gunrunner responsible for a number of thefts of military hardware that were reported before the Sickness."

"Hmmm," I said, thinking aloud. "From the looks of his convoy, he came a long way to get those weapons, and I don't think he's going to stop looking too easily. It's your call, of course, General, but I think I'd keep our guard up for a little while until we see which way he's going to jump."

"I was thinking the same thing, Mr. Thompson," Lee said, his eyes narrowed in concentration. "We don't want to exhaust people by keeping too many on duty until we know what's happening, but I'd like to have everyone keep their weapons handy for a while."

"That's a good idea. I'll let everyone know at dinnertime and whoever's got the watch can pass it around to those on duty."

That evening, when everyone had gathered for dinner, I stood to make my announcement.

"As you all know, a convoy passed near here a couple of days ago. Our scouts have learned that they were apparently looking for the Metal Storm weapons that have been part of our defense system for the last couple of years. They apparently came a long way to get them, and are not likely to just turn around and go home empty handed. If they search hard enough, they might very well trace the weapons to us, and that could mean trouble. We don't anticipate an immediate confrontation, but I'm issuing the order for everyone to keep their weapons to hand, no matter what you're doing, so that you can be ready to respond, should they attack. Any questions?"

"Yeah, how many of them are there?" someone shouted from the back of the mess area.

"Our best estimate is between two and three hundred, and they've got at least one field piece."

"What are the chances that they'll come here?"

"Depends on how determined they are to find those weapons. If they really want them, as I suspect they do, I'd guess they could figure out where the weapons are just by asking our 'neighbors'."

Surprisingly, there were no other questions, but I did hear occasional grumbling over the next week about the inconvenience of lugging a weapon around while people were trying to work.

Our scouts kept tabs on the convoy and continued to report to us by radio. They first went to Palm Springs - the nearest population center to Twenty-Nine Palms. They accosted whoever they could find to ask about the weapons, but apparently didn't get the answers they wanted. A couple of people paid with their lives for the Russian's disappointment.

In Barstow, they had better luck, for them. Not so much for us. They found someone who must have been one of those we banished who agreed to lead them to us. He must have told them something about what we had for armament, as well, since the Russian went back to Twenty-Nine Palms for some more hardware before heading our way.

I racked my brain, and decided that whoever was leading them here could maybe give some damaging information about us, but we hadn't banished anyone in the last year or so, so our defense plans should be safe enough.

Sure enough, the convoy showed up three days later with sixteen M1A1 Abrams tanks humming along the desert sand in the forefront of the column. Those didn't worry me too much, especially since a tank's main gun is not really designed for firing over obstacles. What did give me pause was the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) and the four M777 155mm howitzers at the rear of the column.

It remained to be seen if they knew how to use those weapons but I figured an arms dealer like this guy appeared to be would at least have passing knowledge of the ins and outs of such weapons systems. Once again, General Lee and I were in the command center when Gunny Garcia stuck his head through the door. We had standardized on Army ranks when General Lee took over, but as far as anyone in our community knew, Gunny was still Gunny. What he was doing in the command center when his post was up on the eastern ridge, I didn't know, but I was guessing he had a damn good reason.

"Sorry, sir," he said apologetically, but with a mysterious grin on his face, "My radio's on the fritz so I thought I'd better get another before the party starts. Oh yeah, don't bother wasting ordnance on any of those tanks or howitzers, will you? Probably not worth wasting any rounds on the rocket launcher, either."

"Why?" Lee and I asked simultaneously.

"If you give me a direct order to do so, I will answer, but I'd prefer to let you wait and find out for yourselves," the grin threatened to split his face in two as he continued, "I promise you won't regret it!"

"All right Gunny, but I'll have you carrying a sixty pound pack up and down this mountain from dawn to dusk if this blows up in my face," Lee admonished him.

"Oh, it won't blow up in your face sir!" We could hear his laughter as he headed back up the mineshaft.

We could see on the remote monitors that the Russian's men had deployed the howitzers and the HIMARS in workmanlike fashion. The tanks had arranged themselves in a small arc in front of the convoy, deployed to protect the other vehicles and the artillery from anything coming from the direction of the Citadel.

The guy wasn't stupid, but he was making some dangerous assumptions. Not all of our assets were walled up in the Citadel.

The tension mounted as the people milling about the guns got them set up and trained in our direction. They were about four miles out, within easy range of our compound, even allowing for the higher elevation, and the closer they got to firing, the more nervous I got. General Lee gave no outward sign, but his knuckles were white where his hands gripped the arms of the chair in which he sat.

Someone - not the big Russian bear - could be seen giving orders to the gun crews. The HIMARS was not yet trained on us, perhaps because its systems needed more time to be readied, or perhaps because they weren't as familiar with it.

Through the waves of heat, and the wavering of the camera on highest zoom, we watched the arm of the figure that seemed to be in command of the guns sweep downward. Suddenly, about halfway up the barrel of each gun, an orange flower burst outward as the barrels of the howitzers split asunder. Breechblocks blew apart and sent shrapnel and huge chunks of metal all through the enemy formation. When the smoke and dust cleared, two or three figures wandered dazedly around the junk heaps that, moments before, had been cannon.

"He spiked 'em!" General Lee whispered into the silent command center. "He plugged the damn barrels! Leave it to Gunny not to miss a trick! Did he tell you about this?"

"Nope," I answered, grinning, "But I do remember how concerned he was about leaving all that high powered ordnance lying around for others to pick up."

"Well, I'll be damned! I've got a feeling that Gunnery Sergeant is going to become a permanent rank in this army!"

The operators of the consoles were suddenly whooping and slapping each other on the back as they watched the carnage in the desert to the northwest. Then a huge figure came running from the area of the trucks, shouting and pointing. Only moments later, the HIMARS oscillated on its gimbals, and then swung unerringly in our direction. Gunny had said to leave that one alone, too, but surely...

Seconds later, the entire HIMARS and the truck on which it rode were engulfed in their own ball of flame. This was a different kind of sabotage, apparently, because the rockets began cooking off in the launcher several seconds after the initial explosion. Since that explosion had knocked the launcher mounting askew, the rockets were now wreaking havoc on the nearby convoy and the tanks guarding them as they flew out of the launcher's barrels. It was just too good to be true!

The command center was in pandemonium but General Lee was still on the job, and bellowed for everyone to resume their posts as the Russian bear steamed toward his trucks, clearly shouting heated orders to the drivers and the others.

The field piece the convoy had brought with them was undamaged by the sabotage to the others, and began firing toward us until a couple of the Metal Storms shredded it and the truck that had towed it.

One round from the field piece landed in the compound, but the berm system did its job and little was damaged except our vegetable farm.

The bus pulled to one side as the trucks, with the bear riding the running board of the one in the lead, closed in behind the tanks. Only one of the tanks had suffered serious damage, and the rockets had not really had time to arm before they ran through the convoy so almost all of the trucks were at least operational.

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