Pappy rested his back against a tree as Manny and his communications specialist removed their gear from the boat. Manny leaned his pack against a tree near Pappy as a formation of five fighter jets swooshed by low over the treetops.
“A second run?” Manny was incredulous.
Once again, the five planes dropped their payload in the area of the swamp where the three men had most recently lived. Once again, the river washed in to fill the hole created by men and their machines.
When the rumbling of the explosions died down, Pappy chuckled, “Yup, ‘pears so. A second run just for us.”
The men shook their heads as they sorted through their gear. The big radio and encryption/decryption gear would go no further. It was too heavy and bulky to carry. Sealed in water-tight cases, the gear was cached in a vault buried at this high point in the swamp.
Once the radio equipment was stashed, the three men consulted a map. Manny took a reading with a compass and then the three of them shouldered their packs and weapons and set off toward the northwest.
Roughly a half mile away, at another high point in the swamp, Pitcher, his mother and his sister went through a similar procedure. Heavy equipment was stashed. A map was consulted. Pitcher took a compass reading and the three set off toward the same point as Manny and Pappy.
Back at Ft. Benning, General Wei and General Watanabe were celebrating. The pilots had reported back that the American’s camp was completely annihilated – nothing left but a smoldering patch of ground quickly filling with river water.
“Chalk up a big win for us,” Wei raised a glass of baijiu.
The two generals clinked their glasses together and then sat in silence for a few moments savoring the brandy-like liquor.
“What of your captured scout?” Watanabe wondered.
“He has received his just reward for being captured,” Wei’s mood turned dark as quickly as his spirits had risen only moments before.
Watanabe leaned back in his chair and eyed his counterpart carefully. He knew Wei held his position largely due to his family’s place in Chinese society, but he was surprised at the absolute lack of any empathy for a soldier lost. Deciding that it was better to remain silent, Watanabe tipped his glass again and relished the warmth of the baijiu as it slid down his throat.
Wei tossed back his brandy and poured another for himself not even bothering to offer to refill Watanabe’s glass. Like Watanabe, Wei knew a thing or two about his counterpart. He knew that Watanabe’s family had emigrated from Japan some time after the end of the war to end all wars.
Wei snickered at the thought of a war to end all wars.
Watanabe looked up from his drink, a question in his eyes.
“To war,” Wei raised his glass again.
Watanabe raised his as well … with far less gusto.
Pitcher’s mother was struggling. She was not used to carrying a backpack and the terrain was beyond difficult. Her hips ached and the harness was rubbing raw spots on her shoulders. Pitcher had offered to carry her pack but she had refused. Their progress was measured in feet and yards as they weaved their way through the swamp.
Several miles away, Pappy and the two Rangers by his side were making much better headway toward their eventual destination. Pappy was nearly 70 years old but he was still strong and nimble. The two Rangers carried the bulk of the load evening the field even more.
The radioman had his chin tucked into his chest and his shoulders pushed forward into the straps of his pack as he carried a portable radio in addition to the rest of his gear. Manny carried most of the three men’s food and cooking gear as well as a hand-held radio formerly owned by one late Chinese scout.
“You have a spot in mind for camp tonight, Pappy?” Manny asked. “Or are we just going to keep moving?”
“We’ll settle in for the night,” Pappy replied. “We don’t want to use lights and the swamp ain’t no place to be stumblin’ around in the dark.”
Unfamiliar with the swamp, Manny and his cohort quickly agreed.
“How do you reckon they found us so quick?” Pappy addressed the question to Manny.
“They probably had some sort of tracking device on the scout,” Manny replied. “Jerry went through his radio while we were on the boat and couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary so I don’t think the device was in his radio.”
“I sort of wondered about that,” Pappy seemed relieved. “You got any ideas for gettin’ us those whirlybirds?”
“I’d imagine they’re based at the Lawson Airfield on Ft. Benning,” Manny began. “All of us Rangers know that place like the back of our hands. Once we get a read on their exact locations and troop strength, we can come up with something more concrete, but the basics will probably involve surprise and the cover of darkness.”
Pappy rubbed his hands together, “If we could add just one of those ‘copters to the stash we already have up in the Chattahoochee Forest ….”
“That means we’re either going through, over or around Atlanta, right?” Jerry asked.
“Ayup, that’s right, son,” Pappy agreed.
“One Blackhawk won’t carry all of us and our gear,” Jerry was solemn.
“We got us a couple smaller stashes with vehicles along the way,” Pappy reassured the comms specialist. “Might not need all of us to go after those choppers either.”
Manny and Jerry looked at one another and then fell silent, deep in thought.
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