They Fought to The Last
Hey all, here is a bit of a story I'm working on. Its not a SHTF story (even though it started that way) but this is the only section labeled fiction so I figured I'd throw it in here. Its still a rough draft but here's the first chapter. Let me know what you think, input is always welcome. I hope you enjoy.
Jack pushed back the brim of his hat, cocking it into a more comfortable position that blocked the sun from his eyes. His horse whined lowly as they continued sauntering forward.
“There, there brute, it’s all right. Not much longer now” he said, gently patting the animal’s neck.
The eighteen man mounted patrol was strung out in line formation as it wound its way along the road leading to Outpost Ringer, which lay at the northernmost reaches of Republican controlled territory. Jack glanced left, staring deep into the dense woods on that side of the road before shifting his gaze out over the gently rolling meadows that dropped off from the right side of the road.
The northern plains of Helvannia stretched for miles southward and housed some of the most fertile farmland in the nation. In the distance he could see a rural hamlet and the diminutive figures of farmers taking in their equipment after a long day of work.
Jack’s attention was brought sharply back to the present by the crack of rifle fire. A muffled scream issued from the front of the column. As if given life, the sleepy column sprung into action. Riders wheeled their horses and dismounted with a practiced ease. Three more shots in quick succession rang out as Jack leapt down from his horse. As he hopped down, his foot slipped from the stirrup and he hit the ground hard, his slung rifle digging into his back. Rolling over onto his stomach and breathing shallowly, he pulled the rifle off his back and into firing position. Already the sound of return fire from his fellow riflemen was booming around him. The fusillade was deafening.
Running down the line in a low crouch, Lt. Smith shouted loudly “Section A, fix bayonets and follow me!”
Hearing this, Jack reached down to his right side, feeling for the wood pommel of his bayonet. Upon making contact, his grasped it and gave it a firm yank, dislodging it from the sheath. His heart rate quickened as he spun the bayonet around and brought it into position. In only a moment more, the bayonet was fixed and he was pushing himself up into a crouched position. To his left, he could see Pvts Doyle, Erickson, and Rally in a similar position. To the right, Sgt. Lairen and his squad did the same.
With a sweeping gesture, Lt. Smith signaled for the section to advance. They moved quickly with bayonets forward, pushing through the thick underbrush. Occasionally, an errant shot whizzed by and thumped into a nearby tree. Behind them the rifle fire from their unit had ceased for fear of friendly fire. Now menacing silence reigned. Jack wondered when the next shot would come, where it would come from, whom it would mark. Now fifty yards into the forest, it was starting to get too dark to see any great distance.
“Hold up” Lt Smith called out. Immediately the section dropped to a knee and established 360 degree security. Sgt. Lairen walked toward the lieutenant and they began conversing in low voices.
Jack looked forward, he couldn’t see anything, the tall brush was up to his chest and the darkness enveloped anything more than twenty feet distant. The tension in the air was so palpable he could taste it. A gentle breeze wafted through the woods while a fly buzzed not far off. If not for the circumstances, it would seem perfect serenity.
Jack jumped when he heard Sgt. Lairen’s grizzled voice in his ear “O’Connor; you, Doyle, and Erickson stay here while the rest of the section moves back out to the road. Wait ten minutes then come back out. Understand?”
Although not a big man, Sgt. Lairen looked like he could take a bear on hand to hand and win. Looking at his weather beaten face and flecks of grey in his tight cropped hair, Jack estimated the career soldier’s age at around forty. His silent demeanor and no bullshit attitude exuded an air of competence and demanded respect from the young soldiers under him.
“Aye Sarge” Jack whispered, nodding once. They were the rearguard. In case the attackers came back, it was their job to fend them off, or at least slow them down.
The next ten minutes were the longest of his life thus far. The forest felt claustrophobic, the darkness was oppressive. Behind every tree lurked another assailant, waiting for one mistake to end their lives. The sound of buzzing flies and chirping bugs gradually began to build, eventually reaching a crescendo. Jack struggled to hear the slightest noise that would indicate the attackers return. None came.
With a quick whistle, Jack signaled the other two men to follow him back to the road. It was dark by now and their progress through the underbrush was slow. They tripped many times and had to pause frequently to keep from getting separated. Finally they reached the road and found the patrol having assumed firing positions on the shoulder of the far side of the road with the horses safely kept in the defilade.
Scrambling across the road, the three men dropped down the other side of the elevated road and Jack made his way towards the lieutenant. Unlike the sergeant, Lt. Smith was a young man, slightly older than Jack, most likely around twenty four or so. His face still had a boyish shape to it and his command presence still needed polishing. Rumor had it that the lieutenant was well connected and pulled strings for an assignment with the Mounted Rifles.
“Sir, rearguard is in, looks like the shooters scooted out of here” Jack reported.
“Thank you corporal, you may return to your section” Lt. Smith replied back, inclining his head slightly.
As Jack moved back to his section under the cover of the rise, he saw two poncho draped forms lying on the ground near the horses. He immediately knew what they were.
Sitting down next to Doyle, Jack took off his hat and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. “Pat, who’d we lose?” he said, gesturing towards the poncho covered forms.
Turning his head to look at Jack, Pat replied “I heard it was Higgins and Sanchez-”
Before he could finish his sentence, Ian Blake popped his head up and said “Poor bastards got hit by the first shots. Never had a chance.”
“Shit. Where the hell did those shooters come from?” Jack said, rubbing his temples.
Shrugging his shoulders, Ian replied “Hell if I know mate, hopefully we find out soon”
Then the order came down the line, “Mount Up!”
Jack dutifully retrieved his horse and mounted it. He whispered in its ear “Well brute, it seems like I should listen to you more often.”
It was near midnight and a cold October chill was setting by the time the platoon reached Outpost Ringer. Lt. Smith had decided to have them soldier on through the night instead of risk a nighttime encounter with the mysterious attackers. Jack’s haunches were sore and his back stiff from six hours of continuous riding.
They rounded the final bend of the road and saw the flickering lanterns flanking the wooden gateway to Outpost Ringer. Perched on a rocky outcropping the outpost provided commanding view of the surrounding country for many miles. Its construction was straightforward. The basic layout was a square, approximately fifty feet by fifty feet. Inside it’s twelve foot high stone walls, a barracks, a store room, and a stable surrounded a small courtyard.
A cry of “Halt! Who goes there?” rang out from a sentry on the palisade.
“2nd Platoon, C Troop, 1st Mounted Rifles” Lt. Smith shouted back.
As the platoon waited, Jack shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. The outpost looked buttoned up and they had range markers laid out. He assumed that the riflemen on the palisade had their rifles trained on them. Behind the wooden door he heard the clanking of metal and then the heavy doors opened with a deep groan. Slowly the unit rode forward, into the courtyard. Shadows lapped at the walls as lantern flames danced in their globes. On the parapet, it looked like there were around ten riflemen waiting, holding their rifles ready. In the courtyard, near the barracks door stood another lieutenant, flanked by two troopers.
“We weren’t expecting you all till tomorrow” the garrison lieutenant called out.
Dismounting from his horse, Lt. Smith replied in a tired voice “We were ambushed on the border road about twenty miles south of here. Didn’t want to make camp so we rode on through. I hope we aren’t imposing.”
With a wave of the hand, the lieutenant replied “Not imposing at all, just means we get to rotate out quicker. In the morning I will brief you on the situation but for the time being, let’s have you and your men billeted.” Then, to the man on his right, he said “Sergeant Calloway, have these men set up in the barracks building and see that their horses are put up in the stable.”
Inside barrack room 3, Jack hung his forest green tunic on the coat peg next to his bunk. The room was small but built to house a section of ten men. Sitting on the lower bunk of the bunk-beds, he unbuckled the leather gaiters around his calves and untied his low boots before casting both on top of the footlocker at the base of the bed. It felt glorious to have his feet free for the first time all day, he stretched them and tried to work a few kinks out with his thumbs.
Around him, the rest of his section was in various states of undress, stowing their equipment as they saw fit. Flopping onto his back, Jack looked at the bottom of the bunk above him and watched as the flickering lantern light reflected dimly upon the off-white plaster walls.
“Lights out lads, get yourselves into bed. It’s been a long day” Sgt Lairen ordered in a gravelly voice. The lanterns were doused shortly thereafter.
Jack lay in his bunk, absorbing the darkness of the room. His silent reflections were broken only by the occasional grunt or cough of one of the men in the bunkroom. The bunk timbers creaked as he rolled over onto his side; these rooms had scarcely been used for anything in the past two decades, let alone as habitations, and the furnishings reflected that.
Slowly, darkness overcame Jack’s conscious thoughts and he drifted into a dream.
Jack awoke early, as was his custom, and rolled out of bed. The rest of his section was sound asleep, with more than a few snoring loudly. Pulling on his green trousers, Jack tucked his shirt in and climbed into his tunic. After buttoning it up, he buckled his sturdy brown belt that bore his canteen, bayonet, and a cartridge pouch around his waist and then put his boots on. It felt good to not have the leather riding gaiters binding the lower parts of his legs and he enjoyed every little bit of it. “The little things” he reminded himself “are important.” Strolling across the room, he picked his stub nosed cavalry carbine off the rack of identical rifles and slung it across his back.
Quietly unlatching the door, Jack pushed the door open and entered the lantern lit corridor. The walls were white washed plaster, just like the bunk room’s, and it had a moderately vaulted ceiling. Off of this corridor were six doors, four of which went to enlisted bunk rooms, one for an officer’s bunk room, and one for an administrative office. Jack walked down the hallway, his boots gently tapping the flagstone floor and creating an echo that reverberated in the hallway. He opened the heavy front door and entered out into the courtyard. The sky was just turning pink with the first rays of sun peaking over the distant horizon. The world was still aside from the roving sentry pacing the palisades.
Jack decided to take a look at the surrounding countryside from the parapet and climbed the narrow stone stairway to the walkway. Once there, he looked out over the green undulating hills that spread out before the rocky outcropping the outpost lay on. It appeared like they were waves rippling out from a rock tossed in the water. Thin lines of hedges cut in different directions, occasionally punctuated by a tree. Despite only being on a small outcropping twenty feet high, the added height of the wall gave good visibility for miles. Even the thick mist that hung over the grasslands below gave it an odd charm.
He sighed, and leaned on the wall. Breakfast wouldn’t be up for a bit longer and he had nothing to do. Many men dreaded outpost duty; typically the days were as long as they were monotonous, despite being in “high risk areas.” The current high risk areas were the same areas that were marked down on the military maps shortly after the peace treaty that ended the Coalition War a hundred years prior. Unofficially, they were regarded as low threat but a military presence was politically necessary. Jack was one of those men.
With another sigh, Jack pushed himself off the wall and moved back down the stairway with the intention of grabbing a book out of his rucksack. But before he could make it to the barracks, he was intercepted by Sgt. Lairen who gruffly said “Corporal, with me. Lt’s got a meeting he wants us to sit in on.”
Thoroughly confused as to why he was being included, he obediently followed the sergeant with little more than an “Aye sir.”
The barracks office was a cramped room dominated by a large table in the center. Around the periphery were a few odd desks, shelves, and bookcases that seemed to have an inordinate amount of paperwork piled upon them. Around the table stood the two lieutenants and their sergeants, plus Jack. As Sgt Lairen explained to him, since they lost section B’s sergeant in the ambush, he was to fill in for the meeting. Jack strongly suspected that it was merely his being up early that gained him the honor.
Laid out across the table was a large sector map that covered the northern border between the Kingdom of Carpathia and the Republic as well as ten miles on either side of the line. A red star marked Outpost Ringer, which lay at the northernmost point of section of territory that jutted into Carpathian lands. Frequently called the Carpathian Horn, it marked the furthest push of Republican troops in the closing days of the Coalition War. On a smaller map off to the side, there was a small scale map representing the five miles around Outpost Ringer. It demarked the boundary line that lay 100 yards to the north of the outpost and all the surrounding elevations and depressions.
“Now, the outpost gives us great visibility during the day” the garrison lieutenant began “however, during the early morning, a dense mist generally settles on the low lying areas around the outpost. It makes you feel as if you are floating on a sea of cloud. Tactically, it’s a concern if the Carpathians ever decide to attack, that’s when they will most likely come. I don’t think that’s a concern but it’s something we are supposed to mention during the in brief. During the day, you can see anything up to five miles out. At dusk and darkness, the sun casts shadows along the depressions so pay attention to those too.”
As he concluded, Lt. Smith asked “Have you seen any activity or anything out of the ordinary?”
Pausing to think a moment, the other lieutenant replied in the negative, then added as an afterthought “Apparently we aren’t allowed to string wire out there either, brass said something about the politicos not wanting to “militarize the border.”
“The way tensions are, I’m not sure if that’s a smart move” Sgt Lairen quipped “The Carpathians have been raising holy hell about getting the horn back.”
The men were quiet; Jack looked out through the double pane window at the far end of the room. In the courtyard he could see the garrison platoon forming up for morning assembly. Like Jack’s platoon, the garrison was also drawn from a Mounted Rifles unit, as such, in addition to the standard forest green tunic and trousers, they wore the distinctive green slouch hat with the left side pinned up instead of the infantry peaked cap and leather riding gaiters instead of the cloth gaiters. The men stood at parade rest, their short, stub nosed carbines resting easily on the ground.
Coming back to the current situation, Jack found their meeting about to be dismissed. He took one last glance at the maps before leaving. The topography of the area, despite its beauty, gave him a bad feeling.
The outgoing garrison had turned out in full kit, sporting cross chest ammunition bandoleers, haversacks, and riding packs. On their person and mount they carried al of the supplies necessary to sustain themselves for the four days it would take to reach Camp Brandywine. Leaning lazily on the parapet, Jack watched the last of the horsemen leave through the gate.
“And so begins an exciting two month tour” Jack offered sarcastically.
Snorting, Ian chimed in “Oh cheer up, it’ll be two months stuck in the middle of nowhere with fifteen of your best mates.”
“You always know how to put it, don’t you?” Jack replied, spitting over the rampart.
With a sober look on his face Jack glanced out at the horsemen slowly shrinking in the distance. Taking in a deep breath, he could almost taste the chill in the October air. Cold weather was coming. So began the first day of outpost duty.
That is a good story so far, is there more to come? Thanks for sharing that with us.
Thanks for the replies all, I'm glad you enjoyed it. Yes, there is more to come but I am currently out of the states so updates will be sporadic. I am proofing the next chapter at the moment.
I'm instantly intrigued. Go on good sir!
Ok, here's the next update, I'm sorry its a bit short but I haven't had much time to write. I hope you all enjoy.
Three weeks had passed at Outpost Ringer without incident. Jack leaned on the parapet, a fresh layer of snow crunching under his weight. Exhaling, his warm breath collided with the cold air, creating a vapor cloud that lingered only momentarily before being wisped away by a brisk wind. A layer of snow coated the valley below the outpost, creating a picturesque landscape for anyone who stopped long enough to take the view in. Unfortunately for the men of 2nd Platoon, C Troop, that was all they had to do. A monotonous routine of watch and garrison duties strung their day out, keeping the edge off the boredom of such a desolate post.
On the eastern horizon, dark clouds were moving in, likely bringing with them another snowstorm. “Oye, Ian, how long you reckon those clouds will take to get to us?” Jack questioned, jutting his chin towards the east.
Ian Blake was leaning on the corner parapet, watching the opposite direction of Jack. Adjusting his grey wool greatcoat, Ian answered with a shrug “Dunno, maybe two hours? We don’t get too many of those down south. Storms come off those mountains over the border something fierce. Don’t have that problem south.”
“You’re useless, you know that, right?” Jack snorted.
“I’m just a simple farm boy, doing my time, what am I supposed to know about Carpathian snow storms?” he shot back.
Shaking his head, Jack looked back over his sector. The late day mist was starting to form over the low parts of the valley already, veiling those areas from view. “You know, whoever put an outpost here had no concept of observation. I mean really, this place is horrible in fall and winter!”
“Please, go on” Ian chortled.
“Think of it. How often can’t we see the better part of that valley?” Jack asked.
Leaning back onto the parapet, Ian considered “Better part of the day I suppose. Early morning mist, late afternoon mist, nighttime darkness. Shit.”
“And then don’t forget, this outpost was supposed to be manned by a whole infantry company. We got a Mounted Rifle platoon. One hundred and fourteen men down to eighteen.” Jack mused.
“So pretty much if anything happened, we’d be screwed. Why do you have to tell me these things?
“Gotta spread the cheer mate” Jack grinned.
“I hate you” Ian retorted, shaking his head.
“Oye, you lot, get your asses off the wall, your shifts up.” A call came from the stairs.
Walking up the stairs were Privates Doyle and Wallace, snow crunching under their boots as they went.
“Keep warm, snow storm coming in, looks like it’s gonna be a monster.” Jack said, stepping back from the wall. He looked at the two men coming up the stairs, both wore their wool greatcoats and winter fur caps. They’d survive the snowstorm, perhaps a bit cold, but well enough.
“Ah, no worries chief” Doyle proclaimed, waving his hand in the air “We’re all bundled up, thermals, wool uniform, and greatcoats. I’ve seen these storms coming off the steppes. Once when I was young, my father took me out camping and we had one of these monsters blow down on us, they’re-“
“We get the idea, just please, for the love of god, stop it with your stories” Blake cried, waving a hand.
“Behave yourself!” Jack scolded.
Putting on a mock grin, Blake said exasperatedly “But his stories are always the same!”
Wallace nodded, leaning his carbine against the wall, “He’s got a point chief, Doyle’s always going on and on”
“Ok lads, have fun.” Jack said, heading for the stairs.
Jack stretched out on his bunk, it was a welcome respite from his watch shift and the subsequent paperwork. Now the wind was howling outside, bringing with it snow. Wind whistled through the small cracks of the hallway door but the woodstove kept the room warm. All men not on watch were currently inside the barracks or carrying out stable duties. Jack had six hours to catch some sleep and he intended to take every minute of that. By then, he’d have a few more hours before he had to report for watch and it’d be dark out. Out in the cold night during a snowstorm, he couldn’t wait.
The bunk above him creaked gently as its occupant shifted. Off in a corner bunk someone snored gently. Closing his eyes, Jack slowly dropped off into a well-earned slumber.
A dull crack permeated through the many layers of sleep, finally registering with the conscious section of his brain. Jack sat up in bed, still unaware what the noise was. He had only to wait a few more moments before he heard the opening notes to a bugle call. From above, Blake gave him a questioning look.
Before either of them could say anything, the door burst open and Sergeant Lairen stood, taking up the entire door with his frame. “Up! Get your rifles and on the wall!”
“Sarge-“ Erickson began to ask before being cut off.
“Wars started, move NOW!” the Sergeant replied before running down the hall to the next room where he could be heard yelling a similar polite suggestion.
All four of the men in the room looked at each other before simultaneously saying “Fuck”
The next few seconds were a whirl of movement as men put their boots on, grabbed their rifles and cartridge belts as they ran for the door. Outside the sound of rifle fire was intensifying. Jack ran out into the hallway to see a few men spilling out of the other bunk room.
Buckling his cartridge belt around his open tunic, he yelled “Over here, with me”
The three other men ran over to him just as the others from his section were stumbling out.
“Let’s go” he said before running towards the door. As he opened the door, the cold air pierced him to the bone. At the same moment, he slid and almost fell into the snow on the ground.
On the ramparts, he could see scattered men firing over the wall at intervals while bullets smacked into the wall with and sent chunks of stone flying. Scanning the wall, he could see the Lieutenant crouching and yelling out commands. He decided that that was the best place to go for direction and made a beeline for the position. The stairs were slippery and made progress hard. Slipping at the top, Jack fell hard on the stone walkway. As he looked up, he could see the immediate area around him was bathed in a thick red liquid and dotted with shiny brass shell casings.
Picking himself up, he noticed his hands were covered in red from the ground. He tried to get the blood off by wiping it on his tunic but it wouldn’t go away. Frantically, he continued to try to wipe it off before a voice behind him said “ Corporal, get up on the wall, near Lanahan” and then he was shoved up.
Crouching low behind the wall, Jack ran, rifle in hand towards the far corner overlooking the gully. Next to him, bullets continued to impact the wall, sending more shards up into the air. Faintly, he could hear the wind carrying voices towards them. They sounded familiar yet had a peculiar accented dialect to them.
Jack slowed down and slid into the wall next to Lanahan.
“Hey Corp. How’s it going?” Lanahan cracked with a smile.
“Dunno, what’s the situation?” Jack replied.
“Carpathians, lots of them, they also have some machine guns out there. It looks like they snuck in under the cover of the storm and tried to enter through the main gate dressed like us.”
“Shit.” Jack said, raising himself up just enough to peer over the parapet. Arrayed below him, hundreds of soldiers moved in four lines, advancing on the outpost. In the distance, he saw a succession of short, quick flashes. A few seconds later a series of bullets whizzed over his head, forcing him down. “There has to be hundreds out there”
“Yup” Lanahan replied ducking out of cover to fire off another round.
Jack grabbed the bolt handle of his rifle and cammed the action open, drawing a fresh stripper clip from his ammunition pouch, he lined up the slot and pushed the rounds into the rifle. Pushing the bolt forward, the clip fell off and a round was chambered. Jack stood, pointing his rifle over the wall. He looked down the sights and aligned them on one of the enemy soldiers moving towards him. Exhaling gently, he squeezed the trigger and the rifle bucked, sending its deadly projectile downrange.
He pulled back the bolt again and chambering a new round, fired again. And again. And again. Until his rifle ran dry and he needed to reload. By now his hands were shaking a bit and his heart rate was up. It seemed that for every round they fired, a hundred more came at them. The methodical advance of the enemy soldiers never seemed to slacken, no matter how many they shot.
After fifteen minutes the box of ammo they’d been using was almost empty. “Lanahan, keep shooting, I’m going for ammo” he shouted over the volume of fire. Lanahan merely nodded and continued to fire.
Again keeping low, Jack ran along the wall, looking for either the Lieutenant or the Sergeant. He found Sergeant Lairen and two other troopers carrying boxes of ammunition out of the storage building.
“Sarge” he shouted “ I need a box”
The sergeant beckoned him over with a nod, tossing the box to him. As the box arced through the air, a series of explosions rocked the small outpost, throwing Jack to the ground. Around him, bits of mortar and stone rained down. He could also hear screaming and saw a leg laying on the ground not too far away from him.
Rolling onto his back, Jack saw a sizable hole had formed in the north wall. A few seconds later, another salvo rocked the outpost. More stone rained down from the sky.
In the distance, someone cried “Artillery!” before they were drowned out by a deep rumble. The damaged section of wall began to crumble further, leaving a gaping hole.
Near the top of the breech, the Lt. Smith could be seen, firing his automatic pistol at something beyond the gap.
“Cook, Erickson, get this ammo to the wall. O’Connor, grab the walking wounded from the office and bring them here. We need to cover this breach. “ Sergeant Lairen yelled.
“Aye Sarge” All three men yelled before running their own way.
Jack ran to the shattered office window, smashed a few shards of glass off the bottom frame, and hopped up. Looking in, he could see three men sitting with bandages and another laying on the ground, not moving. “Anyone that can walk, with me, let’s go, there’s a breech.”
Two of the men began to push themselves up and hobble towards the door while the third sat there and said “Corp, I can’t walk out that far, but I’ll shoot from the window”
Jack nodded solemnly and turned back to the courtyard. He could see the Carpathian troops now. They were not a hundred yards distant. Sgt. Lairen had pushed some boxes into a makeshift barricade and was sitting behind it, rifle at the ready.
Running across the courtyard, Jack looked up at the wall in time to see Lt. Smith take a round to the shoulder. The man crumpled like a rag doll and slid off the parapet. Jack ran over to the fallen officer to see if he could render aid. Kneeling at his side, Jack could see the man was barely alive but before he could say anything, a machine gun burst kicked up the ground around them and hit the Lieutenant in the chest. Ducking again, Jack ran towards the barricade and hopped over it.
“Corporal” Sgt Lairen said, looking Jack directly in the eyes as he turned around “I want you to take this dispatch to Balana Station, they have a telegraph there, we have to warn command about the attack”
“Sir, how” Jack asked, peering over the barricade.
Finishing writing, Sgt Lairen handed the paper to Jack and said “Take your horse, ride fast.”
“Sir! I-“ Jack protested.
“That’s an order soldier. We are holding here as long as we can but that message must be relayed” he said, adding emphasis on the last word.
Tugging his hat down on his head, Jack ran full speed towards the stable building.
Great story, thanks for the update. Very much enjoying it.