The Point Man
Knowledge is power. Be it in life or in combat the difference between victory and defeat lies in the ability to outwit your opponent…
"Pull over here." Woody orders the driver of the lead truck. It is unseasonably warm for late September and the hot humid air closes in around him like a steam bath as he hops out from the air-conditioned cab. In moments a cloud of hungry mosquitoes surrounds Woody, each seeking an unprotected spot to exploit. He swats the pests aside as he makes his way back to the third truck in his little convoy of doom. He signs for Juan to roll his window down.
"This is it, the others are going to be here in about two hours. I need you to go in there and work your magic so we can pay those bastards back!" Woody tells his ace point man.
"You gotta be jerkin’ me Boss, it’s all friggin’ swamp! Juan exclaims in disgust as he surveys the entry point that Woody has selected.
"The Haverhill boys say it’s the only way. Rowley is too heavily fortified north of here. This is the only other way in." Woody responds patiently.
"I’ve only got two hours?" Juan asks pensively.
"Look, all you have to do is make the tree line right over there and head north for about a quarter of a mile." Woody snarls as he points his index finger over the hundred yards of swamp that’s mostly covered in putrid lime green slime.
"I ain’t going through there!" Juan exclaims hotly, pointing at the bubbling slime.
The world as we know it went mad one fine June night and by the time the sun rose again the clock had turned back a thousand years. Cities burned and billions died.
Those who survived the collapse of modern civilization divided into two groups depending on their natural inclinations. They either became ruthless predators or cunning, elusive prey.
The predators preferred to operate in small groups, less people to divide the booty between. The prey strove for safety in numbers, establishing fortresses and posting vigilant watchers all around their borders.
Juan is sure that if he hadn’t by chance fallen in with the predators early on he’d be out there somewhere hiding just as hard as he could.
Perhaps it is his prey mentality that makes him so good at what he does. Juan has a knack for finding safe trails through enemy defenses. He’s either very gifted or very lucky as he has yet to fail at leading the advance team in to quiet victory.
Rowley is the largest of the city/fortresses in the area and extremely well defended. Lately, Rowley has taken to hunting down the roving bands of predators and ambushing them with devastating results.
It seems the hunters don’t fare very well when they become the hunted as they aren’t used to defending themselves.
Woody sent envoys to ask for aid from the nearby marauders that had suffered at the hand of Rowley, seeking a temporary alliance to crush this threat to their mutual survival.
In exchange for their cooperation, he’s promised to lay the gate open for the attack and to share the huge bounty equally amongst all the partners. Woody is gambling heavily that Juan’s winning streak will remain unbroken and now Juan is refusing to go in.
The two men stand by the edge of the swamp just glaring at one another, each waiting for the other to back down.
Steve has watched the whole exchange and knows what he has to do. He crawls out of the back of the truck and splashes right into the putrid slime.
"Come on in Juan, the water’s fine!" He chuckles as he makes a farce of splashing around happily, kicking up a foul stench from the stagnant water. Juan only frowns at Steve; the older man just doesn’t get it.
"Climb on out of there pig-pen, we’re going in but we’re going in my way!" Juan growls as he turns his back on his boss. Woody just shrugs; he doesn’t care how Juan does it so long as the defenses are down by the time the others arrive just after sunset.
Juan normally leads only five men in with him but this isn’t a supply raid on some rinky-dink outpost. He knows in his gut that he’s going to need a lot more firepower than just five men can pack.
"Listen up! You all need to walk like I walk and do what I do." Juan warns the newcomers emphatically. His regular crew has all learned this the hard way and doesn’t need to be told again.
Juan scans the faces of his crew and sees that they are ready to move out. He checks his weapon for the umpteenth time and leads the squad back the way they came so he can find a dry way to walk in.
The ground rises and a finger of dry land juts out into the swamp. It won’t take them all of the way to where Juan wants to go but it will allow them to avoid the swampy mess for a good part of the trek.
Less than ten feet in from the road Juan spots a hornet hovering over a spot on the ground. He stops and his boys mimic his action. The hornet lands and crawls under some leaves…maybe it’s something and maybe it’s nothing but it won’t do to take any chances.
Juan points to the spot where he saw the insect and cautiously skirts the area, leading the team forward. Juan’s gut churns as he awaits the inevitable…
"Bees!" Screams one of the men near the end of the column as he dashes off the path and into the swamp to escape the angry swarm.
Juan watches the scene unfold, the men behind the clumsy oaf who stepped on the nest have retreated for the street, the others have rushed forward to where Juan and his crew stand watching.
The unfortunate man who blundered into the swamp has waded into a quagmire. He’s stuck in chest deep muck as the bees’ sting him mercilessly. The man screams desperately for help but none move to aid him.
Juan just shakes his head in negation and signals the remaining men to move forward. In less than a minute the mired man sinks below the muck and the swamp claims it’s first victim.
Juan is confident that the defenders have not bothered to deny them this slender finger of dry ground but he doesn’t trust it completely either. He spots the trunk of a huge old pine tree just under the surface of the water about fifteen feet short of the tip of the narrow peninsula.
Judging by it’s diameter at this end, it should provide a usable walkway most of the distance to the dry land on the other side of the swamp. Naturally he’ll have to go first to make sure it’s safe. His regular crew will cover him from the shore.
Juan loops a heavy rope around his waist and carefully applies his weight to the sunken natural bridge, it holds. Sliding one foot forward and dragging the other to catch up, he slowly shimmies across the slippery surface of the sunken tree trunk.
Juan feels the rope around his waist suddenly go taut. He snaps his head around to look in Steve’s direction when he sees it. A water moccasin is slithering up behind him. Juan freezes and fixes his attention on the floating snake.
He’s totally exposed standing on a sunken log in the middle of a fetid swamp…trying to sneak into enemy territory. Suddenly the irony of the whole situation hits him and he cavalierly splashes water in the direction of the snake… "Shoo!" he hisses and the snake submerges!
‘Don’t sweat the small stuff’ He thinks to himself and he continues to navigate the sunken tree towards his goal.
He’s reached the point where tree limbs are getting closer together and the jagged stubs of the broken branches tug at the legs of his sodden jeans as he carefully moves ahead.
Luck is with him once again as he encounters another tree trunk that intersects the one he’s on and it leads toward the opposite shore! A damn natural bridge all the way across!
The footing is tricky but Juan manages to cross over without going for a swim. Something dark swims between his legs and then its gone. Sweat runs off Juan’s face in rivers, taking what little insect repellant he’s wearing off with it. He’s getting eaten alive but there isn’t much he can do about it right now.
Juan is almost back to dry land when he spots something odd. The tree that he’s walking across has had some of its limbs sawn off…somebody has laid this tree down intentionally!
"Why’d ya stop Juan?" Steve asks from the opposite shore.
"Shhh!" He replies tersely…God only knows who’s watching…listening. With only ten feet left to go it looks like the slime is even thicker and bubblier on this side of the swamp, not that it makes any difference.
The one good thing about going first is the lead guy almost never gets picked off. A good sniper always waits until he gets as many intruders in his sights as his hungry weapon can handle before he opens fire.
Juan slides cautiously off the sunken log and wades into the gooey slime for shore. His feet slip in the stinking, rotten vegetation near the shore and the thick muck threatens to pull his boots off his feet but he makes it.
He removes the rope from his waist and secures it to a nearby stump. This done, he hunkers down in the shelter of a stout tree to watch the remaining men follow the trail he’s made.
It’s taken twenty minutes to get this far and the sun is already very low on the horizon. They have perhaps another hour of daylight left before they are plunged into darkness.
‘No matter what happens now, we aren’t getting out the way we came in.’ Juan thinks to himself grimly as he watches the first man struggle to get his feet on the log that leads to the opposite shore.
Juan hears the man grunt and watches horrified as the man slides sideways into the murky water, holding his right leg, his face is a mask of pain.
Seconds pass but the man does not resurface. The fellow that was behind him is frozen to the spot, waiting for the lead man to break water. A minute passes and then another.
The men behind the frozen fellow urge him to move on. They don’t want whatever happened to the first guy to happen to them too. The frozen man gathers his wits and starts to move ahead.
The line of men slowly shimmies through the stinking swamp with fear in their eyes and desperation in their sinking hearts.
The first man to cross behind Juan follows his path exactly and loses a boot in the muck by the edge of the swamp. The man behind him opts to follow the log to where it meets the shore…and jumps right into a mantrap of sharpened sticks.
The wounded man howls in agony. Juan rushes over and slits the wounded man’s throat knowing that the act of mercy was too little, too late. If the enemy didn’t know they were coming by now, they were all deaf!
The rest of the men cross without further incident. What began as a fifteen-man force is now nine and they haven’t engaged the enemy… yet.
Juan takes the lead once more and carefully threads his way through the thick vegetation, avoiding natural paths whenever possible. He follows the ridge northwards and before long he notices that the ground is starting to drop off again.
The ridge that Woody said would lead them behind enemy lines isn’t a ridge at all; it’s an island! Juan stares in dismay at the fifty plus yards of fetid lime green slime covered swamp that stands between him and the next ridge of dry land that is slightly northeast of their current position. The deadfalls in this section of the swamp look impassable. It would be easier to go over this mess than through it.
Juan looks around and soon spots what he’s looking for…a clear space between the landmasses and …a thin black nylon rope that stretches across the void!
The rope is tied off nearly thirty feet up. If the rumors are true about Rowley’s defense force being mostly female…Well these babes have bigger balls than King Kong does! The big pine on this side is totally devoid of branches right up to the rope. The only way to reach the rope is to shinny up the rough bark.
Naturally, Juan goes first. The gnarled bark of the pine tree is sappy but provides good hand holds and the tree is just thick enough to wrap your legs around. As a boy in Puerto Rico, Juan shinnied up many the palm tree. He hasn’t lost his touch and he reaches the rope in no time.
Juan grabs the nylon rope and pulls on it hard, it holds. Juan releases his leg grip on the tree and loops his boots over the rope, pulling himself across the open space hand over hand.
Once inverted like this, Juan feels the mushy contents of his boots trickling down his legs, settling into the seat of his pants…yuck.
It’s a long pull and Juan is nearly winded when he arrives at the big oak tree at the opposite end of the run. He swings like a monkey and gets a leg hold on the thick oak.
As he descends, he notices that the oak has sprouted the stubs of new branches where the sun hits it. A sure sign that this handy crossing hasn’t been used recently. Juan has a tough time holding on while probing the ground at the base of the tree for mantraps with his foot. The spot directly below him is clear and he gingerly pokes the ground all around the base of the tree until he’s convinced that there is no immediate danger.
He whistles shrilly and the rest of the men begin the arduous crossing. Now we’re really screwed! None of us would ever make it back over both the rope and log bridges in the dark, never mind with someone shooting at us! Juan surmises to himself.
Steve has a bum leg and can’t shinny, he said that he’d wait there until they came back to rescue him once they accomplished the mission.
This isn’t the first time Juan has had to leave the old guy behind. The only reason he lets Steve tag along on these missions is the fact that he’s a lot more help than hindrance most of the time.
Friggin Gringo’s! Juan thinks to himself as he observes the first guy to tackle the rope is stuck halfway up the pine tree. He doesn’t have the arm strength to make it all of the way up!
The second man is more enterprising and he shinnies up around the first man and gains the rope. Juan decides to have a look around as it’s going to take a while for those who can make the trip to join him.
The area around the destination tree is conspicuously barren. The ground rises up to a ridge in the direction of the enemy camp that’s about the same height as the rope bridge. Juan had been too preoccupied with the problems of dismounting to check out the top of the ridge when he crossed and now he regrets his lack of forethought.
Juan circles to the left of the ridge rather than taking the direct route. He encounters heavy vegetation on the sunny side of the slope and threads his way through the brush to the little clearing at the peak of the ridge.
Either the men are quicker than he thought or it had taken more time than he figured to mount the ridge but he looks down to see five of the men are already milling about the base of the tree.
Juan shifts his weight from his right foot to his left and the small motion is accompanied by a distinct metallic click, he’s stepped on a mine!
Juan feels the blood rush from his head and his face flushes immediately with cold sweat, his mouth is moving but he cannot for the life of him find his voice. He forces himself to calm down; he’s okay so long as he doesn’t move.
"Hey guys! I need a little help up here. I’ve stepped on a mine!" Juan calls down to the milling sappers once he finds his voice again.
One of the newbies laughs right out loud and marches three steps towards Juan, taking the conspicuously clear side of the slope…and snags a tripwire.
A circle of Bouncing Betty’s fly up all around the edges of the clearing…Juan can see the horrified expressions of the doomed men in the microseconds before the deadly weapons detonate, killing them all most brutally.
Juan stands alone on his landmine. He’s never had to defuse one of these bad boys nor has he ever seen it done (except in the movies.) Juan chews on this hard nut in his mind, silently praying for a miraculous solution to present itself.
Steve! He should still be nearby. Perhaps he can send Steve for help! The situation is pretty hopeless, the advance team has been wiped out so a little shouting isn’t going to make things much worse than they already are.
"Steve!" Juan shouts hoarsely…no response
"Steve!" Juan shouts somewhat louder than before…still nothing.
"STEVE!" Juan screams at the top of his lungs, fat tears of desperation roll down his cheeks.
"WHAT!" Steve replies finally.
"I’m trapped, get help!"
"I’M TRAPPED, GO GET SOMEONE TO HELP ME!"
"RIGHT!" Steve replies.
It occurs to Juan that Steve’s voice isn’t where it should be and squints in the direction of the sound. In the gathering gloom of sundown, Juan can barely make out a small flat-bottomed boat being poled through the slimy swamp with three occupants on board.
"F___ YOU!" Juan screams in frustration at the traitor.
"HEY JUAN, IT ISN"T ME WHO"S F___’D NOW IS IT?" Steve replies.
The man has a point, Juan reluctantly admits. He busies himself with clearing the dirt away from the mine so he can try to save his butt before daylight fails completely.
Clearing the dirt is the most he can do…the mine appears to be seamless, Juan can’t see how to open it up and the last light of day has already faded away.
A short time later, Juan hears the sound of trucks approaching… that bag of crap Steve has given the all clear signal! Juan screams frantically to the convoy but it neither slows or stops. A few moments later the deafening sounds of a firefight wash over Juan’s lonely hilltop.
The pitched gun battle lasts for maybe five minutes…Woody’s alliance has driven into a carefully laid trap and the steady pounding of the mortars tells the tale…Woody never had a chance and Juan is too preoccupied with his current predicament to care.
He can no longer feel his left leg from the effort to maintain even force on the mine’s fuse. Juan sighs and tries to figure out if he can hold on like this until daylight. He’s uncertain if he’ll last five more minutes the way his leg feels. The enemy has not come out to take him prisoner and he figures they won’t either…not until daybreak anyway.
By George C. Anderson Jr.
© Copyright 2016 G C Anderson. All rights reserved.
Short Story / Science Fiction
Book / Science Fiction
Book / Action and Adventure
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