As can be seen in the image, all my notes are complete. It’s merely a matter of me hearing their dialog that tells the story. Tired, of course, today, but was able to hear enough to share. When all this is finished and shoved off to my copyeditor I may take 48 hours completely off. And drink less; my liver hurts all the time, now.
Thirty hours later, Nichole had just remounted Toast, who, along with a detachment of a company of riders from the Nation, stood on each side of the Interstate-5 bridge over the Cowlitz River. They, plus another company just to their left, guarded the southern flank of the horsemen’s occupation of the valley, between the villages of Vader and Toledo, waiting for the arrival of Portland’s Regular Army. An arrival her hearing had picked up just a moment before getting back onto her horse. She waved at the underofficer.
“Scout cars coming,” she related. He passed this to another who galloped off.
Their communication discipline is astonishing.
“Miss?” Schmidt asked.
“When you can hear them, fire a green flare,” she directed. That would warn the oncoming Regulars that friendlies were just ahead. From John, Nichole was older that contact between disparate armies was a very dangerous affair.
“That’d be now.” He pitched his arm ten degrees down from overhead and fired south, along the length of the highway. After almost a minute, a yellow flare was returned. Everyone relaxed.
“Thank God,” Casey muttered from behind Schmidt.
Just between the wooded hills to the south, two armored cars appeared. Nichole could already make out two Dragoons and their cannon behind them and trucks beyond that. She was pleased to see General Tessmer in his customary…
In the warm afternoon, she could see he was wearing a heavy jacket. A man behind him spoke nearly continuously into the radio. Closer, Nichole saw he was struggling to hold himself up in the cupola. And that…
And that the man with him was Bakke.
Closer, Nichole saw that Tessmer’s left arm was in a sling. By the time his car had reached the far end of the bridge, she should see the sheen of sweat on his face. The commander of the Regular Army of the City was not a well man.
The car stopped two thirds of the way across as the underofficer of the Nation trotted his horse over to it.
“Late, but we are glad you are here,” he called over the engine noise. Nichole saw the flicker of anger in Bakke’s face at the ‘late’ comment. “We’ve prepped an area to bivouac in about two and a half miles north…”
Even the horseman recognized the General’s condition.
“…unless you need to stop for medical attention now.”
“I’ve borne this for two days… a few miles is fine,” he gasped.
The underofficer turned and waved his troopers aside, to make way for the motorized column. Perhaps mindful of their commander’s condition, the scout cars accelerated quickly. Not wanting to get in their way with their horses, Nichole and the two men with her waited. And counted. When the last truck rumbled by, Schmidt sighed.
“Yes?” Nichole asked.
“Looked like fifteen hundred of ours and three to four hundred of the Mayor’s men,” he said, coming close to treason with the latter comment. “I cannot believe we took a thousand casualties in Longview and on the road north… they’ve gotta be strung out, protecting the supply line.”
He took out his canteen and drank some water. She heard his faint, I hope, as he put it away.
“Let’s move out and find out what we’re supposed to do, next,” he concluded.
Twenty minutes later, as their perimeter was being established, the two cavalrymen sought out one of their own for orders. Nichole made straight for the large tent that had already been set up: with the red cross on a white field. She drew herself up before the guard outside and saluted.
“Acting leftenant Clarke,” she said. He nodded at her, not taking his hands from his rifle. “I’d like to speak with the General.”
“That’ll be up to the Doc, but go on in,” he replied, but something in his look made her pause. Rather than speaking, she took one more step closer to him.
“Not good,” the man whispered without looking at her.
Inside the first tent flap corpsmen and their aides were still getting things set up and squared away. No one spared her a glance. Pass the second flap she saw Tessmer on a cot at her left. A nurse was hanging a one hundred mL saline bag with a reconstituted vial attached to it. Vancomycin, she saw. Nichole wondered how far over the expiration date it was, like the rest of the City’s medications. A corpsman was prepping his other arm for a liter bag of Ringer’s.
“Miss Clarke!” Tessmer said, obviously feverous. “I’ve read all the communiqués but I’d like to hear your first-person report!”
“Sir!” But before she could begin, the doctor turned on her.
“Five minutes, no more.” His tone brooked no opposition. She nodded, very quickly putting together a summary of her past ten days into three hundred seconds.
At 299, she said, “…sir!” and waited.
While she spoke they had begun giving him fluid into his other arm. He seemed to be thinking about what she had said.
“Twenty thousand dragoons against the less than two thousand we have here…” he muttered.
“’Against’? Sir?” Nichole asked, further angering the doctor. “But are they not our allies? And, were they not, there is only the holding force of a few hundred here in the south to meet your forces.”
“Forgive me miss,” he shuddered a little. “A soldier thinks of threats, not intentions. And the second group you mentioned?”
“Non-combatant males, a goodly portion of women and children.” Now thinking like a soldier she continued. “Call it three to five thousand that could hold a rifle, effectively or not.”
The oxcarts would not be along for over a fortnight and were not mentioned.
“When… this second group arrives?” Tessmer was getting short of breath.
“That’s it!” the doctor called.
“You!” he said to the General, “lay back and rest or I’ll drug you to that affect! Miss Clarke, please come with me!”
He reached for her arm but instead she used it to salute the general before smartly turning about into the large tent’s antechamber.
“What happened?” she asked, seizing the conversation’s high ground.
The doctor, obviously exhausted, too, sagged into a chair an aide brought in. He indicated another for Nichole.
“The cannibals were dug in like ticks in Longview,” he began, taking a long drink from the cup of water that was set next to him. “Seems they were pissed about their failure to take the bridge…”
He set the cup down and looked at her.
“The bridge you helped take and drop.”
“So,” he continued, “while we were able to race up the I-five corridor from Vancouver, spooling out Militia A behind us to hold the road as we did, it was house-to-house fighting in and around Kelso, on the east side of the Cowlitz River. That’s where the General…”
He trailed off and started again.
“Where the General, and several others, came under arrow-fire. Low-tech, sure, but as deadly as a bullet. What was worse, I found out rather quickly, is that the arrowheads were slathered in shit, rotting human flesh, or both. Wounds started to fester in hours.”
Nichole remained still, watching him finish his water.
“All the others are to the south, being treated with what IV antibiotics we have. The general, of course, was not about to cede his command miles before making contact with a barely-allied force, especially to… to…”
He stopped, lowered his head, and sighed. All of their exhaustion was catching up with them!
“To the checkists,” she said.