Friday, August 17, 2012

The Eastern Curtain, Chapter 1 (Part 1 of 2)

This is the opening scene of the Eastern Curtain (Sequel to the Western Front).  This is not the complete Chapter 1, but a lion's share of it.  Note, I have not proofread or edited it yet so there may be some errors.  Enjoy.

I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts;
I will look to see what He will have to say to me
Habakkuk 2:1a

The four grey and SUVs cautiously approached the outskirts of Viejo Guerrero, known to the gringos as Old Warrior City.  The vehicles were dented and dusted thoroughly, with the occasional rusted bullet hole in a door or fender; the windshields were cracked and caked with dirt and grime in the areas beyond the reach of the wiper blades.
The cartel soldados in the vehicles were anxious to make the delivery, but were fearful of what may lie between them and Falcon Lake.  They gripped their rifles tightly as they peered out the windows of the vehicles at the abandoned structures and barren landscape.  Dread was a new emotion for many of the halcones and sicarios; they were more accustomed to inflicting terror than being gripped by it. 
The ones they feared were surrounded by myth and mystique; most reasoned the source to be gringo irregulars, but some of the more superstitious among them told stories around campfires about the spirits that roamed the borderlands.  These spirits, they would say is hushed tones, were angered by the choices of their descendants; the drug trade was destroying the delicate borderland and the spirits were angry. 
Who could blame these men for their superstitions?  The borderlands were a place steeped in centuries of bloodshed and wars, and nearly every man had a tale of a strange encounter that either they or someone they dearly trusted had experienced.  Now there was incessant talk of the mysterious riders that were haunting the soldiers of the cartels.
They referred to them as the jinetes fantasma, the phantom horsemen.  Entire parties of soldados had disappeared without a trace, never to be heard from again; the few men that had escaped certain death told fantastical tales of the dark riders.  The riders would only materialize between dusk and dawn because they feared the light; they would appear from seemingly nowhere, abduct their scouts and overwhelm the encampment.  The cartels had sent teams of hardened, experienced men to the borderlands for the sole purpose of finding and eliminating the source of the attacks, but none had been heard from again.
If any place invited the talk of spirits and times long forgotten, Viejo Guerrero was it.  Founded in 1750 as a Spanish colonial town, more than twenty years before the American Revolution, it was the capital of one of the many republics, including the Republic of Texas, that rebelled against the subversive centralization of Mexico by the Santa Anna government and the dissolution of the Mexican constitution.
Journal remnants from an expedition in the nineteenth century observed that, “Guerrero is a fine looking and well-constructed town.  The houses are built of a kind of marble or stone, with flat roofs, surrounded by a wall. The streets and public squares (of which there are two) are well laid off, and the whole place presents an appearance of elegance and neatness. There is one cathedral in the place and several large public buildings. The inhabitants have fine gardens and throughout the place there are numerous groves of orange trees that give it a most luxuriant and smiling appearance.”
Viejo Guerrero, like many other towns and villages in the area, had been abandoned when the Falcon Dam was constructed on the Rio Grande; a new city was built nearly twenty miles to the southeast on higher ground, not far from the dam.  Viejo Guerrero was left to its fate, to be consumed by the rising waters of Falcon Lake.  The lake’s waters had advanced into and receded from the ghost town numerous times since the dam’s construction; the current water level left much of the city back on dry ground. 
As twilight yielded to dusk, the sky was painted with oranges and yellows; the thin, wispy cirrus clouds reflected an array of colors from bright purple to dull gray.  The cool, inviting temperature and the gentle breeze made a picturesque sky even more perfect.  The men in the SUVs would have greatly preferred to be tending a warm fire back at camp and trading tall stories as the last vestiges of the day disappeared, rather than meeting the mules in these forgotten ruins far from any signs of civilization.
The road narrowed for a ways as the mesquite, huisache and wild olives crowded the ruins around them.  The hairs on the soldados’ necks stood on end as the shrill screams of a herd of javelinas could be heard somewhere in the tall shadows of the distance.  After several hundred feet of tense silence, the restrictive thicket relented to the dusty, open trail that lay beyond.
They made a final turn and could see the aluminum boats and their operators at the water’s edge beyond the open plaza.  The four mules wore long serapes and hoods over their heads; they preferred to remain as anonymous as possible on nights like these; each of the mules had dim oil lanterns that served as a beacon for the SUVs.  The eerie scene made some of the men rather uneasy.  The stone ruins of a centuries-old village with dark, ghoulish figures on the edge of a black water lake conjured images of Charon towering over the banks of the River Acheron, as he waited to the ferry damned souls across to their eternity.  All they needed now was an obolus in their mouth to pay the toll, they gloomily thought to themselves.
The darkness was in full effect as they rounded the plaza, only several hundred feet from the figures and the rendezvous point.  One by one, the cloaked figures extinguished their lanterns and faded into the darkness around them.  The vehicles slowed as the men inside were caught off guard by the odd behavior from their contacts; they peered into the darkness, but the cloaked men were gone.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Reese, Barrett and the two rangers from Houston stood waiting by the water, just east of the plaza; the bodies of the previous owners rested in the bottom of the boats beside them.  Their lanterns were turned down low so that they would be noticed by the cartel soldados, but little else could be discerned; the dull glow from the flames danced on the dark waters behind them as gentle waves lapped the shore.
Barrett leaned over to Reese and whispered, “Sure hope they don’t get spooked and shoot on sight.”
“We’ll probably be fine.”
Reese smirked and replied, “Sorry, I forget you’ve been out here a while; seriously though, sometimes a sense of humor is all that gets you through the hard times, and we are due some hard times.  Look, over there, we’ve got company.”
Reese and his three teammates watched as the headlights illuminated the south edge of the plaza; they could hear the sounds of the distant vehicles’ tires crunching along the loose cobblestone alley as they slowly approached.  A frightened covey of quail could be heard scattering somewhere across the plaza as the SUVs approached.
The vehicles finally appeared from the alley at the far corner of the plaza.  The remnants of an old tower and several stone benches and fountains in the open square were all that separated Reese and his team from their prey.  An M4 carbine hung from a single point sling underneath each of the men’s serapes as they held their lanterns.  They watched as the vehicles turned northeast and followed the perimeter of the plaza; before the SUVs were able to turn south and illuminate the four men, they quenched the flames and disappeared into the shadows.  The men dropped the lanterns and pulled the night vision goggles that had been hidden under their hoods down over their eyes; they dashed through the darkness to several piles of stone rubble that dotted the shoreline just west of the boats. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Holt and nearly a dozen other men slunk back into the shadows of the roofless stone ruins as the headlights shined below them on the road and illuminated the fine particulates of dust that hung heavy in the air.  Viejo Guerrero was the perfect venue for an ambush; it had the cover, the ambience to unnerve the superstitious among their quarry, and the bait to lull the others into complacency.
As he focused his attention on the approaching SUVs, the unexpected rushing sounds from the panicked covey of quails caused Holt’s heart to flutter in his chest, as quails are quite apt to do.  Adrenaline coursed through his veins for the moment he was uncertain of the source; his momentary fright had not gone unnoticed by the men around him as they grinned silently and continued to scan the plaza below.  Holt sighed to himself and thought, I will surely hear about this later.
Holt and the other men in the ruins began to ease back into position from the deep recesses as the SUVs slowly passed them without event.  The dozen men under Holt’s command were divided into three fire teams; in addition to two riflemen, each team had a grenadier and a man equipped with a squad automatic weapon, or SAW.
Holt and the fire teams watched from various ruins around the plaza as the vehicles advanced along the perimeter road to meet the mules by the shore.  As the vehicles prepared to navigate the final turn around the north corner of the open square, the dim lanterns by the shore faded away; Holt slowly counted to five in his head and then whispered into the microphone, “Now.”
As the grenadiers fired a volley of 40 mm grenades from their launchers attached to the underside of their carbines, the SAW operators unleashed a deafening hailstorm of lead and fury on the four vehicles.  One of the grenades sailed perfectly into an open rear window and landed in the passenger’s lap; the soldados tried to dive from the vehicle, but it was too late.  The windows of the vehicle blew outward simultaneously as the interior of the SUV was decimated; a small fire began to smolder in the back seat as the men in the rear vehicle stared in shock.
A second grenade landed on another vehicle’s hood and shattered the front windshield, killing the driver and front passenger; the terrified amigo in the back seat rolled out onto the ground and plunged headlong into the darkness.  Amazingly, the fleeing man was able to avoid the wall of lead from the SAWs that was battering the ground and sending plumes of dust into the air all around him.
“Let him go,” Holt radioed, “I have plans for him; finish off the others.”
Meanwhile, the remaining grenades exploded around the other vehicles, wrinkling sheet metal and sending shards of glass and debris into the faces of the stunned soladados.  The SAWs ventilated the SUVs relentlessly as the soldiers with M4 carbines targeted any amigos that had survived the onslaught up to that point and tried to return fire.  The men whooped like a Comanche war band as they fired at the soladados; their war cries only served to fan the flames of terror and confusion that consumed the amigos in the plaza below.  Within several seconds of the start of the overwhelmingly violent ambush, it was over; only one soldado remained as he fled into the night.
Holt radioed again, “Send out the riders.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The terrified amigo tore blindly through the thick brush and shrubs that surrounded the plaza; he groaned as the thorny mesquite, blackbrush and huisache cut his arms and pricked his hands.  The poisonous thorns burned and throbbed as they broke off in his skin, but he did not care; all that mattered was escape. 
As he pushed through the edge of the thicket, he stumbled and fell headlong into the dusty alley beyond.  A sharp pain shot through his body as his head smashed against a large stone block; he curled his body into a tight ball and cursed the ruins of this place as he writhed in pain.  As he pushed himself up from the ground he staggered about momentarily, his head still dazed from the blow. 
Clip, clop!  Clip, clop!  He lurched forward and nearly fell again as the sounds of the hooves could be heard somewhere behind him.  He turned and dashed up the narrow dirt alley, searching in vain for somewhere to hide from the dark riders. 
Clip, clop!  Clip, clop!  As he reached the intersection, he darted to the left and ran to the southwest, parallel with and several hundred feet from the shoreline.  The yips and barks of two distant coyotes echoed through the night air as they exchanged their nocturnal discourse.  He fumbled at his side for his nickel plated revolver, but it was nowhere to be found.
Clip, clop!  Clip, clop!  The sound of the horse’s hooves grew louder as the rider bore down on him.  He could feel his presence somewhere in the shadows; he knew at any moment he would gun him down, or worse.  The thickets began to crowd the alley on either side of him once again; he would dive back into the thorny underbrush and hide like a desert cottontail from his pursuers.
Clip, clop!  Clip, clop!  It felt as if the rider was on top of him now, this was his last chance.  As he passed through the second intersection and prepared to dive into the dense stand of huisache, his heart sank as he saw the rider.  Everything was moving so quickly, it was hard for his mind to process; it had to be a second rider, because he was approaching from the other road.  It mattered not how many there was at this point, they had him; he would fight them though, he would not go easy.  He unsheathed his long cuchilla and prepared for the encounter.
The high pitched squeal of the horse was deafening in his ears and terrifying to his senses; he could feel its hot breath on his face as its nostrils passed within inches of him.  He slashed wildly at the beast, but his wrist was denied the motion as it connected painfully with a quick thrust from a steel-toed, flat-tipped, western boot.  He shrieked in agony and gripped the throbbing hand with the other as the cuchilla clattered to the ground.  The horse slung his head in the direction of the man as it flared its nostrils and snorted menacingly at him. 
The rider had watched the soldado flee down the alley in shades of dull green over the tops of the thickets from his high perch.  He could see the other rider swiftly approaching the amigo from behind. He cut down the perpendicular alley and timed his approach perfectly so that he would collide with the man in the intersection. 
He flipped his rifle around so that he was holding it by the barrel as he met the terrified soldado in the dusty junction; as he effortlessly deflected the man’s blind slice, he swung the rifle in a downward arc as a templar knight might swing a mace.  The pointed end of the triangular collapsible stock connected with the side of the amigo’s head, snapping his head to the side and sending him into a sidelong tumble.  The hombre’s head slammed against the ground with his jaw slack and eyes rolled far back in his head.
“Let’s get him back to camp; Agent Byers will surely want a word with our friend, if he ever wakes up.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


  1. Great beginning!

    All of your other works are in my Kindle.


  2. I'm the same as Bob. Love your writings. Keep it up.
    Papa Mike

  3. Glad you're both enjoying it. Been a lazy weekend; hopefully I can get some time in this coming week and knock a couple chapters out. Like to have EC 1 done by some time in September.