Chapter 7

Bolan and Nark reached the ridge overlooking the village late in the afternoon. One glance at the activity below told them something was up. An armed crowd milled outside the headman’s hut, everywhere horses were being loaded with household belongings, and children were rounding up animals.

They dismounted and led the horses down the slope. That way they could descend faster. By the first house they came to, a woman was tying pots and pans to a horse already laden with bales of tobacco.

“What’s going on?” Bolan inquired in Meo.

“Chinese are coming to kill Hmong,” the woman replied.

“Why?”

“To punish the Hmong for helping white men.”

“Who told you this?” Nark asked.

“Ask the headman,” the woman said with a nod in the direction of his house.

They rode into the village past doorways from which women emerged, arms full. Piles of furniture and bedding lay everywhere. Pigs were squealing and hens were cackling. The entire village was preparing to move out.

In the square, men were loading a large crate onto the back of the village elephant. The beast knelt with the driver, the mahout, astride its neck. Nearby lay sacks of corn and rice for loading.

As they reached the crowd, the people parted to let them through. Faces watched them in silence, impassive. There was no hostility, but there was no friendliness either. The men were armed with muskets and crossbows. Where were the rifles they had captured? Bolan wondered.

They dismounted and entered the headman’s gloomy home. The place was packed with people, the air thick with smoke. A shouting match was in progress at the far end. So absorbed was the audience, Bolan and Nark’s entry went unnoticed.

“Did we not tell you?” a man shouted. “We told you not to have anything to do with him. We told you he would bring us trouble.”

“You told me, you told me,” shouted back a voice which Bolan recognized as Vang Ky’s. “You told me many things. But when he offered you money you also accepted.”

“Only because you vouched for him. You said he could be trusted. You said we would get the arms and money before we went to war.”

“Pao is right,” added a third man. “The agreement was for arms and money first. They tricked us.”

“Why are you saying this?” Vang Ky retorted. “You know it is not true. It was the arrest of the first man that delayed the money.”

“Who are these long noses, anyway?” broke in a fourth man. “I don’t believe they are Russians. My son says they speak English to each other. He thinks they are Americans.”

“Of course they are Americans,” said someone. “They want to destroy Tiger for the poppies. Remember in Xiengkhouang? They were always after us to stop growing opium.”

“Is this true, Ky?”

“Is what true?”

“That they are Americans.”

A long silence followed. “Ky, we want an answer,” the man persisted.

“Yes, they are Americans,” the headman admitted.

On the rim of the audience, in the shadows, Bolan and Nark exchanged glances. The cover was blown.

“So, Ky,” said a voice rising in anger, “you lied to us. You told us they were Russians when all the time you knew they were Yankees. Tell us, Ky, how much are they paying you to be their agent? How much for lying to your own?”

“Ky always did like licking American asses,” observed someone.

“You’d better watch your tongue, Xan,” said Vang Ky.

“Headmen, headmen,” a new voice called. “We did not meet to exchange insults. We are here to find a way of saving the villages.”

“You have a suggestion, Ly?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Let’s have it.”

“What I propose is that we offer the Chinese a deal. As soon as the white men return we arrest them. Then we send a messenger to the Chinese. We offer the white men in return for peace.”

Nark glanced at Bolan, alarm in his face. Bolan calmed him with a hand on his arm. Let them get their rancor out.

“And if the white men don’t return?” someone asked. “Tiger is looking for them. They have patrols everywhere.”

“They might be dead already,” another suggested.

“They’ll come, don’t worry,” said the man called Ly. “The one in the black scarf won’t let Tiger get him, you can be sure of that. I was here two days ago when he polished off that squad out on the grazing fields.”

“Yes, a real fighter,” said Vang Ky.

“And lucky,” Ly continued. “A man under the protection of spirits. He’ll be back, you’ll see.”

“But we can’t hand them over to Tiger,” said Vang Ky.

“Why not?”

“We can’t. That would be betrayal.”

“Betrayal? And what is it they did to us in Vietnam? Was that not betrayal?”

Grunts of approval rose from the crowd. Ly’s argument hit a nerve.

“Yes, it was betrayal!” A white man’s voice spoke up from the back, loud and clear.

Faces turned and a buzz ran through the hut. An aisle opened and Bolan advanced to the circle of the stools. An empty one materialized from nowhere, and he joined the dozen headmen.

“Yes, it was betrayal,” he repeated. “Politics is a dirty business.” His eyes swept the assembled company. “As we all know.”

At that the tension building up in the room diffused. Bolan could see his message had struck home. True, they had got a rough deal in Vietnam, but politics had its own rules, and none knew this better than the Meo. During their four-thousand-year history they had sold more allies down the river than anyone cared to remember. In politics, no nation is lily-white.

Taking advantage of the new mood, Bolan announced, “The arms and the money will be dropped after midnight tonight in the Valley of the Spirits. The drop has been confirmed.” He turned to Vang Ky. “How near are the Chinese?”

“The Chinese will be here in four hours,” the headman replied. “They are traveling on the Nam Tha trail. I have horsemen tracking them. We have reports every hour.”

“Our homes will have gone up in flames before we see those arms,” someone said.

“That is if we ever see them,” threw in Pao skeptically.

Bolan looked straight at Pao. “Do I leave the room or do I continue?” he asked.

“Continue, continue,” the others urged.

Once more Bolan turned to Vang Ky. “What is the strength of the Chinese column?”

“Two hundred rifles.”

“How are they coming, on foot?”

“Yes, on foot.”

“Any other armament?”

“Grenades and flamethrowers.”

“What about us, what do we have in the way of armament?”

“Crossbows, muskets, and thirteen rifles.”

“Thirteen?” Bolan exclaimed. “We captured over forty in the raid on the pagoda!”

Vang Ky sucked on his teeth and looked down at the space between his feet. Seconds ticked by.

“He sold them,” volunteered one of the other headmen.

“You what?” Bolan exploded.

“On our way back,” Vang Ky began, looking at everything and nothing in particular but making sure he avoided Bolan’s stare, “on our way back we met the Yao. They were paying good money.” Vang Ky’s eyes traveled from the fire to the jars of upas tree poison, to the spot between his feet, and back to the fire. “Since we were going to receive a lot of weapons tonight anyway…”

“Ky thought it was his opportunity to make a killing,” another man finished.

A long silence followed. It was broken by the man called Ly. “There you have it, Mr. White Man,” he said. “We have thirteen rifles, and they have two hundred. We cannot save our homes by fighting. Our only chance is to negotiate.” He added knowingly, “And as you said, politics is a dirty business.”

Bolan got his drift, all right. He and Nark were to be the sacrificial lambs with which the Meo would appease Tiger. And judging from the reaction — or lack of reaction — the conference found Ly’s proposition a good one. Only Vang Ky had spoken against it.

“What makes you so certain the Chinese will go for your proposal?” Bolan asked Ly. “If I know them, they’ll take us and attack the villages anyway.”

It was hardly an argument, but that was not the point. The point was to stretch the conversation to give himself time to come up with a solution. He had to find a way of destroying that column. It was the only way of keeping Galloping Horse alive. They could not scrub the mission, not now, not after the work that had gone into it, the effort of hundreds of good people who had been working on it for months, the ships, the planes that were waiting for the signal to swing into action.

He could not let them down.

“The Chinese are shrewd people,” the headman Ly said. “They know if they burn the villages, there will be no one to harvest the opium.”

To which Bolan replied, “Tiger can afford to lose a few kilos of opium. They’ll make it up from their stockpile. But what they cannot afford is to let a rebellion go unpunished.”

“There are many ways the strong can punish the weak,” Ly said. “A fine, for example. A fine would be much more lucrative.”

“I disagree,” Bolan replied. “A fine is not a strong enough punishment. The punishment must be strong enough to deter the other Montagnard nations from following your example. The Chinese…”

Eureka! He found it! The solution was staring him in the face, stacked against the opposite wall, jars and jars of it. The upas tree poison!

He would destroy the Tiger column with poison.

Bolan turned to Vang Ky. “Can I borrow your elephant?”

* * *

Atop the elephant, Bolan waited for the coming of Tiger. It was night and the moon was shining. The elephant stood hidden by trees a couple of hundred yards from the Nam Tha trail. Everything was ready for the ambush, the entire village having lent a hand. Six thousand bamboo poles had been cut, women had sharpened them into spikes, children had dipped them in upas tree poison, and the men had planted them in the kill zone. Now, the rest was up to Bolan.

He sat in a howdah, an Armalite in his lap, an ammunition belt around his waist. From under the belt protruded a poppy red sash. A black Montagnard pajama suit replaced his tattered fighter suit. To make him look like a real Meo, the headman had given him a broad Montagnard silver collar, which Bolan also wore. The fighter was ready to defend the village.

While waiting, he smoked and the elephant ate. The animal was a nine-ton bull. It stood ten feet high and tore at the trees with its trunk, stuffing huge quantities of twigs and leaves into its mouth.

A birdcall sounded, the mahout announcing himself. The elephant driver came out of the trees, a bucket of rice beer in each hand. He set them in front of the elephant, there were two loud slurps, and the buckets were empty. The mahout put the buckets aside and whispered some words to the elephant. In answer, the beast curled its trunk and raised a foreleg. With the aid of these two steps the mahout climbed on its back and came to the howdah.

“Tiger coming soon,” said the mahout. He brought out a cigarette and Bolan lit it for him with the end of his.

“Where is the headman?” asked Bolan.

“Coming,” replied the mahout.

They fell silent, listening to the sounds of the elephant eating and to the noises of the forest.

An owl hooted. The mahout replied with a birdcall. At that the headman appeared, barefoot, rifle in hand. Montagnards often took off their footwear so they could move faster, more quietly. The mahout motioned him to come around the back. Big Bottom might get annoyed if he had to interrupt his meal to make steps. This time the mahout had it raise its hind leg. The headman climbed on it and pulled himself the rest of the way by the tail. He joined Bolan by the howdah.

“Tiger be here soon,” Vang Ky announced, lighting a cigarette.

“Nark left?” asked Bolan.

“Yes.”

Bolan glanced at the sky. “We should have no problems.” The moon shone in a cloudless sky, and there was hardly any wind. Perfect weather for an air drop.

The headman smoked pensively. “What if we capture the white men?” he asked.

“You pass them to me and I will kill them,” Bolan answered simply.

Just before sundown one of the shadowing riders had reported that a Tiger helicopter had landed near the column depositing three white men. The whites had evidently joined the punitive expedition to distract themselves with a little man hunting…

“Thanks for helping me at the meeting,” Bolan said to Vang Ky.

The other shrugged. “An agreement is an agreement. And Ly and Pao are hypocritical crocodiles. They made money from the Vietnam War and now they spit on Americans.”

“All the same, I appreciate it,” Bolan added.

It was Vang Ky who convinced the other headmen to proceed with the Tiger War. The others were skeptical that Bolan could pull off the ambush. Whoever heard of one man single-handedly destroying two hundred? No matter how clever the plan, no matter how brave and lucky the fighter. Only when Vang Ky announced that his village would go to war regardless, did they relent, fearful of missing out on the booty. There was more than opium in the Tiger hardsite; there was gold, too.

“We should go see,” said the headman, glancing at his digital watch.

“I’d like to borrow that,” said Bolan. He needed a watch to calculate the column’s speed. His own watch had been taken when he and Nark were captured.

They slid down from the elephant and walked to the trail. A shape materialized; one of the men left behind to supervise the collecting of the enemy arms by village women. He led them to a spot where they could observe the column comfortably and from where they could retreat without making noise.

Bolan measured the distance between two trees. By timing how quickly men covered it he would be able to calculate the speed of the column, then he would know how soon they would be in the kill zone. He returned to the hiding spot and crouched.

In moonlit silence they waited for the enemy. No birds were calling, no cicadas rasped, no mosquitos buzzed. It had not rained for two days and the jungle was dry.

A barely audible metallic sound alerted them. A sling buckle hitting the stock. Three Tiger soldiers went by noiselessly, shotguns at the ready. In Nam the pointman always carried a shotgun. For close-range work in the jungle, a shotgun was best.

The main body of the column came. They heard it before they saw it, boots hitting the dry ground, cloth brushing cloth, straps straining. First came two men with M-79s, then some riflemen, then an officer, judging by the map case at his side. Behind the officer came a radioman looking like an insect with the bent aerial at his back. A machine gunner followed, holding his weapon straight up like a priest with a cross at a procession, then a man with a flamethrower, then the commander, binoculars on his chest.

Behind the commander came the three whites. The first two were overweight individuals dressed in golf clothes, M-16s slung over their shoulders. They gave the impression they regretted having embarked on the expedition. Breathing heavily, their faces glistening with sweat, they walked like tired men.

In contrast, the third man seemed to take the march in stride. He wore sensible jungle fatigues and boots, and instead of an automatic rifle, he carried a real hunting gun, a Remington. The first two walked close together, the third man alone, the professional holding himself aloof from amateurs.

The third man was Fenster, the New York drug czar and world game hunter who among his wall trophies could boast two stuffed human heads, one of a Botswana Pygmy, the other of an Amazon Indian. Now he was going to bag himself a Montagnard.

While the column marched, Bolan paid special attention to the interval between the men. Knowing the number of men and the interval between them would give him the length of the column. He had to make sure the entire column was in the kill zone when he attacked. Otherwise the men could escape.

In deciding to attack from the rear, Bolan was taking a gamble. It would have been easier to attack from the front — attack on sight — but from experience Bolan knew that an attack from the rear was more effective. It rattled people.

* * *

As the last man passed, Bolan activated the chronometer and ran back. The attack had to begin exactly three minutes from the time the column had passed. He climbed atop the elephant and signaled the mahout to move out. The elephant lurched forward, the mahout whispering to it, promising piles of coconuts and barrels of beer if it did as it was told. Without the elephant’s cooperation the ambush would be a washout.

Soon they reached the trail and turned after the column, Bolan counting the seconds.

“Pssst!” Bolan hissed.

The mahout looked back, and Bolan pumped his arm. The mahout spoke to the elephant, and the beast speeded up its walk, breaking into a lumbering run. Air flowed over Bolan’s face, and the sensation sent adrenaline pumping into his system. The charge of the heavy brigade was underway. Two minutes and thirty seconds… two minutes and forty seconds… two minutes and fifty seconds… Bolan watched the numbers change, hoping his calculations were right because if they were not, Galloping Horse would go down in Meo history as another good reason for not siding with Americans, and Tiger Enterprises’ future would be assured for decades to come.

“Pssst!” Bolan pumped his arm faster.

Again the mahout whispered to the elephant. Bolan held his breath. This was the critical moment. The howdah swayed violently, and the elephant went flat out. Bolan grabbed the side of the howdah to steady himself. The charge was on! He pocketed the watch and took up his Armalite. Pressing with his thighs against the side of the howdah to give himself balance, he cocked the weapon and held it ready. They ran through the night, the ground trembling from the thudding feet, Bolan ducking to avoid overhead branches.

“Ayu!” cried the mahout as the column came into view. It was the millenia-old Meo battle cry.

Simultaneously, both men fired. Shouts broke from the column, muzzles flashed, and bullets sang past. One of them hit the elephant in the ear, a sensitive spot. The beast trumpeted with rage. Eyes gleaming vengeance, trunk raised to strike, the elephant bore down on the running men. It caught up with them and plowed through, scattering bodies.

“Ayu!”

They thundered up the trail, leaving carnage in their wake: mangled bodies trampled to death, men smashed by the flailing trunk, men disemboweled by the ivory tusks. This was how elephants smashed columns of men when they were used in battle in the early days of Thailand.

But death also came to those who ran out of the way. Both sides of the trail were thick with pungi sticks, low ones for tripping a man, high ones to catch him full in the chest or back. As the Tiger soldiers dispersed into the undergrowth, they were impaled by the poisoned spikes. Behind Bolan the forest filled with screams of agony.

The forest lit up, and figures appeared holding flaming torches. They were the village women, and they held knives in their hands as well. Fleet of foot, as only mountain dwellers can be, they made their way between the pungis to finish off the soldiers and collect their weapons. The gruesome task had been left to the women because all available men were needed on the DZ. To help them, many women had brought their sons. The sons went about the business of human butchery with the nonchalant air of Idaho farmboys administering the coup de grace to fish.

“Ayu!”

They were reaching the head of the column. A white face went by, split in two by one of the swords. A rifle fired aimlessly before its owner exploded into a gory mess under the impact of the elephant’s feet. Suddenly they were in the clear, the trail empty. The transition was startling: one moment the noise of battle, the next only the animal’s thudding footsteps along a peaceful forest trail bathed in moonlight.

The mahout brought the elephant to a halt. Panting wildly, mouth foaming, its entire body glistening with sweat, the elephant proceeded to fan its ears to cool itself.

The mahout came up to the howdah and lit a cigarette. “Big Bottom needs rest,” he announced.

“Not too long,” said Bolan. They had to get to the DZ.

“Two cigarettes,” said the mahout, indicating the length of time they would stay there. He nodded in the direction of the forest. Rifle shots now punctuated the screams as the women, tired of killing by hand, killed the enemies with their rifles. “Tiger finished.”

“Only a column,” Bolan cautioned. “Lots more troops at the Tiger camp.”

“We will finish them, too,” said the mahout. “Then we go to fight Chinese in Yunnan.” One of the Meo dreams was to reconquer their ancient homeland, southern China. There were still five million Meo living there.

A shot rang from inside the trees and the mahout toppled.

Fenster! The name exploded in Bolan’s head as he recognized the sound of a Remington .306.

The elephant wheeled and with a trumpeting shriek charged into the trees. A figure detached itself from a tree — a tall figure with a white face — and fled inside the forest. Bolan held on to the howdah for dear life, crouching to avoid being decapitated by overhead branches. They barreled through the jungle, the elephant swerving, tearing vines and snapping trees in a cacophony of thrashing and trumpeting. Fenster was an agile runner and was outwitting the elephant by changing course at the last moment. But bit by bit the elephant gained.

The chase led into a clearing. The elephant was nearly on him when Fenster dived into a clump of bullaca bamboo. The elephant went after him, jabbing with its immense tusks, flailing its trunk. There was a scream, then the animal backed out with Fenster held firmly in its trunk. It backed all the way into the clearing and began swinging its prey from one side to the other. Bolan stood up in the howdah, and both men could see each other, Fenster sailing through the air as if on a swing, his eyes wide with fear, Bolan watching him, the Armalite in his hands.

“Help me!” Fenster cried. “Shoot him behind the ear!”

Bolan remained motionless, a figure in black bathed by the icy moonlight. Occasionally his silver collar glistened.

The elephant tossed the man high in the air, Fenster landed with a loud thud and began moaning.

The elephant went over and very gently placed a foot on Fenster to hold him while its trunk sought out an arm.

An agonizing scream escaped the man’s lips as the animal tore off the arm and sent it flying through the air.

Then the beast proceeded to tear off the remaining limbs.

Finally, giving an ear-splitting shriek, it trampled the dismembered torso to a pulp.

A birdcall sounded from inside the trees, and the mahout appeared. Seeing him, the elephant gave a joyous cry and ran to meet him. It hoisted him gently with its trunk, and the mahout came to the howdah, a bloody hand clutching his shoulder.

“Bullet went through,” he announced cheerfully.

“Let’s take a look,” said Bolan. He bared the mahout’s shoulder and examined the wound by the light of a match.

The mahout nodded at the mess on the ground. “Who was he?”

“A bad man,” said Bolan. He finished his examination and blew out the match. “On the way to the drop zone we will stop at the village. I want to bandage your wound.”

“We will be late for parachuting,” said the mahout.

“My mahout is more important,” said Bolan.

The other grunted, pleased. To the elephant he said, “Paj.” The beast moved off.

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