Flaming torches lighting their way, the handful of riders galloped in the night. A trail loomed ahead. The point rider swerved into it and the rest followed. The new trail led them out of the forest into a savanna, a plain of tall grass and woods. The torch riders swirled their torches to extinguish them, and the group rode on by the light of the moon, grass swishing under the horses’ legs. The headman, who was leading, maintained a grueling pace. It was two hours past the scheduled drop time.
On the other side of the plain was a range of hills. Twenty minutes later they were spurring their ponies up the slopes, galloping until the ground became too steep, then continuing at a fast climb, the horses straining. They went over a ridge, down an incline, and up another slope. When they got to the top, they stopped.
Below lay the Valley of the Spirits, and the slope directly ahead was dark with people and horses… and they were still waiting.
“Colonel!” exclaimed Vang Ky. “Where are the planes?”
“Weather could have delayed them,” said Bolan. “It happens.”
“But the sky is clear.”
“Yes, but over the ocean there might be a storm.”
“Password!” called the voice. A group of men emerged from bushes holding crossbows.
The headman gave the password, and the men joined them. They were one of the teams Nark had posted on the ridges to guard the drop zone. There was always a danger some Tiger patrol might show up.
“A plane came, but it did not stop,” said one of the guards.
“When?” asked the headman.
“A little after we arrive.”
The headman looked questioningly at Bolan.
“Could have been an airliner,” said Bolan. “We’ll ask Nark.”
They rode to a clump of trees midway down the slope that was to be the command post for the drop. In a clearing a campfire had been lit around which sat the other headmen and Nark. When he saw Bolan, the tall man with the mustache left the group and came over.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Better than here,” said Bolan, sensing the tension.
“There’s talk of going home. Some people are saying the spirits are angry we disturbed them. I’m trying to keep them from leaving.”
“What’s this about a plane?”
“Wasn’t ours,” said Nark. “A jet fighter by the sound of it. Flew high.”
Bolan dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. By the fire, Vang Ky was surrounded by angry headmen.
They left the trees and came out into the grassland. There were a good three thousand people on the slope and several hundred horses. An atmosphere of doom hung in the air, everyone conscious of what no drop signified. Instead of them attacking Tiger, Tiger would attack them, and this time the expedition would be accompanied by gunship helicopters. It would be a massacre.
Bolan and Nark sat down in the grass and lit cigarettes. For a while they watched the Montagnards. They stood like statues, their upturned faces watching the western horizon, the direction of the Indian Ocean. No one spoke, and the only sound was that of clothes flapping in the breeze.
“The wind’s picking up,” said Nark.
“Yeah,” said Bolan. With the wind would come clouds, and clouds were bad for a drop. Planes had trouble finding the drop zone.
They stretched out and smoked in silence, eyes on the stars in the sky. “What are we going to do if the planes don’t come, John?” asked Nark after a while.
“I don’t know.” Bolan sighed. “I really don’t know.” He felt tired, physically and emotionally.
In the west, high in the sky, a light was moving. Bolan and Nark sprang to their feet. Another chance traveler, or for them? Nark took a flashlight from his pocket and they waited.
The light drew nearer, flying straight for them. All of a sudden it went out. A disappointed groan swept the slope. Suddenly there was a shout. The light came again, and now it was flashing. It was flashing short, short, long, short. The letter
“Foxtrot!” cried Nark.
“Reply,” said Bolan calmly.
Nark pointed the flashlight at the plane and Morsed the letter
“He’s seen us!” said Nark.
Bolan cupped his mouth. “Light the fires!”
The valley echoed the shout, and moments later flames licked piles of branches stacked at the start and end of the drop zone. The bonfires grew, bathing the valley in a warm, red glow, silhouetting the men and ponies.
A deep drone filled the sky. It grew rapidly, and a floatplane flew over the valley. An object fell and a parachute blossomed.
“I’ll get it,” said Nark, running down.
A couple of Montagnards helped him to detach a container from the billowing parachute, and he dragged it back to the slope. Its contents included two radio handsets. Bolan took one, Nark the other.
Bolan pulled out the aerial on his. “Phoenix to aircraft, do you read me?”
The set crashed with static. “Five on five,” the voice in the sky replied. “Is the DZ secure? Got a passenger for you.”
Bolan and Nark exchanged glances. “Send him down,” said Bolan, intrigued.
They checked the rest of the goodies in the container. For Nark there was a camera; for Bolan there was a Makarov 9mm pistol with a silencer, and for both of them, money in three denominations — Thai bahts, Russian rubles, and U.S. dollars.
“What’s the pistol for?” asked Nark.
“I’ll find a use for it,” said Bolan.
The floatplane came in. A parachutist sailed to the ground preceded by a container dangling from his leg at the end of a cord. Such a setup usually denoted a precious cargo, one from which the parachutist did not intend to be separated.
“Romeo one to Phoenix,” said the floatplane’s pilot. “As soon as the passenger is off the field we’ll proceed with cargo drop. The other aircraft will be here in a minute.”
“Copied,” said Bolan.
On the field, the new arrival had collapsed his chute but seemed to be having a hard time extricating himself from his harness. Finally the harness fell away, and the man picked up the container and ran from the field, taking off his helmet.
“It’s Harry Stressner,” exclaimed Nark. “Harry, over here!” Nark waved. He turned to Bolan. “Harry’s one of our communications men.”
They watched him make his way up the slope, a big blond man in brown overalls. Bolan was sure this mystery visitor heralded new complications. From experience Bolan knew that when people turned up unexpectedly, it usually meant something was going wrong. Otherwise they would not have been sent. It cost money to send people on a mission.
“Hi, Nark,” said Stressner, coming up to them. He nodded to Bolan. “Colonel.”
“Good morning,” said Bolan.
Just then the sky roared as the floatplane made its cargo drop. This time a whole string of parachutes bloomed. One of the containers sailed over a bonfire beyond the drop zone.
Bolan pressed the talk button on the radio. “You were a little long there, Romeo. Shorten your drop fifty.”
“Sorry about that,” replied the voice in the sky.
A new voice broke in. “Romeo one, this is Romeo two and three coming in. Delta Zulu in sight.”
“Go right in, two and three,” said the pilot.
Two lights were moving in the northern sky, approaching the valley in a wide arc. As they neared, the planes took shape, an Ilyushin and an Antonov boxcar, the same that brought Bolan to Thailand three days earlier. Like the arms, the planes for Galloping Horse were Russian. The floatplane was a Beriev. All three had been purchased on the black market in Angola, a Soviet client state in Africa.
The Antonov came in first, its silver fuselage shining in the moonlight. Halfway over the valley the pilot gunned the engines, and with a roaring thunderclap the aircraft shot skyward almost vertically. A string of crates flew out its back door, some with three parachutes attached to them. The crates landed with heavy thuds.
The camouflage-patterned Ilyushin followed. It flew low and slow, pushed off course by the wind. The Ilyushin did not have the benefit of a back door, and dispatchers, not gravity, had to do the work. They shoved container after container through both side doors so that two strings of parachutes seemed to follow the plane as it flew over.
The Beriev flew past again, the Soviet red star clearly visible on its white tail. The radio came to life. “Romeo to Phoenix. The container with the orange parachute is money. The striped green is medicine.”
“Roger, Romeo,” Bolan replied. “Let’s take a break to clear the field.” The drop zone was becoming crowded with equipment, and there was the danger of collision and damage. Bolan turned to a group of men and horses nearby. “Major Vang Ky.”
The headman ran over. Bolan explained to him about the money. Vang Ky shouted orders to some men, and they ran onto the field. Bolan followed their progress, making sure the money container was picked up. Stories about covert missions were full of instances of money containers being lost, and of the people who were supposed to pick them up saying they never did.
The container retrieved, Bolan cupped his mouth. “Clear the field!”
A cheer broke from the slope as men ran down, pulling horses behind them. It was a race, a bit of fun after the tension and uncertainty of the night. Overhead, the planes began circling the valley in a holding pattern. Bolan turned to Stressner. It was time to find out what he was bringing.
“To what do we owe the pleasure?”
“The helicopter broke down, and they can’t find Russian spare parts,” Stressner announced. “The files will have to be transmitted out.” He nodded at the container by his feet. “I brought a Crypton.”
“A Crypton?” Bolan said.
“A high-speed key transmitter. Works like a typewriter. Codes itself.”
“That’d take hours,” said Bolan.
“Depends on how much there is to send,” said Stressner.
Bolan nodded to himself. It meant an overhaul of their strategy. Galloping Horse had been planned as a hit and destroy operation, in and out. Now they would have to provide security after capturing the hardsite to make sure the transmitting was not interrupted by the appearance of some Tiger unit returning from the bush.
Furthermore, there was the agreement with the Meo. Nothing in it stipulated they had to establish a defensive perimeter after the hardsite was captured. Montagnards were loath to do that, hit and run being their specialty. He or Nark might be able to convince them to prolong their services, but they most certainly would ask for overtime money.
“I don’t suppose Control sent some extra cash, did they?” asked Bolan.
“Beg your pardon, Colonel?” said Stressner.
“Never mind.” Obviously they had not.
“We could offer them the gold at the hardsite,” suggested Nark. He had caught on immediately to what Bolan was thinking.
“They already expect the gold,” said Bolan.
“They might expect it, but nothing in the agreement we made with them stipulates they’re entitled to it,” said Nark. “I intentionally refrained from making any commitment.”
Bolan chewed on a blade of grass. It was a moot point, but it was a start. In fact, it was about the only approach he could think of. “Okay, I’ll try that.”
“Romeo one to Phoenix. Can we resume?”
The last crate was being dragged off the field by ponies. “Go ahead, Romeo,” said Bolan. He looked at Nark. “Take over,” he said and set off for the woods to solve the latest problem.
* * *
In the forest, by the light of flaming torches, headmen were prying open crates and giving out arms. Others were demonstrating how to use them. A noisy crowd milled amid the trees, and the air resounded with the rattle of bolts and slamming magazines. There was also a great deal of brave war talk. Gloom had given way to bravado.
As he made his way through the crowd, Bolan observed the wide variety of weapons. There were brand-new Kalashnikovs and ancient Mosin-Nagants, Dragunov snipers, and Simonov carbines. There were several makes of machine and submachine guns, and four types of grenades: soup can, egg, pineapple, and potato masher.
The variety was something Bolan would have preferred to do without — the profusion of calibers meant ammunition was not interchangeable — but he had been warned to expect it. To avoid arousing interest that might have compromised the mission, the arms were bought in small quantities in various parts of the world, and not everyone had the same weapons for sale.
Bolan found Vang Ky by a crate of pepeshas, the acronym for the PPSH-41, the famed submachine gun of World War II whose perforated barrel and circular 70-round ammunition drum gave it a distinctive appearance. With it the Red Army drove the Germans from the Soviet Union. The guns had been bought in Chad from a supposed Marxist revolutionary making a killing from the resale of arms given to him by the Soviet Union.
“Everything going okay?” Bolan asked.
“Very good, Colonel,” replied Vang Ky, his mood visibly improved. “The men are very happy. Plenty of guns.”
“And the money?”
Bolan watched him explain to a younger man how to use the pepesha.
As with most older Montagnards, Vang Ky was familiar with World War II Russian weaponry from the war fought from 1946 to 1954 between the Vietminh and the French in which the Montagnards sided with the French.
When Vang Ky finished, Bolan asked, “Can I have a word with you in private?”
The headman signaled to an assistant to take over, and they went back out onto the field. A plane was coming in for a drop. Bolan waited until the plane passed and the noise subsided, then he explained the problem and made his proposition. In return for a defensive follow-up, the Meo could have the Tiger gold.
Vang Ky considered it for a while, eyes on the ground, teeth sucking the air. Bit by bit his head began shaking. “No, Colonel,” he said finally. “No good. If we must defend, we must be paid more. And not with gold. The gold belongs to the Hmong.”
“Not quite,” said Bolan.
For the next quarter of an hour they haggled like a couple of fishmongers. It was a role Bolan did not relish, but he did not shirk it. As Bismarck once observed, three things are necessary to win a war: money, money, and money. And he who talks money by necessity talks like a fishmonger.
“Okay, Major,” he said at last, “if that’s how you feel, you can lead the attack yourself. Nark and I are pulling out.”
The headman started, taken aback. A ruse or for real? He was well aware the Meo needed Bolan as much as Bolan needed the Meo. Without Bolan, the chances of them destroying Tiger were nil. Instead, Tiger would destroy the Meo. “Pull out?” he exclaimed. “You cannot do that!”
“You don’t think so?” said Bolan. “Listen, Major, the whole point of attacking Tiger is to exploit their files. Without security they can’t be transmitted. The attack becomes pointless.”
Again Vang Ky lowered his eyes and sucked through his teeth. Again, his head began to shake. “No, Colonel, I still cannot agree.”
“Wait!” Vang Ky called after him. He ran up to Bolan’s side. “Let us say I agree. Could you obtain immigration visas for my sons?”
Bolan stared down at him in amazement.
“Then I agree. A defensive perimeter in return for the gold. And visas for my sons. Shake?”
They shook hands, and Bolan went back to Nark.
“Well? “asked Nark.
“We’re back on the rails,” said Bolan.
“I knew you’d do it.”
“Romeo one to Phoenix!” The voice was frantic. “Low-flying aircraft closing in from the south. Unidentified.”
“I thought those gizmos were supposed to blind their radar,” said a voice in one of the planes.
“Goddamned Russian equipment,” spat another.
From over the ridge came the sound of jets. Two F-86 Sabre fighters roared over the valley, and Bolan caught sight of red-white-and-blue rondelles: Royal Thai Air Force. The planes banked and went into a tight circle over the valley, effectively blocking any further drops.
“Romeo one to Phoenix. Fighters demanding we identify. What do we tell ’em?”
“Stall them,” Bolan
“We still have to drop the mortar,” replied the pilot of the llyushin.
“Got to have that,” said Nark to Bolan.
“Not if it’s going to cost us a crew, we don’t,” Bolan told him. “The moment he tries to make an approach, they’ll shoot.” Bolan jabbed the talk button. “Okay, guys, we’ll forego the mortar. Prepare to split.”
“Romeo one to Phoenix!” The voice was frantic again. “We’re ordered to proceed to Oudon.”
“Keep saying you don’t understand in Russian and standby.”
Bolan slung the radio over his shoulder and ran for the woods. He grabbed a Degtyarev machine gun, inserted a drum of ammunition, and ran out. He climbed the slope to a rocky tower and took up a position in the entrance to a cave, gun at his hip.
The Sabres were curving toward him, coming from the left. They went out of sight, and he heard them fly past behind him. They reappeared on his right, exhaust glowing. They curved once more and straightened out over the opposite ridge.
Bolan pulled the trigger and a line of tracers arched over the valley. The rounds came nowhere near the planes, but Bolan was not interested in hitting them; he only wanted to attract their attention. And attract it he did. The fighters zoomed and peeled. Two Immelmann turns followed, and they came shrieking down at him.
“Split, Romeo!” Bolan shouted into the radio. “Split!”
The nose of one of the fighters winked, and colored tracers from its cannon flew at him. Bolan stepped into the cave. It was a trick he picked up from the VC though they, he had to admit, were much more sophisticated. The VC pulled the stunt using artillery.
The rocky tower thudded under the impact of the projectiles. The planes roared over, and a bomb exploded outside. The ground shook, the cave blurred. A section of the wall collapsed, and the cave filled with dust.
Bolan ran out, coughing. There was a crater ten yards from the tower. As for the planes, they were banking, coming out of their dive. One left the valley, heading after a plane, the other prepared to pay Bolan another visit.
Bolan teased it with a burst and stepped inside. Once again, the tower thudded. Another bomb exploded. As it did so, the entrance of the cave flashed white and a blast of hot air swept the inside. Close!
Bolan ran out and tumbled headfirst into a crater just outside the entrance. As he was scrambling from it, the radio came on. Over the crash of static a voice was shouting.
“Fighter on your tail! Fighter on your tail! Look out!”
“Oh, shit,” a voice said calmly. In the northern sky something flashed.
“Fire! Fire! We’re burning! We’re hit!”
“Pipe down,” the calm voice told him. “Damage report.”
“Fire in number four engine. Fuel pressure dropping.”
“Phoenix to aircraft on fire,” said Bolan into his set. “Can you make it back to land here?”
“We’ll try,” the calm voice replied. “Thanks for the invitation.”
The sound of cannon in the sky sent Bolan diving into the crater. The Sabre roared over, the rocky tower flashed as if hit by lightning, the ground shook, rocks and dirt rained on Bolan.
When he finally got up, the tower was no more. Nor was the cave. Had Bolan gone back into the cave for the third time, he would be climbing the ladder to heaven, as the Meo put it so poetically.
A drone filled the sky, the Ilyushin was returning. From its starboard wing trailed two tongues of flame. Both engines were now on fire. On the field, Nark was supervising the clearing of the drop zone. The last crates were being dragged off by teams of ponies. Bolan scanned the sky for the fighters, but they were gone. Gone to refuel, which meant others would be coming.
“Romeo three to Phoenix,” said the voice in the sky. “We’re coming in.”
The Ilyushin approached, one of its two remaining engines coughing. Then both fell silent. The plane lost height rapidly. It flew over the first bonfire, and Bolan could hear the rush of air and the noise of flames sounding like flapping cloth. The silver fuselage gleamed red from the bonfires. The landing gear was not extended. The plane touched down and with a crunching noise slid on its belly, raising a cloud of dust. It plowed through the second bonfire, a wing tipped, and it spun to a halt.
The crew jumped out but instead of getting away proceeded to unload. Nark and Stressner ran to them with Montagnards coming after, leading ponies. Bolan followed. By the time he reached the plane, the mortar tubes and bombs had been unloaded. Everyone grabbed something and ran.
From the south another pair of fighters was streaking toward them. This time the whole valley opened up. The air filled with the crash of automatic weapons and a panoply of tracers formed the sky. The planes peeled, avoiding the tracers.
“Cease fire!” Bolan shouted, running along the slope. “Cease fire!” The last thing he wanted was to shoot down a Thai plane. They were fighting Tiger Enterprises, not Thailand.
The shooting died down while the Thunderstreaks circled the valley by a wide margin. Nark came running to Bolan. “They’ll have bombers with napalm here in a moment.”
“And heliborne troops first thing in the morning,” Bolan added. “Major Vang Ky!”
The headman ran to him up the slope.
“Move out,” Bolan told him.
“No, we go directly to the Tiger camp.”
He nodded and ran off.
Whistles blew, voices shouted. Bolan’s Montagnard army was finally on the march.