It was sunset when they finally steamed out of the forest. It had taken over two hours to load. First, ramps had to be built to get the horses onto the flatcars, then platforms had to be installed to turn the ore wagons into two-story cars, which doubled their capacity. In each car the floor was taken up by men and equipment. Over their heads was a bamboo platform on which stood more men. Even with these additions, however, they were short of space, and men had to sit on the locomotive, the passenger car roof, between the legs of horses, on couplings, and some hung from outside ladders.
“Colonel Phoenix’s war train,” Nark joked.
“Some war train,” said Bolan. “We look more like an army in retreat.”
They stood on top of the coal tender of the moving train surveying the long line of overcrowded cars. The car directly behind them was a flatcar with horses and men, then came two ore wagons full of men bristling with guns, then the passenger car with its rooftop passengers, then more ore wagons interspersed with flat-cars. Over fifty cars.
They chugged at ten miles an hour through the savanna toward the next forest, trailing a pall of smoke, the machinist whistling nonstop to scare off elephants. Herds were crossing the line on their way to the evening watering, kicking up dust colored pink by the setting sun. The sun hung in the western sky over a ridge, a flaming disk.
“Isn’t it beautiful!” said Nark, looking in the direction of the setting sun.
Bolan nodded, feasting his eyes on the sight.
“How soon do you figure we’ll be in Py Fung?” asked Nark.
“If everything goes well, two hours,” replied Bolan. “Then another three by trail. We should be in position, ready to attack, before midnight.”
“What about the train?”
“We’ll park it in a siding. The engine driver says there’s enough canopy to hide it. We’ll put a bullet through the tank so he can’t report us. He’ll have to walk to town.”
“You told him?”
Bolan nodded. “I’m paying him a thousand bahts for the inconvenience.”
They steamed into the next forest. It got darker and cooler, and in the confined space the wheels seemed much louder. Solan’s stomach tightened. The two hours it took them to load would have given the Thais plenty of time to put troops on the line as well. Bolan glanced behind him. The men in the ore wagons stood by the sides, guns pointing at the bordering forest. Bolan raised the radio to his mouth.
“This is the colonel speaking. All headmen, please remind your troops of the orders. We are not to fire on Thai troops even if they fire on us. I repeat:
“I don’t think we have to worry too much on that score,” said Nark. “While we were loading I heard the headmen telling their men that if anybody shot at the Thais they’d have their wages confiscated. I get the impression they realize your order is as much to their benefit as ours. When this mission’s over, you and I will leave, but they have to go on living with the Thais. It’s better not to rub your neighbor the wrong way too much.”
“Let’s hope you’re right,” said Bolan.
The fear of a firefight with the Thais was a constant worry to Bolan. From experience he knew that fire control is one of the hardest orders for troops to follow. When bullets fly and men around you fall, it takes real discipline to resist firing back.
On this mission Bolan felt like a trapeze artist who has to perform two tricks at once. He had to destroy Tiger without killing any Thais who got in the way, a frustrating position for a commander to be in.
The president had told him, “Your hands will be tied from the very start. If under the circumstances you prefer not to undertake the mission, I’ll understand and we’ll abandon it.” But Bolan had a personal reason for wanting to destroy Tiger. It was another snaking head of the very same Hydra that had almost devoured Bolan’s warriors off Cuba. He would fight for sure.
The train rounded a bend, and Bolan’s fears materialized. The Thais
The engineer poked his head from the cab. “We stop?” he asked.
“Keep going!” Bolan shouted back.
The engineer began hooting, and the two soldiers stepped off the track. Bolan kept his eyes on their hands. But neither they nor the others made any attempt to bring up their weapons. They merely stood there watching, interested spectators, their stance relaxed, seemingly unconcerned that the train took no notice of their order.
As the train neared the group, Bolan saw one of them — an officer, judging by his side arm — motion to the radioman to pass him the telephone-like headset. He was speaking into it when the locomotive passed, his eyes on Bolan, his expression calm, unperturbed, professional.
“I don’t know,” said Bolan, turning to see what would happen next. But nothing happened. The Thais watched the cars roll by with the same detached air, the officer talking calmly into his set. Bolan lost them from view behind a bend. “They look like men who have something up their sleeve.”
“What do you think it could be?” asked Nark.
“We’ll discover soon enough,” replied Bolan.
“You know, those were rangers.”
“Trained by our Green Berets.”
“That should make things even more interesting.”
They rolled through the forest, listening to the locomotive’s puffing and the rumbling of the wheels, waiting for the evening’s surprises. The air was getting darker, the trees so close to the track it was like going through a tunnel. Often they had to duck to avoid branches.
Finally they rounded a bend and steamed out into a large clearing. It was a good two miles long and a half mile wide. The track ran straight as an arrow, and in the distance more flares burned on the line. But it was not the flares that commanded Bolan’s attention, it was the goings-on beyond them.
Fifty-or-so yards on the other side of the flares — it was hard to tell at that distance — men crouched over the track. And five hundred yards beyond them was another group. At the sight of the train, both rose and ran to join a third group, this one standing halfway between the track and the tree line. A man in the third group had a radio antenna protruding from his back.
In the split second it took him to register the scene, Bolan had the answer to what the Thais had up their sleeve. Having been informed by the others by radio that the train refused to stop, this group had mined the track. Bolan’s experienced eye even told him how they had mined it: they had used the Fog Signal system.
Beyond the flares — the last warning to the train — a detonator lay on the track. When the wheels of the train crossed it, it would explode the charges down the line, the distance between the detonator and the charges giving the driver time to stop. The Fog Signal was used to stop a train by blowing up the track without derailing the train.
To Bolan it was obvious that the Thais, too, wanted to avoid bloodshed. The peace-loving Thais were practicing what they preached. But Bolan had a mission to carry out, a mission into which he had sunk a lot of time, effort, and pain. A man whose balls have been broiled does not give up at the last moment. Colonel Phoenix’s war train was stopping for no one, bad guys or good.
“Give me smoke!” he shouted.
He leaped off the coal tender, landing on the flatcar amid men and horses. He swung into a saddle and dug in his heels. The horse leaped from the moving car. It landed, stumbled, recovered, and Bolan sent it galloping down the side of the train.
They passed the locomotive and began outdistancing it, heading for the flares. Tracers flew at him as the Thais opened fire. Almost immediately, however, the three mortar tubes on the gun platform opened up, and smoke bombs began exploding, creating a smoke screen between him and the Thais.
The screen advanced with him, the mortar crews loading as fast as the bombs left the tubes. But gaps between the screen were unavoidable, and Bolan’s white horse stood out. Colored projectiles still sang past him.
They galloped past the spewing flares, and Bolan leaned in the saddle, eyes scanning the rail, searching for the watch-and-strap shape of the Fog Signal detonator. Suddenly, he was flying, catapulted over his horse that now had blood pouring from its head, shot.
He scrambled to his feet and began running. Bullets no longer sang past him, his Montagnard suit making him harder to see, but now he was conscious of a more ominous sound — the locomotive was catching up with him. Then he saw it, a black object against the shining rail.
Lungs bursting from the strain, eyes tearing from the rush of air, the smoke screen blowing in his direction, he raced for the detonator. He reached it, his hands sought out the detonator cord and he pulled. But the cord refused to budge. It was firmly attached to the rail by tape.
A whistle rent the air, the engine driver warning Bolan to get out of the way. A picture flashed before Bolan’s eyes: himself with bandaged wrists, hands amputated by the locomotive’s wheels. He wanted to run, but the bigger part of him — Bolan the professional — maintained his grip on the cord.
A piercing cry escaped his lips, a cry of controlled hysteria of the kind that gives enough strength to a woman to lift a car to save her child, and he threw himself backward to escape the thundering wheels. The cord came away with him.
The locomotive rolled past Bolan in a deafening cacophony of pistons, steam and wheels. The ground trembled, he felt metal heat, smelled grease. He scrambled to his feet and ran after the train.
As he ran he was conscious of stretching arms and shouting mouths, but in a vague way, as if in a dream. Then his hands came into contact with metal, a metal ladder running up the side of an ore wagon. He grabbed it and was dragged along the ground, then he pulled himself up and began climbing. His head swam, and his body grew weak.
Scores of hands reached down for him. He felt himself lifted and pulled in over the side. At that moment a loud cheer went up from the train, but he did not hear it. Bolan’s world had gone black.