Bolts of lightning illuminated the village. Several hundred houses, some on the ground, others on stilts, lay astride a bend in the river. A wooden bridge linked the two sides. On horseback, dripping with water, Bolan and Ty Ling observed it from a nearby ridge. The storm continued unabated, sheets of rain sweeping the countryside, trees creaking in the wind.
“Who are they?” Bolan shouted above the noise.
“Kachin,” Ty Ling shouted back. A tribe of Montagnards.
“Looks all right to me,” said Bolan. If there were Tiger soldiers around, he would have seen horses.
“Please, let’s go,” said Ty Ling, her teeth chattering from the cold.
They descended the slope and rode into the village, sloshing through pools of water, hooves sinking in mud. Bolan reined by the first house that looked big enough to accommodate visitors. He dismounted, went up to Ty Ling, and she slid into his arms. No point in both of them getting their feet muddy.
He kicked the door open on the Montagnard principle of your home is my home and carried her in. Inside was a large room with a beaten earth floor on which glowed a fire. They threw logs on the fire and pulled up stools.
A pair of feet shuffled from behind a partition, and a man in a nightcap appeared. He and Bolan exchanged grunts, then the Montagnard pulled up a stool and joined them. A conversation got underway with Ty Ling translating from Burmese to English.
The gist of it was that they were welcome to stay, and the Montagnard would sell them food for their journey as well as feed for their horses. He also would sell Ty Ling a black pajama suit. Everything would cost five dollars, which Bolan gave him.
Bolan went outside and led the horses to the Montagnard’s stable, a roof supported by poles. He unsaddled them, gave them hay and water, and walked back to the house. The storm was finally letting up. On the horizon Bolan could see clear sky. The helicopters could come.
When he got back Ty Ling already wore the black suit. Her dress was suspended from rafters over the fire. On the ground lay two sleeping mats with blankets, and by the fire was a low wicker table with a bottle of tieu and glasses. There was also a plate of dried pig intestines to nibble on, a Montagnard delicacy.
“Take off your suit,” said Ty Ling. “You’ll catch cold.”
Bolan undressed in the shadows. He wrapped himself in a blanket and joined her by the fire. She took his suit and, using a pole, hung it from the rafters.
“What about your socks and underwear?” she asked.
“They’re on the mat,” he said.
“They have to dry, too,” she said. She fetched them and hung them up in turn. She resumed her seat by the fire, poured a glass of tieu, and handed it to Bolan.
He took the glass. “What about you?” he said.
“I don’t drink,” she replied. She held out the plate of dried food.
Bolan took a handful and munched. It was delicious. He chased it down with the whiskey. “Who’s our host? “he asked.
“His name is Alosak,” said Ty Ling. “He’s got three wives. Each has a house. He rotates a week with each wife.” She took a piece of dried food. “What do you think of polygamy?”
Bolan smiled. “Never having been married I don’t have an opinion.”
“I once had a Montagnard patient who had four wives,” said Ty Ling. “This was at the hospital in Mandalay. He said it worked out very well. The wives fought each other and left him in peace.” Ty Ling gave Bolan one of her scrutinizing looks. “I’m surprised no woman has hooked you yet.”
“I wouldn’t be much of a husband,” said Bolan. “Always away.”
“I don’t know,” mused Ty Ling, surveying him. She was about to say something, then changed her mind. She refilled his empty glass. “Where will the helicopters take us?”
“Indian Ocean, probably,” said Bolan. “We have an island base in the Bay of Bengal. From there we’ll take a plane. Most likely it will stop in Frankfurt to refuel. You can fly on from there to Dusseldorf. Only a hundred and twenty miles from Frankfurt.”
“I’ve never been to Germany,” said Ty Ling. “Gunther says…” She stopped, seeing Bolan’s raised hand.
From outside the door came the sound of feet and hooves sloshing through water and mud. They could also hear the sound of webbing, buckles and metal. It sounded like an army on the march.
The Montagnard appeared from behind the partition. All three listened to the column march by. The sound receded, and Bolan asked the Montagnard to find out who they were. While their host investigated, Bolan dressed.
The Montagnard returned a quarter of an hour later. Ty Ling translated for Bolan. The column was a unit of the Shans. They had stopped for the night in the village on the other side of the river. Some men were wounded.
“I’m going over,” said Ty Ling.
“I’ll come with you,” said Bolan.
“No,” said Ty Ling firmly. “Better if they don’t see you. They could take you for an Englishman. The English have advisers helping the Burmese fight the Shans. Get some rest,” she said, going out with the Montagnard.
Bolan went back to the fire. A bossy woman if ever there was one. But that was typical of Oriental women. Outwardly docile, behind the scenes they could be slave drivers. Gunther was going to have his life cut out from
Stretched out on a mat, he was dozing off when the Montagnard returned. But Ty Ling was not with him. Instead, there entered a tall, intelligent-looking individual in a camouflage uniform topped by a
Four soldiers crossed the threshold after him, all four armed with British Sterling submachine guns. Two carried lanterns, two had their weapons in hand, though the muzzles were pointed at the ground.
“Good evening,” said the individual in Oxford-accented English. “I am Captain Yeu of the Shan Liberation Army. I understand you’re an American.”
“Yes, I am,” said Bolan.
“John Phoenix. Colonel.”
“I won’t ask what you are doing here,” the captain began. “I really don’t care. I have come to tell you that Dr. Ty Ling will not be leaving with you in the morning. Our doctor has been killed, and we are requisitioning her services for the duration of the campaign.”
“You can’t do that,” said Bolan.
“Really?” said the captain, amused.
“I promised to take Dr. Ty Ling with me,” said Bolan.
“Too bad, isn’t it?”
“I intend to keep my promise.”
An annoyed expression crossed the captain’s face. “Look, Colonel, I’m trying to be nice about this. You’re an American and we have nothing against Americans. If you were English I would simply have you shot. Let’s settle our differences in a civilized manner, shall we?” He held out his hand. “Your gun belt, please.”
At that, the two muzzles rose.
There are times when discretion is the better part of valor, and Bolan chose this to be one of them. He unbuckled his belt and handed it over. The captain passed it to one of the soldiers and spoke in Shan. Another soldier held up a lantern and inspected the room. The AK-74 and the radio went the way of the gun belt.
“I need my radio to get out of the country,” said Bolan.
“Or perhaps to tip off the Burmese,” said the captain. “You should consider yourself lucky we’re letting you go alive, Colonel.”
Bolan smiled easily.
“Your protest is noted,” the captain acknowledged sarcastically. “Meanwhile, I advise you not to try any heroics. There will be four men on guard outside. You’ll be escorted out of the village at daybreak.” He opened the door. “Good night.”
* * *
In the morning he was awakened by the crowing of cocks. Light filtered through cracks in the mat walls. The household was already up. They served him pancakes and tea, which he took outside to eat. As soon as he stepped through the door, bolts snapped.
“Okay, okay,” he gestured, calming the four guards. “Just came out to take some fresh air.”
He squatted down and ate. It was sunrise, and the sun was streaking the sky red and violet. There wasn’t a cloud in sight. The helicopters would come for sure.
A couple of soldiers appeared, walking from the river. They came up to the guards and had a conversation in Shan. It was about him, he could tell.
One of the soldiers, a corporal, motioned to him to come. “We go,” he said in English.
Bolan downed his tea and returned the mug to the Montagnard. Pancake in hand he walked with them across the bridge. In a field of grazing land, beyond the houses on the other side, the Shan unit was undergoing morning inspection prior to marching out.
There were several hundred soldiers, including two or three hundred riders. The riders were being inspected by Yeu. Bolan caught sight of Ty Ling in the front row, a man’s raincoat over her shoulders, a wide straw hat on her head.
Bolan’s spirits rose. He would get a chance to talk to her, to tell her not to lose heart, that he would not abandon her, that no matter what, he would rescue her.
But he was deluding himself, for as he approached the riders, Yeu rode to meet him. The corporal stopped the procession, and his sidekick poked the muzzle of his gun in Bolan’s back. It was clear they did not want him to go any farther.
“Good morning, Colonel,” said Yeu cheerfully.
“Good morning, Captain,” Bolan replied. “I wonder if you could ask my escort not to poke me with his gun. It could go off.”
Yeu spoke to the man in Shan, and the other lowered the weapon. “Done,” said Yeu. “Any other requests?”
“I would like to say goodbye to Dr. Ty Ling.”
“That, I regret, is not possible.”
“It is not possible, Colonel,” Yeu repeated. “In which direction do you wish to go?”
“I am heading east,” said Bolan. “But where is my horse?”
“Your horse has been requisitioned by the Shan Liberation Army,” replied Yeu. Again he spoke to the man in Shan. “Have a nice trip.” He touched the peak of his cap and rode off.
“We go,” said the corporal.
But Bolan did not budge. He stood there with his eyes on Ty Ling, trying to decide how he could let her know he would return for her. He did not want to call out. It could antagonize the Shans who might decide she was going to cause trouble and have her beaten later.
The soldier behind him brought the muzzle of his gun up and pushed him with it.
So Bolan simply raised his hand.
In reply, Ty Ling gave him a wave, a sad, resigned wave, the gesture of someone who was not expecting to see him again.
Bolan’s throat tightened. She did not expect to see him again, yet she did not ask for her money or jewels.
They set out on the trail in the direction of the rising sun. Walls of steam rose from the jungle. By noon the countryside would be completely dry, Bolan told himself.
So much the better, because with all that rising steam the helicopters could miss him.
Bolan was sure the helicopters would look for him. That was not the problem. The problem was that he still did not know in which direction the Shans were taking Ty Ling. He had hoped to engage the house guards in conversation that morning, but the arrival of the corporal spoiled his plan.
This pair was his last chance. He must not let it go by. He must get into conversation with them before they left him. Unfortunately, the speed at which they moved was not conducive to talking.
The two soldiers kept up a grueling pace, barreling up and down the hills like goats. The Montagnards can do this because they always walk on the balls of their feet to avoid jarring the nerve in the heel.
“Shoot me if you like, but I’m taking a rest,” said Bolan. He sat down by a tree. “I’m not used to walking like Montagnards,” he lied, wiping sweat from his face with his sleeve.
The soldier said something to the corporal. The other announced, “We take a rest. But not long.”
“Agreed,” said Bolan. He watched them squat down and light up cigarettes. “That was not nice of the captain to take my horse,” he began.
“We need horses to fight,” said the corporal.
“In Burma horses expensive,” said the soldier. “Not like in America. In America plenty horses. Cowboys. Bang! Bang!”
Both men laughed.
“Have you been fighting long?”
“Me five years,” said the corporal.
“Me three,” said the soldier.
“A long time,” said Bolan.
“Not so long,” said the corporal. “Some men fight ten, twenty years. Shans fighting for independence since end of war against Japanese.” He meant World War II.
“Where will you fight next?”
“What you mean?” asked the corporal.
“Where is your unit going to fight after the village?”
“We are not allowed to tell you,” said the corporal.
“What about yourselves, where will you go when you leave me on the ridge?”
“We join unit.”
So. They knew which route the unit was taking, Bolan realized. Now part two of the plan. He stretched himself on his back, hands clasped behind his head, and closed his eyes.
“No sleeping,” said the corporal.
“Don’t worry,” said Bolan. “I won’t. I just have a headache.”
The soldiers went on smoking in silence. After a while the corporal called, “American.”
Bolan ignored him, pretending to be sleeping.
“American, we must go.”
Bolan did not budge.
The corporal finished his cigarette and came to Bolan. “Get up,” he said, shaking him.
“Let me sleep,” Bolan mumbled.
The soldier joined the corporal. Each took an arm and they pulled. “Get up!”
“Okay, okay,” Bolan said sleepily.
Bolan’s hands closed around their wrists as if to pull himself up. Suddenly he sprang to his feet, pushing and twisting their arms. The soldiers screamed in pain. It was
“On your knees!” Bolan snarled.
As they went down, he let go of the soldier and delivered a closed-fisted chop to the base of his neck. The soldier went out cold. Bolan disarmed the corporal and ordered him to lie on the ground, facedown.
He took a
They resumed the journey, Bolan walking behind them, holding the Sterling. Once again he was a free man.
“Where are we going?” asked the corporal.
“To the next ridge,” said Bolan.
They reached it an hour later. Bolan found a nearby clearing and tied the Shans to trees. He prepared a bonfire with leaves and twigs, packing the inside with wet leaves so it would give off smoke. Then he sat down under a tree, the Sterling in his lap.
“What we wait for?” asked the corporal.
“My helicopters. They will come to pick me up.”
“When will they come?”
“This afternoon, maybe. Or maybe tonight. We will wait until they come. And when they come you must tell me where your unit is going so I can get my woman back.”
“We will not tell you,” said the corporal. “If we tell you, the captain will kill us.”
“And if you don’t tell me, I will kill you,” said Bolan. “I don’t want to, but I will. I am sure you would do the same if someone stole your woman.”
“We did not steal your woman,” said the soldier.
“Yes, but by not telling me where she is going, you are helping another man steal her. Same thing.”
“We are soldiers,” he went on. “We must obey orders.”
“And I am a man,” Bolan retorted. “A man has a duty to defend his woman. Is that not right?”
“We still won’t tell you,” said the corporal.
“We shall see,” said Bolan. “We shall see.”