Terrence looked him up and down, "If you foul up just once more ... I'm going to ... I'll split your gizzard, stuff it with To-To leaves and send you to the Rumi for their breakfast with my compliments!"
O'Shaughnessy shivered at the dire threat as O'Mara turned to Rev. Goodman who stood with his people clustered about him. "All right, Reverend, you can move out with your flock. I'll throw patrols out in front of you and bring up the rear with the rest of the Rifles. We'll see you as far as the edge of the swamps."
In a long straggly line, the refugees started out with the native police keeping order and Goodman marching at their head. The two drums and the three bugles of the Narakan Rifles struck up a badly mangled version of Back to Donegal, and the column followed on the heels of the civilians. Once or twice Terrence glanced back at the smoke and flame that had been Dust Bin before he turned his face forward across the miles of grasslands to where the Suzi swamps lay.
Darkness had fallen but progress wasn't difficult until one of those sudden, lashing storms for which Naraka was famous hurled itself upon them, flattening the tall grass, raising swirls of dust and finally turning the dust into thick, clinging mud.
As suddenly as it had come, the storm was gone. But by that time they were in the swamp itself. Night in the Suzi swamps. Swamps composed of a sticky, gray mud and heavy tangled undergrowth. The night was as black as the day had been bright. The column which had left the civilians at the edge of the swamp was pushing slowly forward. The Narakans glided along on their bare, webbed feet and the Terrans pushed along on snowshoe-like glides attached to their boots.
Bill Fielding, bareheaded with his helmet thrown back over his shoulder, floundered along beside Terrence. "Did you ever see a place like this? Did you ever see mud like this? Even the Irish bogs couldn't be this bad."
Terrence checked his map, shielding his flashlight carefully. "We'll be out of the worst of this by tomorrow morning," he said.
"If we live until tomorrow morning," Fielding replied, "those Rumi have eyes like the blasted jungle cats they're descended from."
"I don't think we have much to worry about until we get out of the swamps. I doubt if their patrols would penetrate very deeply into this mess."
"How about the radio? Has Polasky been able to get through to Fort Craven?" asked Fielding.
O'Mara shook his head, "no. You know what Beta's radiations do to radio reception this time of year. Even at night it takes a powerful transmitter to reach farther than twenty or thirty miles."
Later in the night, with a good ten miles of swamp country between him and the enemy, Terrence called a halt on a slightly raised spot of almost dry ground. The unwearied Greenbacks and the exhausted Terrans dropped down in huddled groups. The patrols that had penetrated to the edge of the swamp came in to report that they had contacted no Rumi ahead. Terrence munched a can of cold beans and fell over in an exhausted sleep to the sound of O'Shaughnessy placing sentries about the camp.
The next day's march was a nightmare to the lieutenant. If anything, the heat and humidity were worse in the swamps than they had been in Dust Bin and the going got tougher every mile. The mud was softer and the undergrowth had to be cut away by bayonet-wielding Narakans before the main body could move through. Terrence had thrown off his battle armor and lost his radiation helmet somewhere in the morass as had other of the Earthmen. Hannigan had prepared a thick mess of mud and grass which the Terrans applied to exposed parts of their bodies.
Late in the afternoon of the second day the Narakan Rifles came to a tepid little stream that marked the end of the swamps, and for the first time Terrence ordered a rest of longer than two hours. Bill Fielding was lying flat on his back in the grass beside the stream with his feet dangling in the water, shoes and all, when O'Mara dragged himself wearily back from inspecting the pickets and flopped down beside him.
"If I never to my dying day see another speck of mud," Fielding muttered as he ate a bar of tropical chocolate that was as mud covered as he was, "I'll still have seen more than all the Fieldings for two hundred years back have seen on Earth and Mars."
"And now," said Terrence as he eased over on his back with a heavy sigh, "that we have run out of mud, we can start looking for Rumi."
"At least it'll be a change! Here Kitty! Here kitty! Nice Rumi! Come and get a bayonet in...."
Clack, clack, clack. The sound of spring guns broke the stillness of the afternoon and was followed by the sound of rifles and a cry of pain.
"Oh, Lord!" moaned O'Mara, "now it starts!" He was on his feet, gripping his carbine and running bent over. Fielding was at his heels, dragging a machine gun off the ground.
"O'Shaughnessy! Hannigan! Take the first platoon. Move up to support the pickets. O'Toole! On the double! Take your squad and try to get around the firing. Bill, you and Polasky stand by here with the rest of the men and the Bannings."
Terrence had plunged into the stream and splashed across and was clambering up the opposite bank when one of his pickets came crawling and stumbling back clutching a wounded arm. "Mr. Lieutenant! Mr. Lieutenant! Rumi! Rumi! Many Rumi up ahead! Sullivan and O'Leary dead! Rumi get!"
"Medic! Medic!" O'Shaughnessy was yelling in his ear with the full-throated croak of an adult Narakan, drowning out what the wounded picket was trying to say.
"How many? How many Rumi, man?" Terrence demanded.
"Twenty ... thirty ... maybe thousand!" the Narakan gasped as the Medic led him off.
"'Twenty, thirty, maybe thousand.' That gives us a damn fine idea of what we're up against!"
While his men dragged their big bodies up the bank of the stream, O'Mara stood scowling at the eight foot high grass. Usually about a foot high, the hardy and ubiquitous purple grass of Naraka grew far more lushly around the edges of the swamps. He felt that it would be a risky business at best to plunge into it after an unknown number of enemy. At the same time he had an illogical determination not to leave the bodies of his men in the hands of the Rumi. He looked at the broad, big-mouthed exaggerations of Irish faces around him, heaved a sigh that came from deep in his chest and ordered, "All right, men. Spread out. Keep low and keep your eyes open. And try not to shoot each other."
"We fix bayonets now, Lieutenant, sir?" Hannigan asked.
"You keep your eyes open, Sergeant," Terrence snapped, "I'll tell you when to fix bayonets."
The noisy rustling of his men's heavy bodies as they pushed through the grass made him nervous and irritable. Then suddenly, just as they were edging their way around a gully, a dozen Rumi were swarming down on them. Terrence cut down two with his carbine but his men were firing and missing as the incredibly fast catmen hurtled at them. He had a brief glimpse of O'Shaughnessy spraying submachine gun slugs wildly about and then there was a hail of spring bolts and two of his men were down. The whole platoon was thrashing through the grass in their direction and the Rumi were gone as quickly as they had come.
"Come on!" Terrence shouted, breaking into a run with twenty or thirty Riflemen after him. A bolt grazed his cheek and another cut down a man to his right. He emptied his carbine in the general direction of the Clack, Clack, Clack. Hannigan was roaring a primitive bull-throated chant and firing at everything that moved. O'Shaughnessy managed to jam his gun and was beating frantically at it with one webbed fist. They burst into a clearing filled with Rumi and both sides blazed away at point blank range. It was hard for even a Narakan to miss at that close range and the Rumi broke and ran just as Sergeant O'Toole and his squad came out of the grass on the other side of the clearing.
The Rumi, trapped, turned and dashed at Terrence and his men. The lieutenant drove his fist into one cat faced creature and smashed his empty gun across the head of another. Hannigan grappled with one of the lithe gray-bodied things and slowly crushed it beneath his 350 odd pounds. O'Shaughnessy beat another insensible with his jammed Tommy gun. Several Narakans were down but most of them had taken Rumi with them.
Terrence was knocked off his feet by a gray ball of fury that leaped at him wielding a stiletto-thin knife. He caught at the Rumi's arm with both hands but the creature was not only fast but strong. It twisted out of his grasp and slashed at him and only a quick sideward roll saved him. Desperately he brought his fist down on his assailant's head.
The Rumi's grip relaxed slightly and Terrence drove his fist full into its face and locked his legs about its waist. The catman couldn't have weighed more than a hundred and fifty pounds but all of it was wiry strength. It clawed at him now, ripping his protective clothing and gashing his legs, meanwhile trying to get its knife into play. He was vaguely conscious that his men had disposed of the rest of the Rumi and were dancing around him frantically trying to get a chance to aid him. He was struck by the incongruity of a civilized being descended from simian ancestors and a civilized being descended from feline ancestors fighting fang and claw while a bunch of misplaced amphibians danced about them.
Making his weight count he suddenly twisted and hurled the Rumi under him but something hit him a terrific blow on the back of the head and blackness closed in.
O'Mara awoke with a head that felt like all the hangovers of a misspent life.
"Have a nice rest?" Bill Fielding asked.
Terrence reached a weak hand to the back of his head and felt bandages. "Did I catch a spring bolt?" he asked.
Bill grinned, "Well, no. Not exactly. It was more on the order of Private O'Hara's rifle butt. He was trying to hit the Rumi you were necking with."
"I might have known," Terrence groaned.
"We lost six men but recovered all the bodies except for one. We've got four wounded ... litter cases. Thought you were going to make it five for a while."
"Well, they won't slow us down too much. We still have about a hundred and fifty miles to go. We'll camp here for the night and move out at dawn."
Marching in the early morning and resting in the heat of the day before another afternoon march, the Narakan Rifles covered another fifty miles of the distance to Fort Craven without incident but not without signs of Rumi. Twice they came on recently occupied camps and once they caught sight of a Rumi patrol moving parallel to their own line of march.
The next morning, which was blistering and cloudless, they were only seventy miles from the Fort.
"Maybe we ought to give the radio another try." Terrence decided. "We're close enough to have a chance of getting through now."
Polasky set up the field radio.
"Hello, Balliwick. Hello, Balliwick. This is Apple Three Three. Can you read me? Come in, please."
O'Mara and Fielding sat and listened while he repeated the call a dozen or more times. His only answer was the heavy static that Beta produced in most electronic instruments. The same static that made radar and space scanners all but useless, that limited aircraft to the big dirigibles and weapons to old fashioned rifles and machine guns.
"I guess we'll know what's going on when we get there!" Terrence said. He wiped his forehead with his arm, noticing that the heavily caked mud was beginning to crack off. He would be in for a bad case of sun poisoning probably.
A rare breeze had sprung up and drifting down it from the west came the sound of gunfire. As one man, everyone in the camp stiffened.
"Did you hear that?" demanded Fielding.
"I think I hear a Banning," Polasky said, "sounds like it's coming from in back of us ... off to the west."
"From what our scouts have been able to pick up, that's the general direction that the Rumi have been moving," Terrence said.
"But there's nothing over that way. What in hell could they be attacking?" Fielding was on his feet, looking off in the direction from which the sounds were coming.
Terrence was aware of an increasingly uneasy feeling. He got to his feet and picked up his gear. "The sounds could be deceiving. We might as well get moving. It isn't going to get much cooler before nightfall."
An hour later they were hotly engaged with a large force of Rumi. Rumi armed for the first time with heavier weapons, mortar-like guns that hurled pods of smothering dust that caused almost instant strangulation. Rumi who attacked suddenly, giving them time only to drop to the ground and set up the Bannings and machine guns before three hundred howling fiends came charging through the grass at a dead run, firing as they came.
O'Mara was behind a machine gun and Fielding and Polasky each had a Banning in action. They met the Rumi charge with a withering hail of lead and fire. The Narakans lying as flat as their huge chests would allow them were firing as fast as the automatic rifles would fire. The Bannings swept the line of charging figures. As the beams paused for a moment, the charge would take effect and a ball of fire would mushroom skyward, leaving a dozen seared cat bodies on the ground. Terrence swept his machine gun along in a swath behind the Bannings, picking off what they left. Some dozen catmen made it to within ten yards of their front but sprawled still or lay kicking briefly until a Greenback put another bullet into him.
The Rumi were gone, withdrawing to the west and Terrence was yelling and cursing at his men to keep them from breaking ranks and following them. Three Riflemen and O'Toole were dead and Sergeant Polasky was coughing out his life beside his Banning with a spring gun bolt in his stomach.
"Those damn cats!" he was muttering when O'Mara reached him, "those damn cats. We showed 'em, didn't we, Lieutenant? That Banning's a good gun if you...."
They buried the Greenbacks in eight foot graves and the Earthman in a seven foot one. "Those dirty, lousy, stinking...." Bill Fielding was beating his fist into the palm of his hand. "We got one of them alive this time, Terrence. Hannigan knows a little of their lingo. His old man escaped from one of their breeding pens on the other side of the Muddy. He's working him over."
In the twenty odd years that Terrans and Rumi had occupied different halves of the same planet, the number of men who had learned the Rumi language wouldn't have filled a small room. So Terrence was surprised at Bill's information and hurried toward the place where the interrogation was taking place. Before he got there, he heard a piercing cat cry which ended in a gurgle and when he reached the group of Greenbacks, Hannigan was wiping his bayonet on the grass. He stood looking down at a Rumi officer whose throat was neatly slit from furry ear to furry ear. Then fists clenched on his hips, he confronted his men.
"I don't suppose it ever occurred to you bunch of dimwits that we might have gotten some information out of this guy. He might have talked, you know."
"He talk," grinned Hannigan, "he talk plenty. He feared we might hurt him. We tell him no hurt if he talk.... Ha!"
"He say big flyship down, Mr. Lieutenant," said O'Shaughnessy.
"What? What do you mean?" demanded O'Mara.
"Flyship ... Sun Maid crash in storm.... Rumi find."
"Good God! The Sun Maid!" Terrence gasped, "That storm the first night!"
"They surround and attack Terrans. These ones on way to join attack when meet us," O'Shaughnessy went on.
"He tell where ship down," Hannigan said, "it near bend in Big Muddy ... place I know. Ten, twenty mile back."
The Greenbacks were watching the Terrans, fingering their bayonets eagerly and hugging their rifles. Terrence had the impression that they were beginning to like their jobs. He turned to Bill Fielding, "Well, Bill, it looks like we came about twenty miles too far."
Bill grinned, "Yep, I guess so. Come on, soldiers, fall in. We got work to do back here a piece."
A two hour's forced march with the sun beating down and the sound of firing growing closer. Only a column of Greenbacks could have done it and only a crazy Irishman would have asked them to. They came up over a rise and looked down a gentle slope toward the brown twisting snake that was the Big Muddy. On its banks lay the broken shape of the airship and swarming across a burned circle around it were Rumi, thousands of them. The firing had slackened in the last few minutes and now they could see why. The Rumi were assaulting and were at close grips with the ring of defending Terrans.
"Now?" questioned O'Shaughnessy, "we fix bayonets now?"
"Yes," replied Terrence, "now we fix bayonets."
At his word three hundred big clumsy hands reached for three hundred bayonets and fixed them to three hundred rifles.
"O'Shea, take O'Toole's squad and stand by up here with the Bannings. O'Shaughnessy, take the left flank. Bill, you take the right. Let's go!"
There wasn't a sound out of the Rifles as they started down the hill, none of their usual croakings and bellowings, just silence and the heavy thud of their feet. The Rumi had seen them. Many of those in the rear of the attack were swinging about to face them. Spring gun bolts began to whiz in their direction. One or two Narakans fell. They were closer to the struggle now, closer to the tightly packed Rumi and the hand to hand struggle about the Sun Maid.
Terrence was firing, throwing lead into the gray-bodied mass ahead of him but his men were just thundering along with their little black eyes fixed on their old oppressors, bayonets leveled in front of them in approved training school method. They resembled nothing so much as a regiment of tanks hurtling at an enemy. The momentum of their charge carried them half way through the Rumi ranks, the terrific force of the plunging amphibians bowling over the lighter catmen.
Bayonets, clubbed rifle and heavy webbed fist fought against claw, teeth and knife. There was almost no firing, almost no sound save for the cries of the Rumi and an occasional cheer from the Terrans.
Terrence emptied his Tommy gun, hurled it in the face of a Rumi and reached for his knife and automatic. A Rumi knocked him off his feet with the butt end of a spring gun but before he could do more, Hannigan stepped over his lieutenant and plunged his bayonet into the catman. The Irishman scrambled to his feet amidst the gray furry bodies, thrust his .45 into a snarling face and pulled the trigger. The face disappeared but another took its place and he fired again. A Rumi with a knife grabbed at him from behind and he raised his pistol again but the cat was already down with a bayonet between his shoulders.
The Greenbacks were yelling now, lifting those great voices of theirs in full throated bullfrog croaks. The Rumi, trapped and desperate, were scattering and trying to flee down river. O'Mara stumbled over a barricade of rocks and boxes and almost got a Terran slug in him before he realized that they had cut their way through to the broken ship. He was up in a minute and urging his men on after the scattering enemy. Twenty or thirty of them tried to make a stand around a tall Rumi officer but O'Shaughnessy at the head of a wedge of Narakans swept into them at a full run.
Their bayonets flashed for a few seconds and then flashed no more, the steel was covered with blood. A few hundred Rumi made it to the river under a hail of fire from O'Shea and his squad on the hill. Hardly pausing to consider their cat-like aversion to water, most of them plunged in and struck out for the other shore. The rest were cut down on the bank by onrushing Greenbacks. Terrence grabbed hold of one of his buglers and then had to practically beat the man over the head to get him to sound Recall.
Bill Fielding picked his way among the bodies and came toward Terrence holding his left arm. O'Shaughnessy was leaping up and down and waving his fist across the river.
"Things different now! All different now! One Greenback better than four, five, eight Rumi!"
"At least that many," Terrence said under his breath before he roared at O'Shaughnessy, "Fall the men in on the double now! We're going to march back to the Sun Maid in proper military style."
There was a blowing of sergeant's whistles, the shouting of corporals, and the Narakan Rifles slowly formed ranks. Some were missing and others were limping and holding wounds but they stepped out smartly as the column headed back up the river. Every rifle was at the correct slope, every man was in step as they marched through the makeshift barricade and past where Chapelle was standing. The drum and bugle corps struck up The Wearing of the Green just as O'Mara shouted, "Eyes Right!" and every eye swung right in perfect unison. A tattered and weary Chapelle brought a surprised hand up to salute and the Narakan Rifles came to a snappy halt.
A small, black haired figure threw itself at Terrence and his arms were again holding Joan Allen. "I knew you'd come," she said, "only a big, crazy Irishman like you could do it."
He kissed her and then pressed his mud-caked face against hers as he said into her ear. "Only three hundred big, crazy Irishmen, baby. There's not a drop of anything else in me boys."
STOP LOOK AND DIG.
By George O. Smith
The enlightened days of mental telepathy and ESP should have made the world a better place, But the minute the Rhine Institute opened up, all the crooks decided it was time to go collegiate!