Hell On Three Sides. Ben Raines and his freedom-fighting guerrillas are camped along the banks of what was once the Mississippi River, plotting strategy and readying weapons. A massive pack of heavily armed troops looms on the horizon, marching straight for the Rebels. They are the insidious mercenaries of Kenny Par and Lan Viller, and by midday only the Mississippi separates Raines from the ten thousand blood- hungry warriors all sworn to turn the Rebels' dream into a hellish nightmare. Just as Ben formulates a brilliant battle plan, a Rebel scout reports that the fanatical assassins of Sister Volenta's Ninth Order are approaching from Ben's back. The Rebels will soon be surrounded by freedom's deadliest foes, and a defeat for Raines would mean the end of the Rebel dream. But victory, if he can pull it off, could be the beginning of a new America...an America reborn!
* * * *
Ben Raines and his army of Rebels had fought many battles over the decade since the world exploded in germ and nuclear war, bringing an end to civilization as people had come to know it. But as Ben and his Rebels drove toward St. Louis, after waging war in the Northwest against the racist forces of Malone, Ben was thinking that this upcoming battle could well be the greatest and most decisive battle of his decade-long career against anarchy and for the restoration of civilization.
On the east side of I-55, massing in great numbers, were the mercenary forces of Kenny Parr, the terrorist forces of Khamsin--the Hot Wind--and the mercenary armies of Lan Villar. Very conservative estimates placed their numbers at ten thousand strong.
Behind Ben Raines and his Rebels, coming up from the west, were the forces of Sister Voleta, Ashley, and a ragtag assortment of human crud, all of whom had but one thought in mind: to destroy Ben Raines and turn the world into an outlaw haven.
The clanking of the engine pulled Ben out of his musings. "What the hell's wrong with this thing?" he asked his driver, Cooper, as the four-wheel-drive vehicle bucked to a halt, smoke wafting from under the hood. Those inside quickly evacuated the vehicle, grabbing equipment as they exited.
"Blew an engine," Cooper said. "Damn, this thing was supposed to have been rebuilt." He lifted his mic. "This is Cooper. Bring the other vehicle up. The Eagle's been grounded."
Rebels quickly extinguished the fire under the hood and the equipment was off-loaded just as a nine-passenger, four-wheel-drive wagon pulled up. It looked enormous sitting next to the disabled Blazer.
"When and where did you find this boat?" Ben asked, inspecting the big wagon.
"Two weeks ago," Dan Gray said, walking up. "I've had people working on it at every stop since then. You need more room. It's armor-plated and the glass is bulletproof. The engine is the largest we could find. Four fifty something or another. You'll have a lot more room in this, General."
Ben looked at his watch. "Hell, we're close enough. Let's break for lunch, Dan. Dismount the people and tell them to find shelter. This is where we make our stand."
They were a few miles south of St. Louis proper. Cecil was in command of the battalions in St. Louis ... or what was left of the city. General Striganov and his people were digging in between the city and Ben and West's position. Ike was north of the city, digging in.
Ben walked to the communication's van and stuck his head inside. "What's the latest word?"
"Hostile forces still pulling in and setting up on the east side of the river, General," she told him. "They're facing us along a thirty-mile stretch. Latest estimates are about eight thousand ... with more expected. They have artillery, but no tanks as yet."
"Lan Villar is confirmed?"
"That's ten-four, sir. Our scouts report that Khamsin and Kenny Parr have been spotted as well."
Ben nodded and thanked her. He walked away, chewing on a sandwich and washing it down with water from his canteen.
"Traffic coming up from the south, sir," a Rebel pointed out.
Ben turned, squinted his eyes, and smiled. The unmistakable rattle of many VW engines reached his ears. To the rear of the VW column, a shiny black hearse was rolling stately along.
Ben walked out onto Highway 61/67 and waited until the strange convoy drew abreast of him. A familiar face looked out at him from the lead VW van.
"For a peace-loving hippie, Thermopolis," Ben said, "you certainly pop up in the most violent of places."
"We were listening to your radio transmissions, Ben," the aging hippie said. "Actually it was Emil who convinced us that we should lend a hand in this fight. It concerns us all."
"What command do you want to fight under, Therm?"
"Doesn't make me the slightest bit of difference."
"Well, I've got the short battalion, so you can stay here with us." He smiled. "You feel like putting up with Emil?"
"I've been putting up with him for five hundred miles, Ben."
"We've had some additions since I saw you last. Some outlaw bikers have joined up. They're called the Wolfpack; headed by a man called Leadfoot. Another group of female bikers is with them. Wanda and her Sisters of Lesbos."
Themopolis stared at him and finally shook his head. "Ben Raines, you attract the strangest goddamn bunch of people I have ever seen in all my life. And I was a hippie in New Orleans for ten years!"
Ben laughed and looked inside the VW van. "Hello, Rosebud."
Therm's wife returned the smile. "Hello, General Raines."
"What'd you do with the children?" Ben asked.
"Took them to Base Camp One and left them. We felt they'd be safe there." Thermopolis smiled. "Even though by the time we return, their heads will be pumped full of patriotism and duty and all that crap. We may never be able to deprogram them."
"You're a fraud, Therm," Ben told him. "You're just as much a hardass as I am. The only difference between us is that you need a haircut."
Thermopolis laughed and put the VW in gear. "In your opinion," he said, and drove off toward the staging area.
As the van passed by him, Ben caught a glimpse of blond hair in the back seat. He gritted his teeth. Jerre. He nodded his head at her. She returned the curt nod.
As the caravan of hippies passed, Ben nodded and spoke to Zipper and Fly, Santo and Swallow, Whistler and Wren, Wenceslaus and Zelotes, Adder and Ima, Udder and Ura, Willow and the others who made up the large commune.
The platoon of Rebels who had been assigned to the commune passed by and they waved and yelled at the general. Ben tossed them a left-handed mock salute and waited for Emil Hite to pass by. At least Ben hoped he would pass by and not stop.
The black hearse stopped and Emil jumped out. The little con artist who professed to be the earthbound voice of the Great God Blomm drew himself up and saluted.
"Lafayette, we are here!" he shouted.
Ben sighed and eyeballed the little man. Emil had discarded his flowing robes and changed into tiger-stripe BDUs, black beret, and high-heeled cowboy boots. He was a bit unsteady on his feet.
Buddy and Tina, Ben's kids, walked up, both of them smiling. Colonel Dan Gray, CO of the Scouts, stood by them, his little dog, Chester, by his boots. Dan struggled to hide his smile.
With some assistance, Emil climbed up on the hood of the hearse.
"Oh, no!" Ben muttered.
Emil started to slide off the hood and waved his arms frantically, finally regaining his balance. "We have traveled many a hard and dangerous mile to reach you, General Raines. Through fog and rain and gloom of night..."
Ben tuned him out as best he could, hoping that the speech would be a short one. For all his theatrics, Emil and his followers had proved to be some tough fighters; they would stand against terrible odds.
Emil finally wound down and managed to get off the hood of the hearse without busting his butt.
"Good to have you with us, Emil," Ben said. And Ben was telling the truth. Ben liked the little con artist, for Emil could always be counted on to provide some comic relief when the situation got grim. "Follow Thermopolis and his people and dig in."
"At your orders, sir!" Emil shouted, saluting. "My people will fight to the death..."
"...We shall fight on the beaches and the hedgerows..."
"...We shall fight in the streets and from the bunkers..."
Even the little dog, Chester, was looking at Emil very strangely.
"Right, Emil," Ben said. "I appreciate your coming up here..."
"And when ammunition is no more, we shall fight with entrenching tools and clubs..."
"Thank you, Emil. Your loyalty is very nearly overwhelming."
"We shall never surrender and ever with liberty and justice..." Emil looked confused for a moment. "I said that wrong."
Ben patted the man on the shoulder. "It's all right, Emil. I understand."
With Emil gone, Ben turned to Dan Gray. "Have there been any shots exchanged, Dan?"
"Negative, General. Both sides appear to be too busy digging in."
"So it's shaping up to be an artillery battle."
"At first, yes. But that will change very quickly as those on the east side of the river learn we have them outgunned."
"We're going to have to keep a sharp eye on our rear and our flanks. Voleta and Ashley will be coming up hard and fast."
"I've set up posts stretching from Hannibal in the north to Salem in the south. They're dug in and well concealed alongside every road capable of sustaining heavy traffic."
"Good. All right, Dan. Let's go see how our people are doing."
Dan took the lead and assigned Scouts to the rear of the short column, with Ben and his personal team in the center, Cooper at the wheel of the big wagon.
Everyone who could use a shovel was busy filling sandbags, digging bunkers, and finding heavy timbers to add support. Tanks and artillery were being positioned and fortified. Along the river, working unseen, Rebels were quietly occupying empty warehouses and other buildings and setting up heavy machine gun positions, fortifying their positions with sandbags and railroad ties.
Ben and his teams moved into General Striganov's sector. The Russian had dug his people in deep and quickly. Striganov handed Ben powerful binoculars and moved them toward a window of his CP, located close to the river. "Take a look, General."
The activity across the river jumped into the lenses. "Jesus!" Ben said. "It looks like the staging area in England before D-Day."
"My thoughts exactly," the Russian agreed with a smile. "I, too, have seen old newsclips of the storming of the beaches."
Ben turned to Corrie. "Tell Ike to send his demolition people north and south, Corrie. Blow the bridges that are still standing from Quincy to Cape Girardeau. We'll make the bastards come across the river if they want us. After you've done that, bump Base Camp One and have all PUFFs readied and flown up here. Land them at that strip we cleared at Saint Clair."
Ben and his teams drove into the ruins of St. Louis, using Interstate 55, picking their way along.
Cecil and the mercenary, West, had deployed their troops south to north within the city, from Weber Road in the south to Hall Street in the north.
St. Louis was a study in desolation and ruin. Time and fire and assorted vandals and crud and punks and Night People had turned the city into a wasteland. The suburbs of the city, where Ben had his people to the south, and Ike to the north, were bad enough, but inside the city itself, it was ruin ... most of it by human hand.
Cecil Jefferys and Ike McGowan met Ben at Carondelet Park and the men shook hands.
"They're dug in tight across the river," Cecil said.
"I've seen. All right, so we've lost the element of surprise. I'm passing the word up and down the line, personally. Let's get all our artillery and heavy mortars in place and the enemy's positions spotted and coordinated. When can you have that done?"
"By 1800 hours."
"Same here," Ike said.
"Approximately the same time Georgi and West gave me." Ben handrolled a cigarette and was thoughtful for a moment. "Cec, you and West were the first ones to arrive. When do the troops across the river roll out for breakfast?"
"Between 0530 and 0600 hours, Ben. It's been that way ever since we got here."
Ben nodded. "All right. At 0600 hours, tomorrow morning, I want all of us to open up with everything we've got in artillery. Willie Peter, HE, Napalm--in that order." He looked at Dan. "Do you know where their supply depots are located?"
"Yes. I have them pinpointed. But they're too far back for anything except our heaviest artillery to effectively strike."
"Drop the other boot, Dan."
"Our one fifty-five's and eight-inchers are not in place; they're not even here yet. And won't be for another thirty-six hours."
"Roads getting that bad?"
"That may be a blessing in disguise," Ben said, grinding out the butt of his cigarette under his boot heel. "They may think the shorter range artillery is all we have and not move their depots." He lifted a map and studied it. "Corrie, bump the convoy and tell them to take one-forty-one at Arnold and then cut east on Interstate Two-seventy, take that on into the city. Dan, have your Scouts meet them there and escort them to here." He punched the map. "Just west of Interstate fifty-five. Have them spread out north to south and get in place doubletime."
"All right, Ike. Let's go see what you've got cooking in your sector."
Ike rode with Ben in the big wagon. "What'd you do with Thermopolis and Emil?"
"Kept them with me. Therm will look after Emil. How far up did you have to stretch your people?"
"I've got a few all the way up to where the Missouri makes its final turn before turning south and flowing into the Muddy."
"That's stretching it pretty thin. How's Lambert Field?"
"Shitty. I've got a crew out there now trying to clear two runways. They say it'll be several days at best."
"Then I'll let the order stand putting the PUFFs down at that strip in Saint Clair."
"At least for a time. Ben?"
Ben met his eyes.
"St. Louis is full of creepies."