Violence/Language Disclaimer: Yep, definite violence in here. There's a soldier in here with one heck of a temper if you tick her off. She's not afraid of four-letter words, either.
Sexual Disclaimer: Sure! Oh, I mean, yeah, it's in here. Not real graphic, but you get the idea. This does involve the idea (heck it revolves around the idea) that two women are in love, and express that love when given the chance. If this bothers you, I suggest you click back, and find something else to read - it's a big Xenaverse out there, folks.
Last Disclaimer: I have tried to make sure most of the scenes in this story are close to being reasonably realistic. However, to the thanks of my muse, I have brought my creative license into use a time or two.
Notes of Thanks: I'd like to thank my beta-reader and best friend, Amber, for putting up with me through all of this. Also, everyone who's given me responses about Taken, my first attempt at Uber fan fiction - I only know how I'm doing if I get feedback. Another thank you to all those who helped me with the bugs in this thing - I think we got 'em all!
If you like the way it turned out, thank them. If you don't, blame the author. J
You can feed this bard at: Y02Mustang@AOL.com I guarantee a response.
Now, enough of the formal mumbo-jumbo. On with the show!
"Fool," said my muse to me, "look in thy heart and write."
- Sir Philip Sydney
When Kris returned home, she was surprised to find that her mother had left several messages, leaving her phone number with Ryanne each time, and asking her to be sure to tell Kris to call her back as soon as she got in. After checking on Ryanne and her slumbering daughter, the soldier did just that.
"Hello?" answered Noreen, on the second ring.
"Hi, mom," said Kris. "It's me."
"Oh, thank goodness," said her mother. "It's your father, dear. I'm afraid he's taken a turn for the worse."
"Damn," sighed Kris. I don't need this. God, don't do this. Not now. "How bad is he?"
"The doctors don't expect him to make it through the night," Noreen said, stifling a sob.
"He had a severe stroke. He can't move his left side, and he can't speak," said the woman. "The nurses at the home called the paramedics, and I'm here at St. Paul's Hospital, now," she added.
"I'll be there as soon as I can," promised Kris, as she hung up, and rested her head in her hands for a moment. Sensing Ryanne beside her, and feeling the woman's hand slip into her own, she said, "I have to go. I'll be back soon, I hope, but don't wait up, okay? I've got some work to do when I get back. Good night," she said, kissing the blonde's forehead as she rushed out the door.
Driving carefully, Kris arrived at the hospital twenty minutes later, and hurried to find the room of Jacob Jones. Entering quietly, she saw her mother by the bedside of an elderly gentleman, with thinning white hair and a gentle wrinkled face, and gray eyes, which were presently closed. No tubes or wires were hooked up to him, which surprised Kris, but then she figured he was on a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order.
Noreen looked up when she felt a hand on her shoulder, and met the sad eyes of her tall child with her own tearful eyes.
"Jacob," she said, softly, rubbing the man's shoulder through his hospital gown, "look who's here."
Weak eyes opened, and seemed to glance, unfocused, around the room; until they landed on Kris. Upon spotting the tall soldier, the man visibly brightened, and mouthed her name.
Kris grinned - he knew who she was! "That's right, Dad," she smiled. "It's been a long two years, hasn't it? Hey," she said, winking, "looks like you've got some pretty little nurses here. You behave yourself." The man smiled as best he could, and pointed to the woman, as if to say "You, too".
The soldier chuckled, and held her hands up in her defense. "Not me," she said. "I'm spoken for." At the raised eyebrow of Jacob, she continued, "Her name is Ryanne, and I love her with all my heart."
Jacob nodded his approval, and suddenly looked very tired. He tried to say something, but Kris couldn't hear him, so she leaned closer. The man whispered haltingly into her ear, and the soldier pulled back, tears brimming in her cobalt blue eyes.
Wiping her face of any emotion, Kris came to attention, and saluted her father. Slowly, the man raised his right hand, and returned the gesture, before reaching for the soldier's hand, which she supplied with no hesitation. His gray eyes proud, Jacob brought his step-daughter's hand against his trembling lips, and kissed it, softly. Releasing his grip, he lowered his hand to his chest, and took his final breath.
Placing a gentle kiss on his peaceful cheek, Kris closed his eyes as a tear made its way down her face. Despite the trouble Kris had with her mother, who had turned away from her upon learning she was gay, Jacob had always been glad to see her, and she had always been close to him.
Giving her mother's shoulder a reassuring squeeze, she allowed the woman to give her a strong hug, which she returned.
"What did he say to you?" Noreen asked, pulling back to wipe at her eyes.
Kris smiled. "He said, 'Your father says hello'."
The soldier stayed with her mother a while longer, comforting her, before heading home. Grabbing a legal pad, and a pen, she sat down at the kitchen table, and started forming the list of soldiers she wanted to fight by her side.
An hour later, at midnight, Kris had a pretty good idea of who to call upon. She knew what she was going to do - the next day, Wednesday, she'd drop off a copy of the roster with the Captain, and then, at about 0500 hours, she'd drag everyone out onto the field for a briefing. Following the instructions and a very short break for breakfast, the rest of the day would be devoted to practicing combat techniques and the like.
The sound of her name interrupted the soldier's musings, and she looked up to find a tired blonde standing next to her.
"Are you still up?" questioned Ryanne, stepping behind the woman's chair and lightly massaging her tense shoulders as she spoke. "Come to bed, Kris, and get some sleep."
"Hm," muttered Kris, lowering her head to her chest, "I'll fall asleep right here if you keep that up." Smiling, she took the blonde's hand, and brought her around in front of her, pulling her close.
"Thank you," she said, "but I'm almost finished here. I have to get this done for the Captain, and I need it done tonight. I'll be in bed soon," she promised, kissing her gently. With a soft goodnight, Ryanne wandered back to the bedroom, leaving Kris to sort through her thoughts.
Stumbling to bed half an hour later, Kris collapsed next to the snoring blonde, and was asleep moments later.
Minutes after, or what felt like it, her alarm sounded, bringing in the 4 o'clock hour. Groaning, the soldier cut it off, careful not to disturb Ryanne, and got to her feet. Showering quickly to wake up, Kris dressed in her fatigues, and left a note on her pillow telling Ryanne she'd be at the base all day in case she needed anything, before grabbing the roster sheets and heading out the door.
Reporting to the Captain's office just long enough to drop off the copy she had made for him, the soldier started knocking on doors, ordering groggy soldiers to the field in thirty minutes. By 0500 hours, everyone was assembled in their ranks on the practice field.
"I'm sure you're wondering what in God's name possessed me to drag you all out here at this hour of the morning," she began.
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," said Thompson, and Kris chuckled.
"Well, I'll tell you, on one condition." Everyone looked at her, intently. "Nothing that is said from here on out goes outside this field, unless you have direct permission from either myself or Captain Bowman. Anyone who can't handle that can leave."
No one moved.
"Okay, then," sighed the soldier. "The Captain spoke to me yesterday, and asked me to form a roster of people I wanted to go with me across the seas. It seems we have a war on our hands, and Mr. President wants to keep it hush-hush, away from the press, for as long as he can. Captain Bowman has informed me that we will be in a situation very similar to the Vietnam and Korean Wars many years ago," she said.
"Now, the bad news. We're the reinforcements for the boys already over there, but we're the only reinforcements. For a time period which is, as of now, unknown, we will have no other back up. No tanks, no planes, no nothing," she explained.
"They will have bombing equipment, however inaccurate," added Kris. "It is said they move the most at night, and the terrain is varied. From my experience, I'm assuming there will be traps and the like, as well. All we'll have is what we can carry.
"I chose all of you because I know you're all good soldiers," she said, honestly. "But, that does not mean that I expect you all to go through with this. I swear to you, I will do my damnedest to get each and every one of you back safely, but I don't know how long we'll be gone, and it is war," she said. "I'll understand if any of you want to leave, for whatever reason."
Silence. No one moved.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "No one's leaving?"
"Ma'am, no, ma'am!" Kris grinned, in spite of herself.
"Well, thank you all very much," she said. "We'll break for 20 minutes, now, for breakfast, and then come back here for training. Twenty minutes for lunch, and we'll work as long as we have to. You all still with me?"
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!"
"Any questions?" One soldier took a small step forward. "Parker?"
"When do we leave, ma'am?" he asked.
"Tomorrow morning," she said. "The Captain wants us here by 0900 hours." Eyes widened, and Kris couldn't blame them. Parker stepped back, and Thompson came forward. "Yes?" Kris prompted.
"Ma'am, I have relatives here. Will we be able to keep in touch?" he asked, seriously.
Kris grinned. "Soldier, I have the Captain's word we'll have a mail bag in the supply chopper that comes through every few days," she assured, and he nodded, satisfied as he stepped back in line. "Now, you're dismissed for breakfast. Those of you who have families can let them know more tonight; I'm asking you to wait, because I understand you'll want more than 20 minutes to explain and say goodbye. Tell only your spouses or parents, and only if absolutely necessary. I ask you tell no one else, and say nothing to anyone until tonight," she repeated.
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" they responded.
"Good," she said. "Anyone with any other questions is welcome to come and speak with me. Dismissed." Saluting her, over 75 bodies about-faced, and walked off the field, staying close together. Kris was a little surprised to see that they all ate breakfast in the same area, choosing not to converse with the few other soldiers up at the break of dawn.
Stopping in her quarters for a quick bowl of cereal and a few pieces of toast, Kris downed her glass of juice as she hurried back out to the field, and waited patiently for her soldiers to return. And, with three minutes to spare, they all formed ranks again.
The rest of the day was spent on the field, in the hot sun, doing drills until even Kris was exhausted. Her company got strange looks from other soldiers, wondering why she was working them so hard and for so long, but no one had the guts to come up and ask her about it.
Teaching the men how to sprint forward a few feet, and then drop quickly to the ground, was a crucial lesson that Kris strongly enforced. They went over hand signals, in case they ever got in close enough to be heard, so they could still communicate.
"They'll be a test later," Thompson had said, causing everyone to grin.
"Thank you, soldier," said Kris, as they worked on diving for cover. "I'll be sure to prepare one just for you. It'll give you something to do on the plane."
"Ma'am, I think I'll be working on not pissing my pants while I'm on the plane," he responded, with a wry smile.
That brought Kris to a very important announcement. "All right, listen up," she said, sharply. "Let's get one thing straight, right now." Eyes watched her, worried by her angry tone. "I do not want anyone fighting by my side who is not scared. Do I make myself clear?"
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am," was the quiet, startled response.
"I said, do I make myself clear?" she demanded.
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" they shouted, and Kris nodded.
"Good. Anyone who thinks they can go in there, unafraid and invincible, will stay behind. I don't want anyone playing hero, except me. You will all have instructions on how to get back to the chopper, or someplace safe, and who to have in command, should, God forbid, something happen to me," she said.
She had thought about that very same idea all night; even dreamt about it. She'd sworn to her men that she would do her best to bring them all back, and if that meant sacrificing herself, it'd be hard, but she'd do it.
"I understand this might seem ludicrous, but I swore I'd bring you home, and, by God, I'll do it," she said, fiercely. "Now, does anyone have a problem with this?" Everyone took a step forward.
Kris sighed. "Let me rephrase that," she said. "Will anyone have trouble remembering, and obeying, this command?"
"Ma'am, no, ma'am," they said, and she let them slip by with a soft response. She figured they were about as scared by the idea as she was, and couldn't blame them for losing their voices.
"Very good," she said. "Now, let's get back to work."
Nothing more was said about questioning Kris' orders, or playing hero, or even backing out at the last second; 78 soldiers were committed, and they were a team. They would stand united and protect each other, as they had been taught. They would watch out for themselves, as well as their commanding officer.
To the end.
At five minutes after eleven, when Kris arrived at her house, the tall soldier smiled when she saw a note on the kitchen table, in Ryanne's gentle handwriting.
Didn't know when you'd be
home, but your plate is in the microwave
if you want to reheat it, in case you're
hungry. I'll see you in the morning,
and please try to get some sleep.
Deciding dinner could wait, since she hadn't called lunch until after 2:30, Kris went straight to bed, telling herself she would indeed listen to Ryanne, and actually get a good night's sleep.
When her alarm clock went off Thursday morning at 6:30, save a few fading dreams of machine gun fire, huge mushroom clouds thick with smoke and ash, and dying men, Kris felt relatively rested.
The first thing Kris did was take a long, hot shower, for as long as she could, trying to figure out how she was going to break the news to Ryanne, and coming up with different way the woman would react.
I don't like any of the ideas I've come up with, she thought, as she dried herself off with a towel, and secretly wondered how long it would be before she'd see one again. I think it's time to switch to Plan B… damn, what's Plan B??
Wrapping the soft towel around her nude body, Kris walked back into the bedroom to get dressed, and was surprised to find that Ryanne was already up. Fixing bacon and eggs, if her olfactory perception was correct.
Sighing, the soldier dressed in her fatigues, quickly, and laced up her boots. Glancing at her watch, she knew she wouldn't have time to savor the wonderful meal the blonde was cooking, because she had to pack yet, and then be on her way.
Shaking thoughts of her last meal out of her head, the tall woman focused on finding her large duffel bag, and packing it full with things she'd need - a few T-shirts and jeans, in case her camouflage outfit became too worn and she needed clothing until supplies came, gloves, extra canteens, and so on.
It was nearly a half hour later that Kris sensed the blonde in the room, just as she was looking for her jacket, figuring she could use it for warmth, depending on how cool the nights got, or if anyone went into shock and needed the extra heat, as was common.
"Kris, why are you packing? What's going on?" asked Ryanne, tears filling her green eyes. "Listen, if there's something wrong, Cassidy and I can leave…"
Kris cut her off, quickly. "No, it's not you. Hey, come here," she said, opening her arms to the young woman when she noticed the tears that threatened to fall. "I have to go, Ryanne."
"Where?" sniffled the woman, her head still buried in Kris' shoulder.
Ryanne brought her head up to meet Kris' blue eyes. "This is a joke, right?" The soldier shook her head. "But, we don't have wars anymore."
Sergeant Jones smiled. "Well, we're not supposed to. You've heard how the peace talks with Kosovo and between North and South Korea have failed, right?" The blonde nodded. "The President is sending in the Army, all branches, to reinforce our ground troops that are already over there. The troops that were more or less guarding the land now have a war on their hands, and we're going to help," Kris finished. "The Army is sending it's best out there to fight. That's me," she added.
"Can't they get somebody else?" asked the woman. "Why don't we just nuke them or something?"
Kris laughed. "It's too expensive, we're not quite to that extreme yet, not to mention it'll hurt too many civilians, and the government doesn't want to waste it's precious missiles on a small battle. And it's not like I have a choice here, love. I don't want to go, but I have to," said the soldier, stuffing a flashlight into her bag. "Listen, I'll write to you every chance I get, okay? And you can send your letters to the Captain, and he'll get them to me, so we can still keep in touch, all right?"
There were tears again. "Be careful, Kris. I can't stand the thought of losing you," she admitted.
"I'm too ornery to die," smiled the soldier. Swinging the bag over her shoulder, Kris gave Ryanne one last hug. "It'll be okay. I shouldn't be there for very long, just until they send more reinforcements for my company. I'll be back before you know it. I love you," she added, quietly.
"Pip-squeak!" called the tall woman, and Cassidy ran into her arms moments later. "Be good for your mother, okay?"
The child locked her arms around the soldier's neck, and murmured, "Kris, don't go 'way."
Kris pulled the child back, set her down, and knelt beside her, so they were eye-to-eye. "What did you say?" she asked, her voice disbelieving.
"Stay!" commanded the girl, stomping her foot. With tears in her eyes, Kris swept the child into her arms, and hugged her tightly. The girl picked now of all times to start talking, and the first words out of her mouth were for the soldier to stay home rather than go to war.
Damn it all to Hell! cursed Kris, as she held the small child in her arms. Cassidy starts talking and I have to leave to go fight some goddamned war, so I'll have to miss all the cute little things she'll say. Fuck, I'll miss her birthday, too. God, this sucks.
"Oh, Cassidy, I wish I could," she said, setting the girl back on the floor. "But I'll be back soon, okay? I promise," she added, grabbing Ryanne for a family hug. To her surprise, the youngster saluted her as she left, covering her right eye with her right hand, grinning brightly as she did so, Kris' old jacket sleeve hanging down over her face.
Kris choked back a sob, and saluted the girl in the same fashion. Glancing at her watch, she said, "I've got to run. I love you both." Kissing her girls on the forehead, she rushed out the door to catch the plane that would take her to the war zone.
"Well, Cass, I guess it's just you and me for a while," sighed Ryanne.
The child nodded, and then burst into tears. "Kris go 'way!" she wailed. Ryanne gave a start, not used to hearing her daughter respond, but finding she liked the sound of her voice very much.
"Cassidy, can I ask you a question?" The girl nodded, looking up at her mother. "Why didn't you talk before?"
Cassidy shrugged. "Didn't wanna. Daddy said it was bad to talk, and I'd get in trouble, but had to tell Kris g'bye," she explained. Ryanne just pulled her daughter to her in a fierce hug, and fought back tears as the girl whispered, "S'okay, Mom. I love you," into her ear.
Later that night, after a long conversation between Ryanne and her daughter, just for the sake of talking and hearing each other's voices, the blonde put Cassidy to bed, kissing her good night. Ryanne climbed into the bed she usually slept in with Kris, and the woman was surprised to find a note on her pillow. Unfolding it, she switched on the light, and read it silently to herself.
I told you we'd keep in touch! This is my first letter to you, in the line of many, trust me. I'll write to you every day if I can, whenever I get a break. You can stay at my place for as long as you want, or at my quarters on the base if you feel the need. You and Cassidy are always welcome.
I love you both, and I'll see you as soon as I can.
Take care, sweetheart.
Ryanne grinned at the soldier's sentiment, and decided to write a response to her the next morning. After saying a silent prayer, asking for the protection of her soldier and the hundreds of others out there, Ryanne fell into a dreamless sleep.
Most of her men were already there when Kris arrived at the base for transport, and the Captain signaled her over to him just before she climbed on board the plane.
"Sir?" she asked, dropping her duffel bag to salute him.
"Kris," he said, shuffling through the papers he had found on his desk the morning before, "this is an awful lot of people. You've got 78 soldiers here, and I've been told the plane only has room for 75."
Kris narrowed her eyes at the man, and he involuntarily gulped. "Seventy-five?" she repeated. "That goddamn plane can pass for a B-52, and you're telling me it can only hold 75 fucking people? You want me to leave three behind, is that it?" she demanded. "Tell them I'm sorry, but they can't go? No," she said, evenly.
"See those soldiers over there?" she asked, pointing to her squad, patiently awaiting her arrival to finish boarding the large plane. "They are the best I have, and I want no one else fighting by my side. They want to be there with me, and I trust them with my life.
"We're a team, Mark," she said, forcefully. "Either you put all of us on that plane going straight to Hell, or you can fight that goddamn war yourself. I'm not leaving anyone behind once we get over there, and I don't plan to start now," she added.
Captain Bowman grinned, inwardly. "All right, Kris," he said. "I'm sure we can squeeze you all in there, with the cargo."
"Cargo?" she said, disbelieving. "What cargo?! We don't have any fucking weapons, Mark, so what cargo is in that plane, taking up space for my men?" she cried.
"Supplies for the recruits, things you might find handy, like food, water, and medical reserves," he said, tonelessly. "Now, board that plane, and come back to me in one piece, Kris. Ryanne will have my head if you don't," he grinned. "Good luck," he added.
Kris nodded, and saluted her friend and Captain, before shouldering her bag, and nearing her men. They all stood at attention, until she motioned them onto the ramp, and into the plane. Minutes later, the aircraft left the ground.
There was no turning back. They were going straight to war.
"Ma'am," said a voice, and Kris jerked awake when she felt a hand on her shoulder, shaking her. Confused blue eyes looked into the face of Ronald Jenkins. "Ma'am, they're ready to land."
"Thank you, soldier," she said, sitting up a little straighter, stretching and rubbing her eyes. Looking around, she saw that mostly everyone else was awake, and smiled at them all. Ronald Jenkins, Robert Thompson, Don Brown, Timothy Parker… most were men she'd had in her first company, before her surgery, but some were presently under her command, while a few had been under other officers for quite a while.
"Well, it's just about time," she said, and everyone turned to her. "I understand that you're all probably as apprehensive about this as I am, but we'll get through it, like the team we are, right?"
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" they chorused.
Kris grinned. "Okay, first thing's first," she began. "From here on out, I don't want to be considered much different than the rest of you. You'll still obey my commands, but you can talk to me freely without asking for permission, as communication is very important. Feel free to joke around, and be yourselves," she encouraged. "We may be here for a while, so let's get comfortable with each other, okay?"
"Yes, ma'am," they said, and she smiled.
"Good. From what I hear, we'll land at the safe zone, and either walk in, or be taken in by trucks, I'm not sure which. Make sure your packs are ready before we land," she added, and everyone double-checked their equipment.
Kris had stuffed her things from her duffel bag into her large pack, along with her bedroll, and a few other things which were already attached. Satisfied that she had everything she needed, including paper and a pen for writing letters to Ryanne, she and the other soldiers prepared for landing.
"This is about where the chopper will land," the pilot told her, before she stepped off board. "It comes every five days, if possible. Once you make it past those trees," he said, pointing to a small forest a few miles away, "you're safe to get to the chopper. Good luck, Company 217." The tall soldier nodded, and made her way to the ground, followed closely by the rest of her company.
"Okay, listen up," she said, when they were all assembled, and the plane had taken off, back into the sky. "We've got about two miles to get used to carrying this stuff, before we leave the safety zone, and enter the war zone."
As she spoke, they went through the supplies, and stuffed whatever they could into their packs; extras of everything, just in case. "We'll be doing a few practice drops and such, just to make sure we know what to do now that we're here. Keep your radio with you at all times, keep your helmet on, and keep your ears and eyes open," she added, before motioning them forward.
It was almost dark, Kris guessed they had an hour of daylight left, and the soldier was trying to get used to the sound of gunfire. Looking up, she saw an occasional plane pass over, and heard rapid shots ring out as the aircraft was shot at. The two she had seen had yet to be hit - foreign planes, carrying bombs or supplies, she guessed.
Just as the sun disappeared behind the sky, Kris called a halt, and decided they'd make camp in the dense forest. The soldiers were quick to lay down their bedrolls, deciding that it was such a clear night, they didn't need lean-tos, trenches, or foxholes to sleep in. That, and they figured they were close enough to the safe zone not to need cover just yet.
"We'll keep watch in shifts," said Kris, and assigned four shifts, with five men relieving each group every two hours. "Keep a watch out for any sounds, or lights. The rest of you, get some sleep, and eat something. We'll be up at dawn to move," she added, and they all agreed.
Kris wondered if the other soldiers got as much sleep as she did; the woman was awake for the first three change in shifts, too tense to rest. She knew everyone was scared, which was expected, but she hoped it would get a little less frightening once they knew what they were up against, so they'd be able to sleep. Otherwise, they, the reinforcements, would be in no condition to help the soldiers at the front.
The tall soldier was almost asleep when the sound of a crushing of the leaves nearby startled her. Grabbing her gun as she rolled to her feet, she clicked her flashlight on, holding it under her arm as she aimed her weapon - directly at Sergeant Jenkins.
"Sorry, ma'am," he said, as he reached for his canteen. "I didn't mean to startle you. I thought you were asleep, and I was only coming back from watch."
Kris sighed, and chuckled, in spite of her racing heart. "It's okay, Jenkins," she said, turning the light off, as it was shining in his face. "Get some rest. See you in the morning."
"Good night, ma'am," he said, lying down, turning his back to her as he tried to sleep. Replacing her gun by her side, Kris stayed awake, looking at the stars, finding it amazing that she was looking at the same sky as Ryanne. The soldier felt worlds away.
Staff Sergeant Jones brought in the morning with thoughts of her love, before coming to her senses and calling to her men. They made it through the first night with no problems, and Kris could only call it beginner's luck, as they headed out into the sunlight.
It was the next night before Kris got a chance to sit down and write a letter to Ryanne. She was right about beginner's luck, because from the time they got up that morning, until just moments before, all Hell had broken loose.
First, she had to deal with the soft complaints of Ricky Beard, who had somehow managed to locate a poisonous plant, and sleep on it. She spent the morning walk keeping him from scratching until he bled, which was rather difficult, so she finally ordered him to wear his gloves for the remainder of the day. He did, and not another lament passed by his lips.
Then, just as soon as they took a quick break in the shade, trying to escape the heat for a moment, while the medic administered some ointment to Beard's skin, gunfire was heard - close. Kris ordered them all to find cover, and then found out where the shooting was coming from; it was the Americans, the soldiers they were sent to relieve. The men were firing at the foreign opposition, trying to hold them back.
Ordering her company to approach from the side and give the Americans some aid, Kris quickly discovered that the Vietnamese were trying to steal the men's supplies, what little they had left. After a few were wounded, they called a retreat, and took off. Kris figured that'd be the last they'd see of them, until nightfall, anyhow.
"You must be the boys who're going home," she greeted, with a smile.
"Ma'am, yes, ma'am!" cried one soldier, a huge grin on his face as he shook her hand. "I'm Sergeant James Oxtail," he introduced. "I'm in charge, since Staff Sergeant Colonel Matheson was killed."
"How long ago was that?" asked Kris.
"About two weeks ago, I think, ma'am," he replied. "It's easy to lose track of time, here."
The woman nodded. "Staff Sergeant Kris Jones," she said, and he saluted her. "These are my men, Company 217. We're here to relieve you. Any of you who want to stay," for some insane reason, "or are unable to leave, are welcome to remain here with us. I've got two men, more if needed, who are scheduled to go back to the chopper for supplies and the like every few days. They also take the wounded to the truck, which we've arranged to meet us just inside the safety zone," she added.
She had radioed in that morning, demanding a truck for the wounded, saying that carrying them on a stretcher for the long distance they had to cover just wasn't practical. Her request had been granted, and two trucks would now help bring things to and from the chopper, be it supplies or casualties.
Seven stayed on, since they were too injured to make it back, even to the awaiting trucks, while the others moved on for home as soon as possible.
Kris noticed that one of the young boys now under her command couldn't have been old enough to legally drink, but he was downing whiskey like it was water. The tall soldier realized why, when she saw a dark red stain on his pant leg, and how the bottom half of the material laid flat, indicating that there was nothing beneath it - the boy had lost his right leg, just below the knee.
"Hey," she said, gently, rolling up his pant leg as she spoke, "what's your name?"
"Private Henry Gregg, ma'am," he replied, his voice surprising clear, despite the nearly empty bottle in his possession.
"I'm Staff Sergeant Kris Jones," she said, "in case you didn't hear. What base are you from?"
"Washington Army Base, Texas," he said, wincing when she lifted a corner of the bandage to examine his wound.
"Sorry," she apologized, seeing his pain. "Well, I'm no doctor, but something tells me you've sprung a leak." The boy looked startled, and then smiled. "I'll take this," she said, taking the flask from his hand.
"We have pain killers that last longer than this. Hm… what is this shit?" she asked, sniffing the liquid, before taking a small swig, and spitting it out just as quickly. "Must have been a bad year."
The soldier grinned at her. "That's wine, ma'am, not whiskey," he told her. "Wine is judged by its year, not whiskey."
Kris nodded. "Oh, right," she said, and patted the boy on the shoulder. "I'll have our medic take a look at those stitches, all right?" Gregg nodded, and she smiled, reassuringly. "Don't move around too much, and you should be a little more comfortable."
The men were just getting set up, behind the impressive barrier that the previous company had set up, with sandbags, lumber, barbed wire, and whatever else they could find, when one soldier let out a deafening scream.
Kris bolted to his side - he was one of Matheson's former men, and he seemed to be in too much pain for anyone to bear. The woman noticed that one of the other men was trying to remove a bullet from his thigh, using his bare hands. He had tweezers, but the soldier, Paul Kingston, was moving around too much for them to do any good.
"Move," snarled the woman, pushing the man out of her way. "Here." Taking a stick, she gave it to the soldier to bite on, which he did, gratefully. "Now, let's see if I can do something about the pain." Remembering an old technique she had learned a long time ago, about the main blood vessels and pressure points, Kris jabbed two fingers just above the wound.
"I… I can't feel my leg," the man muttered, around the stick in his mouth.
"Complaining?" Kris snorted, and the soldier shook his head. "Give me those," she ordered, and the metal instrument was placed in her hand. Holding the man's leg still, she reached in and removed the bullet, before sewing the wound quickly, and covering it with an antitoxin that would have hurt almost as bad as the stitches, had she not blocked the feeling.
"Okay," she warned, as she finished bandaging the wound. "I have to take off the pinch, now, and it's going to hurt like hell. Ready?" Gritting his teeth, the soldier nodded, and Kris jabbed his thigh again. The man bit through the wood, and then mercifully passed out.
"Next time," she said, tossing the bloodied rag she had used to wipe excess blood away from the wound at the soldier who had first attempted to remove the bullet, "make sure the patient's comfortable before you go sticking your fingers in his wound."
The man nodded, mutely, and Kris was suddenly aware that everyone was watching her, their eyes wide.
"What?" she asked, running her hands through her hair as she started setting things up for their stay. No one said anything, but Company 217 was sure the soldiers from Texas now had the same feelings they did - their commanding officer was as close to a God as a mortal woman could get.
From there, she'd had to drag crates around the camp, arranging things so they not only had access to their supplies, but also protection from all sides. After everything was set up, she took care of a few more soldiers' wounds, helping the doctor with what skills she had.
A few hours before nightfall, Kris ordered her men to begin digging trenches along the inside perimeter of the sandbags and such, for extra cover. She worked just as hard as the men, and the job was finished in only an hour.
It was almost dusk when the attack began. Everyone hit the dirt, and dove into the trenches, as soon as the gunfire was heard. Those who were injured were already in the ditches, by Kris' orders, so the others dove in around them, before shouldering their weapons and returning the fire.
Three Vietnamese casualties and one minor American injury later, the enemy fell back, and everyone took a moment to breathe again, as the moon rose high into the sky.
"Is everyone okay?" asked Kris, and save one sprained wrist, there were no new injuries. "Good. You all did well, going for safety as soon as you heard the first shot," she praised. "Keep that up, and we'll be fine."
And now, after all that action, she took time out to lean against a rock, pen and paper in hand, thinking about what to write. Deciding to leave out the gory details of the pain and suffering she had seen already, just 24 hours into the battle, Kris merely told Ryanne how much she missed her, and how, so far, none of her men were hurt.
When she took a moment to think about it, Kris realized that her letter would probably reach Ryanne about the time of Cassidy's birthday. Frowning, she tried to figure out what to give the youngster for a gift.
What do I give my Junior Sergeant for her fifth birthday? she asked herself, and suddenly, it came to her. That's it! When she was done writing her letter, the woman reached up to the collar of her uniform, and removed one of the stars she wore, indicating her rank. Folding the paper, she stuck the pin through it, and fastened it securely, before stuffing the letter into her bag. When it came time for mail two days later, she'd send it in the bag, with the hopes that the star would remain on the paper throughout the journey.
Satisfied, Kris gradually got used to having 85 soldiers around her, and assigned shifts once more, taking the last watch herself. Closing her eyes, the tall soldier decided to get as much sleep as she was able, before she had to stand guard.
Ryanne went to the base each day, her hopes never fading that she'd find a letter waiting from her tall soldier, no matter how many days passed without a word. Mark Bowman assured her that the mail bag had yet to come in, but the moment it did, he'd let her know.
The blonde also kept a close eye on the news, for any information on how things were going. Nothing had been reported so far, but it had only been three days, and Ryanne knew she had to give it time. The usually patient woman was already getting anxious, and she wondered how she was going to stand it, if being away from Kris for less than a week was already difficult.
"Mom, when is Kris gonna write?" asked Cassidy, as she helped her mother bake their third batch of cookies in two days. She knew her mother was worried, but she didn't understand why - Kris had promised she'd come back, so what was there to worry about? The child only knew she'd never baked so many cookies in her life, and knew there was no way even she and her mother would be able to eat them all.
"Soon, honey," said Ryanne, optimistically. "I'm sure she's busy taking care of her soldiers, so we'll just give her time, okay?"
"Okay," shrugged the girl. Her birthday was coming up in two days, on the 22nd, and she hoped Kris hadn't forgotten. She really liked the soldier, and had been thinking about whether or not to find a name for her, something that she could call her, other than "Kris". Of course, she'd have to check with her mother, first…
Suddenly, the phone rang, and Cassidy answered it before her mother could stop her. "Hello?" she answered, and grinned. "Hi, Grandpa!" she said, as she had begun calling the Captain, much to his delight. Ryanne thought she couldn't have thought of a better person to wear the title, than the gentle man who Cassidy had chosen.
"Really? Cool! I'll tell Mom. See you," she said, and hung up. "Grandpa says the mail's here!" she exclaimed, happily. Ryanne let out a whoop of joy, and left the cookies on the counter to cool, as she and her daughter rushed out the door, heading for the base.
Half an hour later, they returned home, after collecting the mail from Kris, and dropping off a few letters to go back to the soldier, Ryanne barely containing herself from ripping the envelope open. Mark had said they had merely been pieces of paper, so he had enclosed them in an envelope so they'd stay together, all three of them.
The blonde was startled to see one of Kris' stars pinned to one of the letters, and read that one first, hoping it wasn't bad news.
Well, this is my second night here, but the first time I've gotten a chance to write you. The men are doing fine, no one's injured - not even me. Unless you count Ricky Beard, who made his bed on a poisonous plant last night, and has been itching like crazy all day long. I told him to lay out his bedroll, but he insisted he was comfortable… Men.
Ryanne smiled, as she read it aloud to her daughter, who giggled.
"Keep reading," urged the girl, and Ryanne agreed.
You should get this about the time of Cassidy's birthday, so her gift is enclosed. Tell her she can put it on my jacket, if she wants, and to wear it with pride. I hope she likes it - love you, pip-squeak.
I miss you both. I'd better quit for now, and get some sleep. Yes, sweetheart, I'm sleeping here. I know you worry. I'll write you whenever I can, like I promised. Oh, Jenkins says hi, and so does Thompson. Oh, hell, everyone says hi. Even the seven new guys I've got, who have no idea who you are.
Ryanne chuckled, and finished the letter.
Seven of the soldiers we relieved stayed behind, because of injuries, so I've got 85 men behind me, now, instead of the 78 I started out with. Their commanding officer was killed a few weeks ago, so there's no problem with conflicting orders. They're good men, and we should all get out of here safely.
I love you, and miss you. Look at the stars for me.
All my love, always.
Ryanne smiled as she ended the letter, wondering a little about the strange request Kris had chosen to put at the end of her message, and looked down at her daughter, to see just as big of a grin on her face.
"What are you smiling about?" she asked, tickling her.
Cassidy squealed, and dashed through the house, her mother right behind her. They collapsed on the couch in a fit of laughter, tickling one another until neither was able to return the attack.
"What did she get me?"
The blonde smiled, and held out the pin for her daughter to see.
"Oh… pretty," she cooed, taking it from her mother's palm. "I put it on my jacket?" Ryanne nodded, and fastened it to the collar of the jacket, which the child never took off. The woman smiled when she noticed how right the star looked on the jacket, and the dancing light evident in Cassidy's eyes.
"I like it!" she said, happily, and Ryanne agreed.
"It looks good on you," she declared, proudly. "What do you say we read the other letter, and then write her back?" Cassidy eagerly conceded, and Ryanne read the second letter, which said much the same as the first one: how Kris missed them, how she was doing all right, and she hoped they were both safe and well.
"Mother, can I draw something for Momma?" asked Cassidy, the word slipping from her mouth before she had a chance to think about it.
Ryanne hid a surprised smile. "What did you call her?" she asked, quietly.
"Momma," repeated the child. "Do you think Kris would get mad? Can I call her that?" she asked, timidly.
Ryanne gave in to her grin, and gave Cassidy a strong hug. "Sweetheart, I'm sure Kris will be thrilled. We'll tell her in this next letter, all right?" With an excited smile, Cassidy agreed, and set to work on her picture, which Ryanne enclosed in the letter. Both counted down the days until they could send their letters, looking forward to Kris' response already.
On Saturday, May 20th, Kris awoke and immediately called her men to attention. Everyone that could stand did so, and she sang a quiet but beautiful rendition of the Army theme song, before coming to attention herself and raising her arm in a salute, honoring those who had died defending their country.
"Today would have been the parade," she said, "so I figured instead of trying to invite the Vietnamese to march with us, we'd stick to our own show of respect." The men agreed, only then recovering from the shock of hearing their commanding officer sing.
On the following Wednesday, after just a week of fighting, two men returned with the mail bag, coming back to a camp full of eager soldiers. They started calling out names, and handed out the letters, smiling when they received their own messages.
When they were all passed out, Kris made sure they would be safe for a while, and sat down to read her own letters from Ryanne - she had three pieces of paper. Unfolding the first one, she leaned against the sand bags, as she sat comfortably in the trench, and began to read the familiar handwriting to herself.
Cassidy and I were so glad to receive your letter, and she loves the pin you gave her. When I told her it was from the ones you wore on your collar, that told everyone what rank you were, she proclaimed "One star means Junior Sergeant," and the Captain agreed with her.
She still calls him Grandpa, and it seems she has a name for you, too. Kris, she's started calling you Momma, and me Mother.
The tall soldier's jaw dropped, and she reread the sentence a dozen times, before leaping to her feet, a huge smile on her face.
"Gee, Sarge," said Private Gregg, startled, "what bit you in the ass? You jumped up like somebody kicked you."
"I got a letter from home," she explained, and proceeded to tell the soldier all about Cassidy, and then had him read the line. "She called me Momma!" she exclaimed, beaming. The Private smiled, nodded, and then looked around at his chuckling friends, who fell victim to Kris' enthusiasm next.
Nearly half an hour had passed by before Kris remembered she had more of the letter to read, and, after showing the line off to everyone at least twice, she sat back down in the ditch, and continued reading, completely missing the grins that were passed around the camp.
At first, she was worried you would be angry with her, but I told her I thought you'd be thrilled.
Yeah, that's an understatement, Kris snorted, her heart swelling until she was sure it would burst. Thrilled? Hell, I'm ecstatic!
We've been keeping busy around here, and you'll be up to your ears in cookies when you come back. I watched the parade for you, and it went well; there was a good turn out of outside folks there, but it just wasn't the same without you.
We miss you very much. Be careful.
Kris smiled as she finished the letter, and she brightened further upon seeing the paper that was enclosed - a drawing that Cassidy had made. It was a rough crayon sketch of what Kris guessed to be the American flag, with a camouflage colored forest in the background. The soldier could make out the words "Momma" and "Cassidy" written at the bottom.
And, suddenly, she didn't feel so far away.
The next few days were a blur of bullets for the soldier. The Vietnamese had let loose with a surprise attack at night, and they were all caught unaware. By the time the siege was over, the silence didn't return until Saturday, there were casualties on both sides. The Vietnamese had taken quite a few hits, and two men from Lt. Col. Matheson's company had been lost.
One was the Private who had attempted to remove the bullet from Paul Kingston's leg, his name was William Ash, Kris learned upon reading his dog tags, as she took the one with the chipped edge, placed it between his teeth, and clamped his jaw shut. The other, which affected Kris for quite a while, was Private Bradley Gregg, Henry's twin brother.
Both Gregg boys had become close to their commanding officer, because of their good humor and great personalities, as well as their willingness to work hard. The young man, only 20 years old, had been fighting just a few feet from Kris when he was hit. The soldier had to keep firing, since the enemy was advancing upon their camp, so she wasn't able to leave her post until the area was secure.
By the time she rushed to his side, it was too late. The bullet had hit just an inch above his heart, and there was nothing to be done - he was dying. His skin looked pallid already, his blue eyes were beginning to take on a glazed look, and his short blonde hair was dirty, from the work he had done without breaking to clean up.
"Sarge," he coughed, as Kris sat by his side, Henry at the other, squeezing his younger brother's frighteningly weak hand.
"I'm here," she reassured him, putting her hand on his shoulder, gently.
"Don't talk," pleaded Henry, as blood pumped steadily from the wound he was frantically trying to put pressure on, and red liquid filled his sibling's mouth.
A painful grin crossed the soldier's face. "I was… never the quiet one," he said, and Henry choked back a sob. "Sarge," he began, again, as his life bubbled out the corner of his mouth, leaving a dark red trail. "Sarge… it's okay… I'm home. We'll all make… make it home," he said, hoarsely, before falling still.
Henry let out a heart-wrenching sob as Kris closed the boy's eyelids with her palm, and wiped a single tear away with the back of her hand. "You and you," she said, pointing to two soldiers, standing nearby, watching the scene with sorrow. "Take Gregg and Ash over to the empty crates. We'll hold them there until we can take them back to the trucks in a few days." The men nodded, and carefully dragged the corpses over to the temporary coffin Kris had insisted they make.
"I'm sorry, Henry," said Kris, using the boy's first name, gently. "He was a good soldier." The boy just nodded, and was unusually quiet, but Kris attributed it to his loss. He said little the rest of the night, and Kris changed the shifts, allowing him the night off to grieve.
Kris was almost asleep, when she sensed a movement nearby. Her bedroll was not far from Private Gregg's, so she glanced over, making sure the young soldier was okay. What she saw caused her to spring to her feet. The boy was donning his helmet, and shouldering his weapon.
"Gregg," she said, softly, startling him. "Henry, where are you going?"
"Out there," he replied, checking his gun for bullets, and finding it loaded. "Have to kill the goddamn bastards. Have to do it for Brad," he added, forcefully, before taking a step forward.
"No, Henry," Kris said, evenly. "I know you want revenge, and I don't blame you; I'm angry, too. But charging out there in the middle of the night, alone, is not the answer," she told him, but she may as well have been talking to a brick wall for all the good it did.
With a shout, the boy ran towards the sand bags, intending to jump over them and leave the safety of the camp. Kris leapt forward, and tackled him to the ground. The two rolled around, startling soldiers out of their bedrolls as they wrestled, Kris attempting to keep him down, and the young man hell-bent on getting up.
When he jabbed an elbow back, and caught her in the jaw, Kris snarled, and stopped worrying about hurting the soldier. Straddling his back, she grabbed his arm, and shoved it behind his back, at a painfully unnatural angle, making him cry out in anguish.
"Stop it!" she demanded, pushing the bone to it's limit, just on the border of breaking it. "If you don't calm down, Gregg, so help me God I'll break your fucking arm," she warned, and the man eventually stopped struggling. "Now, I'm going to let you up. I want your word that you won't try to get out of the compound."
"You have my word," mumbled the young man, through his tears. Kris released him, and he sat up, slowly, rubbing his sore arm. "You should have let me go!" he protested. "You should have let me kill them!"
"And get yourself killed in the process?" cried Kris. "I don't think so. I don't want to lose any more men than I already have," she said. "Do you think this is what your brother would have wanted? Huh? Do you think he would have wanted you to go out and get yourself ventilated by the Vietnamese?" she demanded.
The boy was silent, stewing in sorrow and anger. Kris' voice softened a little. "Gregg, I understand that you're upset, but self-sacrifice is not the answer. We're just as angry as you are," she assured him. "We're a team, we work together, and Bradley's death affects all of us. But, we know what we have to do - we have to stick together, and do as we've been taught, that's the only way we can win.
"Can you do that, Henry? Can you trust that we will beat them? Because we will, and we'll do it for all the soldiers who've been lost, including your brother. But you have to work with us," she insisted. "Okay? I don't want to lose any more men."
The soldier snapped, and started yelling from his position, still seated on the dirt. "Will you stop calling us that? We are not your goddamn men! We're not even from the same fucking state!" he shouted, and Kris' blue eyes widened. "We could have gone home. All seven of us, we could have left. But we stayed here, and now look what's happened," he sneered. "My brother's dead, because of you. So don't call me your goddamn 'man', because I'm not, and I don't want to be," he finished.
In a flash, Kris got to her feet, and pulled the soldier up by the collar of his shirt, standing on the one leg he had left. "You listen to me," she growled, angrily. "I don't give a good goddamn where you come from, or where you call home. You're still a United States soldier, and you're under my command. You follow my orders. So, whether you like it or not, you little shit, you are one of my men, and you'd damn well better remember that."
Shoving the man back to the ground, she stormed off, leaving a group of silent soldiers in her wake.
"I think you hurt her feelings, Henry," Kris heard Thompson say, and the others murmured their agreement.
"Fuck her, anyway," he spat, and the soldier watched out of the corner of her eye as Thompson grabbed the man in a similar manner as she had done, only kneeling so he wouldn't have to lift him so far off the ground, and brought him close, until they were nose-to-nose.
"Take that back, you son of a bitch," he cursed, and Kris was surprised - she had never seen an angry side to the normally happy-go-lucky soldier. "That's my commanding officer you're talking about, and my friend. It's not her fault your brother's dead, soldier. She would have taken her own life if it would have done any good; that's just the kind of person she is. So don't you go blaming it on her, you hear?" he demanded, and Henry swallowed, nodding slowly, stunned into disbelieving silence.
Ten minutes later, as Kris sat cleaning her gun, she looked up when she heard footsteps approaching. To her surprise, there stood Henry, balancing on his crutches.
"Yes?" she asked, tonelessly.
"May I sit down?" he asked, and Kris nodded. The boy slowly lowered himself to the ground beside her, and took a deep breath. "I… I just wanted to say I'm sorry," he blurted. "I didn't really mean what I said, I was just hurt, and upset. And scared, I guess. I mean, I didn't feel that bad about being here, even without my leg, until I realized that people I know and love really could die.
"I also didn't mean what I said about being under your command," he added, quietly. "You're a great Sergeant, and you know a lot about what to do and how to do it, in order to keep us safe. And you talk to us like we're real men, not just soldiers to be put to work, like Colonel Matheson did.
"Well, anyway, I'm sorry," he concluded, looking away.
Kris offered him her hand, and he took it, confused. "Apology accepted," she said, and he smiled. "Thank you, soldier. I know it took guts to come over to me and admit you were wrong."
"Oh, yeah," he breathed. It hadn't been hard admitting he had made a mistake, not really, but it was difficult to gather the courage he needed to walk over to her, fully expecting the woman to lash out at him, angry and unforgiving.
Kris chuckled, and then turned more serious. "I understand how you feel, because I feel it, too," she said. "And you can avenge your brother - you can do it by making him proud, and by doing your best. You'll see him again someday, and until then, you can honor his memory," she finished, and the boy nodded, accepting her strong hand to steady himself when he struggled to stand.
"Thanks," he said, and went back to his bedroll. From then on, Kris noticed that the man put his all into whatever he did, and obeyed her orders to the tiniest detail, doing exactly as she wanted, until she could have sworn he had been under her command for several years. Even with the loss of his leg, he was still able to maneuver fairly well, and was the best man she had for moving on his belly.
Actually, after that outburst, all of the soldier's from Colonel Matheson's company seemed to work better with those from Company 217. They worked side-by-side, and acted as though they had been friends for years. Which was good; Kris knew they needed that kind of relationship to be able to work as a team - all of them.
Saturday afternoon came and went, without a lot of activity, and Kris was formulating a plan for advancing upon the Vietnamese troops, when a voice broke through her thoughts.
"What in God's name is that?" cried Jenkins, and everyone immediately went for their weapons.
"What is what, Jenkins?" she asked, and the man pointed to a large beige object, just barely visible on the horizon.
Kris let out a holler of joy. "That, my friend," she said, grabbing the startled man around the shoulders, "is the Whispering Death." At the men's confused looks, she continued, "That's an Abram M1 Tank, soldier. Sixty-three tons of 1500 horsepower, 45 mile-an-hour, turbine engine, American resistance. That sucker's got infrared viewing, smoke grenades, and a stationary machine gun, all encased by Uranium; 2 ½ times stronger than steel," she finished, and heard a few men whistle through their teeth.
"Gentleman, I'd like you to meet our new best friend," she said, gesturing to the tanks with a smile on her face. "Looks like we've finally got a little help."
The months passed without any further casualties from Kris' company, much to her delight. By the time August rolled around, along with the rain, Sergeant Jones and her men had moved their camp, steadily advancing upon the Vietnamese. The bombing from both sides could be heard, and while it had yet to affect Company 217 with much more than a little tremor, Kris knew it was getting closer.
As they got closer to the enemy's stockade, the attacks also became more frequent. Not only did the gunfire fall upon them like the cold raindrops which were falling regularly, it did not only happen during the day - there had been quite a few night attacks, as well.
It was one of these night attacks that caught Kris off guard. The soldiers were busy reading letters from home, which had arrived earlier in the day, when the shooting began. All else was quickly forgotten as 83 bodies grabbed their weapons, and aimed at the night.
Kris aimed her weapon, seeing a light flash on quickly, by some imbecile Vietnamese soldier trying to see something or another, and fired rapidly, knowing that the man now had at least two or three extra holes in his body.
At first, she attributed the pain in her right shoulder to the kick of her rifle, but soon realized that she had been hit. And not just grazed, judging by the sticky feeling that was covering the front of her uniform.
"Son of a bitch," she muttered, as the pain hit her, and she fell back to the ground, clutching her shoulder.
"Sergeant!" exclaimed Thompson, going to her side.
"Keep firing," she ordered, shoving him back to his post. Focusing on the enemy, Thompson did as he was told, while Kris fumbled for a grenade. Pulling the clip with what strength she had in her right hand, she let it fly over the head of her men, and then yelled for them to duck. They all hid behind the sandbags as the explosion sent dirt flying.
The opposing gunfire ceased instantaneously.
"Now, if you tell me to keep firing, I'll just be wasting bullets," said Thompson, returning to her side as he removed her hand, to get a better look at her wound. "Oh, that's pretty," he remarked.
"Can you show me that pinch-thingy?" he asked, and Kris shook her head.
"Not something you can learn in ten seconds," she said. "Thompson, see if the bullet passed through." The man nodded, and he and Jenkins gently rolled her on her side, looking for the exit wound, all the while carefully removing her jacket.
"It's through," Jenkins reported, and Kris sighed, grateful. "Uh, ma'am," started the soldier, awkwardly. "We need to get your shirt off, in order to get a better look at the damage."
Kris grinned as she slowly began to remove her shirt. "I oughta sell tickets," she joked, grunting with effort, glad when a few soldiers helped removed the fabric from her arms, wondering if their eagerness to take off her shirt was solely because of her wound. "Now, I expect you all to be gentleman."
Thompson grinned. "No way," he said, as he examined the hole which passed through her shoulder, and exited just above her first rib in the back. "Anybody got a camera? We could sell this to Playboy. She's too weak to defend herself, anyway."
Kris smirked at him. "Try me, lover boy," she challenged. "If you've got any plans to become a father, you'll behave yourself."
Thompson just gave her a lop-sided smile, as he allowed the doctor to cleanse the wound, and tried to keep his commanding officer talking, so she'd remain conscious. "Nope, never wanted kids," he shrugged. "Guess I'm in luck."
"How about this," she hissed, gritting her teeth as she felt the needle pass through her skin, a few minutes later. "If you ever want to be able to take a piss again, or give your hand something to do on those lonely Saturday nights, you'll back off."
The soldiers laughed, as did Thompson. "That's why I like you," he sighed. "You're so funny."
"Am I laughing, soldier?" she demanded, and for the barest instant, the man looked scared. But, then he grinned, as did Kris, before growling at the doctor, again. "Goddamn it, Franklin," she snarled. "Where the fuck did you get your training? Kavorkian 101?"
Douglas Franklin chuckled, but didn't say a word. He finished sewing her wound, and told her it should heal fine, as long as she didn't do anything strenuous. This produced a laugh from the tall soldier.
"Franklin, my entire life is strenuous," she said, and everyone smiled, glad to know their Sergeant would be okay. Kris decided it would be best not to tell Ryanne of the little incident in her next letter, which she planned to write shortly thereafter.
Reading the blonde's letter, she was happy to learn that both Ryanne and Cassidy had begun using the obstacle course at the base, taking on a more serious perspective to their exercise, which Ryanne had been lightly interested in since Kris began working with her like she did her soldiers, so long ago.
It is good to know that you're both doing well, and it sounds like you're having fun. Things have been going well over here, and we are slowly but surely closing in on the Vietnamese ground camps. The tanks and planes are helping, but nothing has been done in our near vicinity.
Kris sighed. What else was there to say? Miss you, wish you were here? She snorted. This wasn't exactly your ordinary letter home.
Our supplies are still plentiful, and it has been raining for a few days now, but it hasn't been a problem so far. Every time I remember to stop and feel, I feel the rain on my face, and think of the day we first made love.
Had Kris known that Ryanne was reading her letters aloud to Cassidy, she would have warned her, or worded her sentences differently, but she had no idea that this letter would cause the blonde to turn numerous shades of scarlet, as she attempted to stumble over the words, and figure out a way to fix her embarrassment in front of her curious daughter. Her daughter who kept trying to read the letter for herself.
I remember the feel of your skin against mine, and the smell of our passion… it makes life here a little easier when I think of you, and of coming home.
Kris paused a moment, fingering her injured shoulder.
And I will be coming home. Soon.
One way or another, she thought, tiredly. I'll come home; one way or another.
A few days later, Kris received word that her reinforcements had arrived. Company 217, and their new additions, were going home on the next plane out. That meant they had to pack up their things, and make it to the chopper in three days, which meant a lot of heavy traveling.
But Kris and her men couldn't have cared if they'd been told they had to crawl over fifty miles of hot sand and eat broken glass before they could go home - all that mattered was that they were going home! And, to make things even better, they'd be home in time for Christmas, and even Thanksgiving!
"All right, boys," said Kris, as they packed, "this is it. I'm saying this now, in case we're too caught up in getting out of here to talk later on," she said, and everyone turned to her, giving her their undivided attention.
"I'd say it's been a pleasure, but it hasn't," she grinned, and received a few smiles in return. "It has, however, been a load off my mind, knowing that I've had you all beside me all the way. I picked those of you I did, because I knew you'd do well.
"And those of you we've since joined up with, had I known you back in Colorado, I would have chosen you, as well," she said, and smiled again. "Hell, you may even get a call from me over in Texas sometime!
"Henry, you've made me proud," she said. "And I'm sure your brother is just as satisfied with your performance. You've turned into a fine soldier," she added, and the boy nodded, solemnly.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said.
"Now, I'll inflate everyone else's ego later," she said, chuckling. "The longer we walk, the faster we'll get there, so this means we're going to have to move through the night, which could be dangerous. I'll lead the way, except at night. When we get into the forest, I want everyone to be on the lookout for booby traps and such," she said. "I know we haven't seen any yet, but we've got a lot of land to cover.
"Ready?" Everyone nodded, and shouldered their loads. "Okay, then. Let's go." Just a few hundred yards away from the camp, Kris held up her hand, and the soldiers came to a halt. Picking up a rock, Kris tossed it in front of her, and watched as a cover of leaves fell through, to reveal a deep hole. Peering over the edge, Kris drew in a surprised breath.
"Well, I'll be damned," she swore, softly. "Pongee sticks," she said, pointing to the bamboo sticks in the bottom of the hole. The twigs were sharpened to a point, and then covered with diseased substances, often feces. When the victim stepped in the trap, and fell into the hole, they were impaled on the points. If that didn't kill them, the infection would.
"Never thought I'd see any of those," said Jenkins, coming up beside her to look for himself. "This is a fine distance to view them from, though." Backing away, Kris motioned the men ahead of her, making sure everyone stayed away from the pit, and then joined them.
They moved carefully, through the night. When darkness came, Kris would find a marker, and stand there as she urged the soldiers past her, making sure everyone was accounted for.
At one point, she had to retrieve Jenkins, who was cowering in the corner for some reason or another. Going over to him, when he didn't respond to her voice, she realized the man was staring at the body of an American soldier - one of the Matheson's boys, Kris had no doubt. He had walked into a trap of some kind, or an ambush, Kris wasn't sure which had happened first, but the man now hung from a crude noose.
He had been there for a while, Kris decided, but knew she didn't have the proper tools to give him a decent burial, and it wouldn't do anything for the morale to haul back a dead body, so she had to leave him. Sending him a silent prayer, and saluting him, she pushed Jenkins forward.
Where he tripped on a wire, triggering a log to come swinging down towards them. She managed to get them out of the way, and then take cover when gunfire sprayed around them. When it was safe, she drug him out with her, and went to find the others, who had, luckily, all found a secure place to hide until the attack was over at dawn, and were unhurt.
Assembling the men again, the soldier pressed on, her men following close behind, heading towards home.
There was a knock at the door a few days after Kris' last letter arrived, and Ryanne leapt to answer it, seeing a glimpse of a camouflage suit, and hoping it was Kris. The soldier had said she'd be coming home soon, after all.
Opening the door, she was startled to see two uniformed officers standing there, both of whom she recognized, but neither was the soldier she was looking for.
"Miss Cole?" one of them asked.
"Can I help you?" Ryanne asked, smiling uncertainly.
"Miss Cole, I am Private Ronald Jenkins," introduced the man, "and this is Captain Bowman."
"I know you both," she said, smiling. They were friends; why were they acting so different? "Why are you two being so formal?"
"Ryanne," sighed the Captain, and the blonde started at the sound of her full name spilling from his lips for the first time, "it is… I must…" taking a deep breath, he choked back a sob, and said, his voice thick with emotion, "it is my sad duty, and I regret to inform you, that Staff Sergeant Kris Jones has been lost in the line of fire."
The woman just stared at him. "What? This is… uh, I mean… you're joking. This is all some kind of sick joke… isn't it?" she asked, her voice small.
No, it can't be, she thought. Not her soldier; not Kris. She couldn't be gone. She said she'd come back to me - she promised. This can't be happening… Please, God, not Kris. Don't take her away from me; Cassidy and I, we both need her. Don't let this happen…
"No, ma'am. I wish it was," added Jenkins. "We need you to come down to the base and collect her things, if you would. I was with her, ma'am, and she saved my life. Which is why, when you pick up her belongings, a Purple Heart will be among them. She was the bravest soldier I've ever known," he said, hanging his head in remembrance.
"What happened to her?" she asked, quietly.
"We were all asleep, and she woke us up, screaming for us to run towards the chopper, just to go as fast as we could," Jenkins said. "I turned back to call to her, just as the bomb hit. The blast really wasn't very strong, from where I was, but it would have done some major damage at the site of impact. I was far enough away not to get much more than an aftershock, which only lifted me off my feet a little, but I could still see Sergeant Jones and Private Thompson standing there arguing, almost exactly where the bomb landed.
"She's officially MIA, Missing In Action," he added, "because we don't have a body. But, I don't know how much we would have been able to bring back, so it's pretty much a given that she's KIA. Killed In Action," he explained. "She was a very good commander, RC. She's what kept most of us alive."
"Tell me about it," pleaded the blonde, inviting them in. They took a seat on the couch, while the defeated blonde sat heavily in the recliner.
Jenkins took a deep breath, and began his tale…
"Does this bombing ever stop?" whined a young soldier, Jeff York, to be precise.
"Eventually," said Kris, patting his shoulder. "If we can make it to dawn, it'll be okay." The man nodded, and suddenly, there was silence. Motioning for them to move, Jones crept up to the front, and urged them past her.
She frowned when the last soldier slipped past her - she was missing a man. Looking around, squinting in the darkness, she saw the soldier, cowering in the bushes. It was Jenkins, and he was staring numbly at the gently swaying body of a hanged American soldier.
"Jenkins, let's move!" she hissed, but the man didn't budge. Grabbing him by the collar of his suit, she screamed into his face, "Jenkins! Get your ass moving, damn it, or I'll drag you along myself! Now, go!" That shocked him out of his stupor, and he stumbled ahead of her.
"Step careful," she murmured. Purely by a miscalculation, Jenkins stepped wrong, and got his feet caught on a trap wire. Throwing them both to the ground, Jones covered the man until the log swung over them, and then shoved him forward, crawling on their stomachs.
Just then, dirt flew in patches in the air, as machine gun fire showered around them. Taking two fistfuls of Jenkins' clothes, Kris tugged him down with her and they dove into a ditch.
"Stay down," she hissed, pulling him down on top of her, not releasing her hold on the man's outfit. They stayed like that for nearly half an hour, until the sun came up over the horizon.
"Hey, Jenkins," Jones said, after a while, when all was quiet again, "I prefer being on top." That said, she shoved him off of her, and got to her feet. "Let's meet up with the others."
"Sarge, you saved me," voiced the soldier, quietly.
Kris grinned, and took him by the shoulder as they walked along. "You may be a pain in the ass sometimes, but you're still one of my men. Just watch where you step, huh?" she laughed…
"And I don't know how many more people she saved before and after me," finished Jenkins, and all occupants in the room had tears in their eyes.
"She got the Purple Heart… for bravery," said Ryanne, and the men nodded, getting to their feet.
"If there's anything we can do for you, just say the word," said Jenkins.
"There is something," she said, and the soldiers turned to her, expectantly.
"Name it," said the Captain.
"Can you get her things? Just box them up and send them over here. I, uh, I really don't think I can go down there right now," she said, running a shaky hand through her hair, and the soldiers nodded.
"Sure, we'll bring her stuff over in a day or two. Attention!" commanded the Captain, and they stood rigid. "Present colors!" A folded flag in a triangular wooden case was presented to RC, who took it solemnly. The flag was normally presented at the funeral, but the Captain insisted on bringing it to the blonde, since he doubted she would be able to attend the funerary services, and there was no actual burial for the Staff Sergeant.
Saluting the small blonde, the soldiers about-faced, and walked down the road to their truck. Ryanne closed the door behind them, dropped to her knees, and sobbed.
At the sound of her mother's tears, Cassidy ran to her side. "What's wrong, mother?" asked the youngster. "Where's Momma?"
"Oh, sweetheart," she said, grabbing her daughter tightly. "Momma won't be coming home."
"Yes, she will, mother, she promised," said the child. "Momma's just playing - she'll be back. Don't cry," said Cassidy, giving her mother a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
"Okay, baby," cried Ryanne, not wanting to upset her daughter further.
As it turned out, Ryanne was indeed at the burial services, with a somber Cassidy in tow. The blonde thought she owed it to the men and women who had given their lives for others, even if it was a little hard for her to be there.
The funerals were scheduled to be all together, at 11:00, and Ryanne arrived ten minutes early, taking a seat in the front row. Cassidy sat beside her. The small girl was clothed in a black dress that was a miniature copy of her mother's, and she insisted on wearing Kris' oversized jacket, even though it was not that cold. The youngster never went anywhere without it.
Besides a few people in plain clothes, there were a good hundred soldiers in attendance. They were all clothed in their dress uniforms, looking regal, distinguished, and united. Even so, Ryanne had a vague thought of a jigsaw puzzle that had lost a few pieces.
Twenty-nine pieces, to be exact. Staff Sergeant Kris Jones was the only woman, and the only one of rank, other than Private. The caskets that held loyal soldiers were set to be lowered at 12 noon, and the ones who were officially MIA but obviously KIA had a monumental marble marker that was to be revealed at the end of the service.
At precisely 11:00, a plump woman - the Captain's wife, judging by whom she was sitting with, stood in front of a microphone stand. Music was heard, and the woman sang the national anthem. Then, the Chaplain gave a very nice sermon that left everyone with tears in their eyes. Beverly Bowman got up in front of the microphone again, wiped tears from her gentle brown eyes, and took a deep breath.
Ryanne had been okay until the woman sang the Army theme song - Kris' favorite tune. Then she lost it. Tears ran freely in remembrance of the tall soldier she'd lost, and Cassidy held her hand, softly but firmly. After the song was over, every soldier got to their feet, and stood at attention. The flags were presented to the families - teary eyed wives and mothers received the symbol of honor, and the men saluted the American flag when it was lowered to half-mast.
Here Cassidy struggled to get to her feet, since she wanted to stand at attention and give her own salute, but her mother's hand stopped her. The stone was revealed then. It was a deep gray granite, polished to a smooth shine, with 29 names engraved on the surface. Kris' was at the top, followed by 2 columns of 14, and a ghostly image of the American flag could be seen in the background. The monument was regarded in respectful silence.
"Honor guard!" belted out the Captain, and seven men stepped forward. "Present arms! Aim! Fire! Aim! Fire!" The procedure was repeated three times, for a 21 gun salute, and then there was silence so deafening Ryanne didn't know if she could stand it. The blonde knew there was no better way for the soldiers to pass over than with honor, and the Staff Sergeant and her men received all the respect she could muster.
The services were over, and the men in uniform formed a line, walking slowly past their comrades' relatives. When they got to Ryanne, they shook her hand, saluted her, and a few even hugged her.
Jenkins brought up the rear, and hung behind to speak with her. "Thank you for coming," he said, softly, gripping her hand before pulling the woman into a tight embrace. "I'm sorry I couldn't bring her home," he murmured.
Ryanne pulled back, and put her hands on the man's broad shoulders. "She died doing what she loved, and she made a difference. She died a hero. That's more than she ever hoped for," she said, through her tears.
The soldier nodded, clicked his heels, and saluted the small blonde. Cassidy jumped to her feet. Her mother had told her no to every other officer, but wasn't paying attention this time. The youngster stood straight, and saluted the soldier. Jenkins glanced down at the girl, and, biting his lip to halt the flow of fresh tears, changed his salute to match Cassidy's. Turning on his heel, he joined up with the other, and they returned to the base.
The weeks passed slowly. The soldiers brought Kris' things, packed neatly into several boxes, to the house two days after the blonde received the news, and the small woman had yet to look through them. Each day was harder than the next, and at times the only thing that convinced the young woman to keep going was the knowledge that Cassidy needed her.
Ryanne and Cassidy still stayed at Kris' home, RC taking a job at the base. She worked in the Mess Hall while Cassidy kept some of the secretaries or men on detail company. Normally, the base didn't pay their employees that well, at least not in the Mess Hall, but being "next-of-kin" to the late Staff Sergeant had its advantages. The pay from that, and nearly half the income of the café that Barry insisted on running for her, was enough for the blonde to keep up with the bills.
It was Christmas when Cassidy began to think that Kris may have broken her promise. Ryanne walked in her room on Christmas Day, to find the small girl furiously shoving her Army jacket into her closet.
"Sweetheart, what are you doing?" asked the blonde.
"I don't want it anymore," said the girl, tears forming in her eyes. Before Ryanne could even ask why, the child sat down on the floor, sobbing. "She promised she'd come back, mother. Why didn't she come back? Doesn't she love us?"
"Oh, Cassidy," sighed Ryanne, gathering her daughter in her arms. "I miss her, too, honey. But it'll be okay; we'll be okay."
New Year's Eve was the hardest for the woman. She spent it with her daughter, who fell asleep by 9 o'clock, despite protests that she was old enough to stay up until the ball dropped. Ryanne tucked her into bed, and then resigned the rest of the evening to thinking about her soldier, since nothing could take her mind elsewhere. As the countdown began, and the new year was reached, the young blonde was curled up on the couch, tears streaming down her lonely face, dreaming of the soldier's strong arms wrapped protectively around her, and waking to the chill of being alone.
One day in April, while Cassidy was busy teaching the Captain how to play hop-scotch - the man was bored, and decided to entertain the youngster - Ryanne walked over to the Mess Hall. She had taken a break for a few minutes, and was on her way back, when she heard a familiar laugh.
Turning towards the noise, Ryanne couldn't believe her eyes. There, throwing her head back and laughing along with a group of men, dressed in camouflage pants and a black T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, her hair a little shorter but her eyes the same stunning blue - was Kris! She'd know the woman anywhere!
"Kris!" she cried, and ran towards the woman, wrapping her arms around the soldier in a fierce hug.
The startled woman took a step back, hastily removing the strong grip from her waist, and eyed the blonde, warily. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded, her piercing blue eyes a little angry.
"You're Kris Jones, aren't you?" asked Ryanne, but the woman shook her head, as did the soldiers around her, exchanging glances.
"No, sorry," she said, quickly. "You must have me mistaken for someone else." Without waiting for a response, the tall soldier walked off, leaving a very confused and very hurt Ryanne behind her.
Ryanne could have sworn that she had seen Kris. Of course, it had happened before, just after news of the soldier's death, when Ryanne saw the woman's face everywhere she looked.
"I think we need coffee, Ryanne," she said, aloud, shaking her head as she walked away, trying to figure out why the images were starting again.
Ryanne decided she needed more than coffee, she needed a real break. Reporting to Captain Bowman, RC was told she could take the rest of the day off, and even longer, if she needed.
"Thank you, sir," she said. "I'll be at home, if you need me."
"Take care, RC. And get some rest. I'll send Cassidy home with Jenkins," he added, and saluted the young blonde as she left, the two having become closer with the death of their friend. When Ryanne arrived at the house, she went directly into the living room, kneeled in front of the mantle, gazed up at the encased flag, and wept. She wept for her lost love, she wept for the innocence of her daughter who insisted Momma was coming back, and for her own mistake earlier in the day, assuming Kris was alive and well when she knew better.
"I know they said you were gone," she sobbed, "but I don't want to believe it. You promised you'd come home - you said you were too ornery to die! My heart tells me you're still out there, somewhere. I don't know why you don't come home, but I hope you're safe."
Twenty minutes later, when she had run out of tears, Ryanne walked numbly into the adjoining room, where three large brown boxes were visibly labeled "SS Jones". Opening the first one, Ryanne decided it was time to finally look through the contents. After all, it had been more than six months.
Blowing half a year's worth of dust off the top, Ryanne removed the tape from the nearest box, and opened the flaps. She frowned, slightly, when the first thing she saw was a notebook. A diary, of sorts.
Carefully removing the book, Ryanne opened to the first page, and was startled when a loose sheet fell to the ground. Picking it up, she unfolded it, and told herself she wouldn't cry when she recognized the familiar penmanship of the late soldier. It was dated August 14th…
My dearest Ryanne,
If you are reading this, then the chances are good that I am gone. Please, I'm sure you've done enough crying already, don't shed anymore tears over this. I'm certain that I'm in a better place, now, so there's no need worrying about me. Like that's ever stopped you before, right?
Ryanne smiled a little, and held back her tears as she read more of the letter.
Ryanne, know that I have loved you from the moment I saw you. The sight of this beautiful blonde running a café all by herself, managing to play waitress, manager, and kind friend all at the same time, you amazed me. And then, later on, when I found out you had a daughter…! You are truly incredible, Ryanne.
Let Cassidy know that her Momma loves her, and always will. You can ask any of the guys in my company how I showed each and every one of them your letter, when you told me that Cassidy had started calling me "Momma". I'm sure they got tired of it after the third time around, but they were kind enough not to say anything.
The blonde grinned as she imagined a proud Kris showing off the words to everyone, beaming with an ear-to-ear smile.
Do you remember that day, so long ago, when you first came to the base? And I told you that you could call me for anything, and the answer would always be yes?
How could I forget? wondered Ryanne.
The offer still stands, sweetheart. Just because I'm not with you physically doesn't mean I won't be by your side for the rest of your life. I'll watch over you and our daughter from heaven, until the day, hopefully far off, still, when I can see you again. I'll miss you both terribly, I have no doubt, but don't be in a hurry to join me, okay? You and Cassidy have a full life to live together, and do whatever it takes to make you happy. If you can say, right now, that I made you happy… that's all I've ever wanted, you know.
Take care, my love, and salute our Junior Sergeant for me!
You will hold my heart for the rest of your days, Ryanne.
All my love,
Despite the instructions of the letter, Ryanne folded the paper back up, and cried. She missed her soldier all the more, and the sweet words had gone straight to her heart. "You have always made me happy," she said, before sobbing even harder.
Flipping through the other pages of the notebook, Ryanne decided it was not only a diary, it was a safe place Kris had found to keep the letters she had written her, as they were all clipped inside. The woman decided not to continue to sort through the rest of the boxes; at least, no more for that day. Just one letter was trying enough.
An hour and a half later, Ryanne was working on cleaning the kitchen - she had to do something to keep busy. She didn't want to read the diary just yet, she was saving that for nighttime, when she could be alone with her tears.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door, and the blonde answered the call. To her surprise, and slight amusement, there stood the Kris-look-alike, with Cassidy in her arms, clinging to her neck. The woman looked like she was very tired, and Ryanne hoped Cassidy hadn't bothered her.
"Can I help you?" she asked, kindly, hiding her smile.
The woman gave her a half-smirk, full of nervousness, and met her eyes, saying, "I think you can, Ryanne. I'm Kris Jones."
Continued in Part 4.