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Standoff in the Ashes [Ashes: 28] [MultiFormat]
eBook by William W. Johnstone

eBook Category: Historical Fiction
eBook Description: Ben Raines has been to hell before and made it out alive every time. But Ben hasn't come face-to-face with a fury like Claire Osterman, fanatical new president (for life) of the United States of America. Now she's handed down the first order of business: terminate the Southern United States of America--and Ben Raines. With what promises to be the bloodiest civil war the world has ever seen looming on the horizon, Raines must not only command his Rebel army to prevent sure-fire disaster, but also outrun every cash-hungry mercenary eager for a pound of his flesh. One million dollars is the reward. The takers are a thousand strong. But when it comes to life and death battles, no one can match Ben Raines. Especially when he's out for blood, too--and has to wipe his enemy off the face of the earth to get it.

eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1999
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2007

6 Reader Ratings:
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* * * *

"It doesn't have to be this way," Ben radioed the commanding general of the federal forces facing the Rebels across the wide expanse of land separating the two armies. No-man's-land was silent and deadly.

"I guess it does, General," the CG replied. "You don't give us any other choice."

"What is your name, General?"

"Does it matter?"

"I suppose not. But it won't take me ninety seconds to find out."

The Federal chuckled. "Berman, General Raines. Walter Berman."

"You regular army, Walt?"

"You know I'm not."

A very large percentage of Federals were mercenaries, drawn from all over the world. Many of the officers and enlisted personnel in the newly formed United States Army, Navy, and Marine Corps had bluntly told President Osterman they would not fire on American citizens. The men and women in the regular armed forces of the USA who did elect to wage war against the SUSA had been shifted to other units, and were green and had never been combat-tested. All that was about to change ... in a hurry.

"In it strictly for the money, hey, General?"

"It's a living. As a matter of fact, it's quite a good living."

Ben smiled grimly. True mercenaries never changed. "I suppose so, Walt. But aren't there enough wars around the world for you and your people to fight? Why come here and get involved in a conflict you can't win?"

Most of the world was involved in civil war, to one degree or another. Eyes in the Sky reported especially large troop buildups in Russia and China. Those two nations were about to have a go at one another.

"Oh, I think we can win, Ben. As a matter of fact, I don't have any doubts about the outcome."

"Neither do I," Ben responded softly. "And I think you're well aware of that."

There was no immediate response from Berman. Actually, Ben had not expected any.

"We'll see," Berman finally said.

"Don't waste your men," Ben warned him. "If you send them at us across this strip, they're going to die. And that is the only warning you're going to get from me."

"It's a long strip, Ben, and I'm not the only commander."

"I'm telling you. Personally. Like right now. The strip is the same any way you look at it. And that is something you already know."

"How can you be sure of that?"

"You'd be a piss-poor commander if you didn't know, that's why. And you didn't get to your status by being piss-poor at your job."

"Thank you, Ben. Yes, I know all about you Rebels and your infamous strip of no-man's-land. But every barrier has its weak spots."

"Not this one. A couple of months back, yes. But not now."

There was a long pause from the Federal commander. "You're being very honest with the enemy, General," he finally said. "I don't know what to make of that."

"I don't consider you my enemy, Walt Berman. Not yet. When the first shot is fired or the first attempt is made to cross our boundaries, then you become my enemy. And from that moment on, there will be no quarter shown or mercy given. I want you to understand that."

"I am aware of your tactics. I've been studying you for years," Berman said.

"You must have been fighting in some very obscure wars, Walt. Or else working under a variety of names."

The mercenary general laughed. "One of the two. Look toward the east. It's becoming light."

"I know what time it is. Still time for you to take your people and find another war."

"Can't do that, Ben Raines. I've signed an agreement. And I always keep my word."

"I'll be certain that is chiseled on your headstone. Providing your body is found, that is."

"You are a cocky son of a bitch, aren't you?"

"No. Just very sure of myself."

"We'll see, won't we? Well, time for talking is over, General Raines. Too bad I can't wish you luck."

"Same here, General Berman."

Ben waited in silence for half a minute. Corrie said, "He's finished, Boss. I guess it's show time."

"I suppose so. Do they have anything in the sky anywhere, Corrie?"

"Nothing reported anywhere up and down the line."

"Hell, we know they have gunships. Where are they? Why don't they use them?"

"Don't they have airborne troops?" Cooper asked, standing off to Ben's left.

"They have remnants of one division," Ben told him. "Over half of the newly reorganized Eighty-second stood down. The rest have very limited access to air transport."

"Ground all the way, then," Anna remarked.

"For the most part," Ben said. "But they do have a lot of artillery. This is not going to be any cakewalk."

"It sure won't be for them," Corrie said. "Everything on this side is ready. We're sitting on go from the West Texas border all the way over to the Atlantic Ocean."

"But we're thin," Cooper said.

"So are they," Beth reminded him. "A lot thinner than we are. We've got civilian militias and home guards. Those are two very valuable assets we have that they don't."

"We're picking up movement on the other side," Corrie said. She paused for half a minute while the others waited. "The push is about to start. Ordering artillery to stand by."

"Fools," Ben said. "Stupid fools to pull a mass advance all at once, one several thousand miles long. They really must not know our strength. What kind of idiot is running the show over there?"

"Maybe it's your friend, Sugar Babe Osterman," Anna suggested. She looked at Ben, questions in her eyes.

Ben glanced at her, a frown on his face. "Kiddo, you just may have hit it right. She'd certainly be arrogant enough to attempt to do just that."

Artillery rounds began landing in the no-man's-zone as the Federals began attempting to cut a path through the minefield. Corrie cut her eyes to Ben.

Ben nodded his head. "Answer that, Corrie. Let's get this show on the road."

Then there was no more time for conversation as both sides began hurling artillery rounds. What talk there was had to be shouted over the crashing and roaring.

When the Federals stopped shelling in Ben's immediate sector, the Rebels knew the human push was only seconds away. The Rebels came out of their bunkers and holes and made ready their mortars, heavy machine guns, and Big Thumpers.

The zone fell silent, the Rebels holding their fire, allowing the first wave of Federals to begin slowly and carefully picking their way across the wide and deadly no-man's-strip.

Ben and his team waited on a ridge, in a carefully dug and fortified and camouflaged bunker just a few hundred meters south of the strip, and watched and waited.

"It's going to be a slaughter," Ben muttered. "They should have sent airborne troops in behind us last night." He shook his head. "They're doing everything wrong. Who the hell is giving the orders for this lash-up?"

"Federals advancing on Ike's sector, in half a dozen locations," Corrie reported.

"This just might turn out to be the shortest major assault in modern warfare," Ben muttered.

"Somebody who doesn't know what the hell they're doing has to be giving the orders," Cooper said.

"It must be Osterman and her dipshit advisors," Ben replied. "But those mercenary commanders won't put up with this for any length of time. They'll start acting on their own before very long."

"FO's all up and down the line reporting those are regular Federal troops leading this assault," Corrie said. "But they're spread very thin."

"I figured as much," Ben said softly. "Using them for cannon fodder." He sighed audibly. "Americans. Damn! What a waste of young men and women this is going to be. The merc commanders are saving their experienced troops for last. Then the real battles will start."

"Any change in orders?" Corrie asked. "Ike wants to know, Boss."

Ben did not hesitate with his response. "No, Corrie. No change at all. I can't do that. We can't afford to be charitable--we're not The Salvation Army. When they come into range, cut them down."

The sounds of dozens of mines being tripped filled the smoky air up and down Ben's sector. The faint cries of wounded quickly followed.

Ben's mortar crews began their work, sending some of the most lethal mortar rounds ever devised down the tubes. They 'thonked' out and up, and came down seconds later with devastating results. The mortars were a new version of the old 81mm mortar, and they packed a terrible punch with HE and WP rounds. In addition, Ben's scientists had perfected a new round that exploded in the air, about twenty-five feet off the ground, and carried dozens of hardened steel fletchettes. The killing and maiming power of that round was awesome.

The only possible problem was that an opposing force might have mortar-locating radar which could home in on the heavy base-plates. In this case, the Federals either did not have that technology or were not using it--probably the former, Ben thought.

Osterman had been spending very little money on military hardware. Her administration's latest war effort was on cans of hair spray, which were in the process of being totally banned because kids were inhaling the spray to get high. Very important project on which to spend taxpayer money--hair spray.

"First wave is retreating," Corrie reported, adding, "It's more like a rout."

"Maintain the fire," Ben ordered. "Adjust for range. Keep pouring it on."

Ten more minutes passed before Ben finally ordered his people to cease fire. "Get reports from all batt coms," he told Corrie.

"Receiving now, Boss. We kicked the shit out of them."

Ben lowered his binoculars and slowly nodded his head. For as far as he could see, left and right and in front of him, the strip called no-man's-land was littered with broken bodies. "We certainly did, Corrie. Radio General Berman. Tell him if he wants to risk his medics in a minefield we will hold our fire while he gathers his wounded."

"Right, Boss. New reports coming in fast. Let me get them down."

Ben rolled a cigarette and waited while Corrie took down all the information. He glanced around the bunker. His personal team was certainly relaxed enough. Anna was chomping on a fresh wad of bubble gum. Beth was munching on a candy bar. Cooper was sitting down reading a magazine. Jersey was staring out the slit in front of the bunker, watching the no-man's-land. They had all been through this more times than Ben cared to recall. Long, bloody, gut-wrenching years of combat, fighting for the right to be free in the SUSA.

"The Federals hit us in strength in half a dozen locations," Corrie reported. "They didn't gain an inch of SUSA ground. We were hit in much lesser force in about a dozen other locations. Same results. Prelims indicate the Federals lost, dead or wounded, approximately ten thousand personnel."

"Half a division," Ben said. "Young men and women wiped out just to satisfy that bitch Osterman. Jesus!"

"And it's just started," Cooper remarked.

Ben looked at his driver. "Yes. It's just begun." He looked briefly back at the no-man's strip of land. "Somebody get some coffee in here. It's going to be a long morning."

Claire Osterman stared in disbelief as the reports began landing on her desk in the New White House in Indiana. Thousands of troops dead or wounded. Not one inch of SUSA ground taken.

"Incredible," she muttered.

"Not really," said one of the senior advisors seated around her desk.

"What do you mean?" Claire 'Sugar Babe' Osterman demanded. She waved the sheaf of papers. "A bunch of ragtag, gun-happy, right-wingers just defeated thousands of professional soldiers."

"Claire," the longtime friend and advisor said patiently. He was one of only a few men and women who did not refer to her as Madam President when in semi-private or private conversation. "Ben Raines does not command a ragtag army. The Rebels are unquestionably the finest fighting force on earth. And you made a very big mistake by tangling with them."

Claire waved that away. "We've been over this before, Otis. I know your opinion. Enough, already."

Otis Warner stared at Claire for a moment. In all his years he had never known a person with such hatred as that which Claire Osterman held for Ben Raines. Not that some of it wasn't justified, Otis thought, for in his mind it certainly was. Ben Raines was a most unreasonable man when it came to the SUSA ... among other matters. But Claire had a very bad habit of sometimes underestimating her foes.

Otis ignored her request to drop the subject. "Claire, let's try negotiating with President Jefferys. He is a very reasonable man. I think we could work something out."

Claire Osterman glared at her friend for several seconds. The others in the room suddenly had a very strong urge to be somewhere else. Claire was becoming angry, and when she lost her temper she sometimes flew into a towering rage. It was not a pretty sight.

Before Madam President could explode, Otis held up a hand. "Control yourself, Claire. Take a deep breath, have a sip of water. Just calm down and think about this. We're going to waste a lot of money fighting Ben Raines and the Rebels. If this war continues for one more day, we're going to be committed to seeing it through, no matter the cost or outcome. And it will be a protracted campaign, you can be assured of that. Are you certain that's what you want?"

Claire drummed her fingertips on the polished desktop for a moment. Then she sighed and shook her head. "We could bankrupt the nation ... no, I certainly don't want that." She picked up some of the papers she had just been handed and muttered an obscenity under her breath. The defeat just handed the Federals was humiliating.

Then Claire's face hardened as the image and thought of a laughing Ben Raines entered her mind. "No," she said firmly, "I will not negotiate with the SUSA." She looked at Otis. "And that is final, old friend."

Otis Warner shrugged his shoulders. "So be it, Claire. Just don't ever think or say that I didn't try."

"Oh, I'm positive we shall be victorious in this war," another of Claire's 'advisors' piped up. Andy Shumburger had absolutely no business being a part of the national security team--he had difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time--but he was a good party member who had led the fight to save the endangered blue-nosed, triple-titted, wiggle-wobble fish in his state. The facts that the fish was only approximately 1/16 of an inch long and no one had seen one in two hundred years didn't matter. A hundred and fifty families were thrown out of their homes and moved to another location, and two thousand jobs were lost when a building permit was refused a company who wanted to set up a factory in that particular location. The drive to save the mysterious wiggle-wobble fish cost the taxpayers about five million dollars, but the fish were saved. That made it all worthwhile--The Save the Wobble Fish Committee thought so, at least. If they could just see one, they would be sure. But if they didn't spot one in a few months the committee was already working on plans to erect a statue in memory of the wiggle-wobble fish ... at taxpayer expense, of course.

Otis sighed and rolled his eyes at Andy's comment, but kept his silence.

The other advisors agreed with Andy. The USA under the direction of Madam President Claire Osterman and her party of Socialist Democrats would be victorious in the battle with Ben Raines and his terrible band of right-wing, gun-happy, redneck Rebels.

"Horseshit!" Otis muttered.

"I beg your pardon, Otis?" the advisor seated closest to him asked. "What did you say?"

"Nothing, Sam. Nothing at all." But I am terribly afraid we are going to get our collective asses kicked very hard, Otis thought. Ben Raines and his Rebels have lost a few battles, but they have never lost a war, and they sure as hell aren't going to lose this one.

"Otis, old friend," Claire said, leaning forward. "We are going to win in this fight with Raines. Remember this--we have the well-being of the nation and the good wishes of the people on our side. How can we lose?"

Very easily, Otis thought, but he smiled at Madam President and nodded in agreement.

"Let's go into the war room," Osterman said, standing up and moving around her massive desk. "We have to plan the next move for our military. I have an idea."

Otis sat for a few seconds longer before standing up and joining the group. Even if we did allow the military to run this war, we'd still stand a good chance of losing it, he thought, but with a group of civilians calling every move losing is a certainty. This is madness.

"Coming, Otis?" Claire called.

"Oh, yes," Otis said. He thought: I wouldn't miss this for the world. A planning session guaranteed to lose a war.

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