The sound of RJ-powered weapons never failed to put a cold shiver down her spine, despite the fact that her own sidearm had been juiced. Be that as it may, crouched here in a muddy bunker in the driving rain was the last place she wanted to be. Hearing that whine rising rapidly through the scale meant only one thing. Trouble. Big trouble.
She and her unit were close to their Iron Horses now. They’d retreated, agonisingly slowly, across this battlefield until all that remained for them to do was commit to that last, desperate dash for the vehicles. Easy, in principle. Less easy when the enemy were shooting at them and that last race meant covering open ground.
She glanced sideways at Sergeant Sweeney. They’d fought together many times before and she trusted him and his skills implicitly. She also trusted his throwing arm, the one that currently held one of his mysteriously-crafted, home-made and outstandingly effective bombs. She thought quickly. No matter what way the scenario panned out in her head, she could see no alternative.
It was time for things to explode.
“Sergeant Sweeney? When I give the word, you lob that thing.”
“And then?” The sergeant’s eyes lit up at the promise of explosive satisfaction.
“Then, Sergeant Sweeney, you, me and the rest of the unit will have put our best foot forward. We make a run for it.”
* * *
A year earlier…
Best foot forward, girl.
From as far back as memory served, she’d always done anything to please her father. So when she heard his voice, clear as day at the back of her head, she marched dutifully. But her heart was not really in it. She was cavalry, not infantry. But she marched, because it’s what Papa would have wanted.
A military funeral, with all the associated pomp and ceremony made her deeply uncomfortable. She was, after all, a plain-spoken and honest woman who expected no frills. But she couldn’t help but feel that her father would have adored it. He was a man who cherished… he had been, get your tenses right… he had been a man who had cherished the customs and propriety of his beloved Union Army. He had been a decorated, honourable man who deserved the accolades his death was bringing.
I’d rather he was here, though.
Willa considered this as she walked behind the coffin. Two of her six brothers walked either side of her. To her left was Frank: resplendent in a uniform that was identical to that she wore, except that his had the added splendour that marked him as a member of the medical corps. Lieutenant Frank Adams, the highly respected military doctor. Her favourite brother.
On the other side, marching with no less determination but with a lot less style, was Edward. Resplendent in a finely tailored suit of mourning black, he stared ahead grimly. Edward was eldest of the Adams children and one of those who had opted not to pursue a military career.
Willa admired him. She hated, right here and now, that he was the absolute image of his father. But she was prepared to concede that wasn’t his fault. He lived and worked in Boston, senior partner in a flourishing law firm. He was probably also highly respected. It seemed to be a common theme.
There’s two kinds of pond-scum in this world. Outlaws an’ lawyers. An’ in a pinch, I’d trust the outlaw to be the more honest.
She set aside thoughts of him. Now was not the time. Her nose wrinkled slightly as though an unpleasant smell had drifted past.
* * *
“Fire in the…” Sweeney paused, his tendency to accuracy biting down hard on his tongue. He amended and then shouted. “Fire outside the hole!”
The bomb flew in a perfect trajectory toward the enemy. It rolled on the uneven ground and came to a stop at the feet of one of the masked outlaws who stared down at it stupidly for a second. He didn’t even have time to react before the missile detonated, sending up clods of earth, grass and bits of the unfortunate outlaw who’d not possessed the wherewithal to get out of the way.
No great loss to the gene pool.
“Take the opportunity,” Willa shouted. “Run for your ‘Horses, fellas, this is our last chance!”
Best foot forward!
* * *
So there they were. The three most presentable and reliable Adams children, seeing their father to his final rest. Funerals, they said, were a time for family to come together. Not for this family and Willa was extremely glad that the remaining four siblings were absent. Nobody needed their collective brand of trouble at a time like this. Nobody wanted them there.
Best foot forward, girl.
Every step was a step closer to the family grave in the cemetery. A step closer to severing the final link to her childhood. To letting go of the father she had respected, admired and above all else, loved for her entire life.
She wasn’t sure that she wanted to let go. Not yet. She’d only just had to let go of her husband after his untimely early death. To lose her father as well had been a terrible blow to her whilst still bound up in marital grief. But she had lifted her head high and dealt with it admirably. She may have been a Shaw in name, but she was an Adams at her core. A pang of loss rippled through her once again and her eyes lingered on the coffin in front of them.
Colonel Theodore Adams – ‘Teddy’ to his friends, most of whom had died during one altercation or other across the decades – had been dead less than a week and already she felt his loss keenly. She’d always been his favourite; not just due to being the only daughter, but because she was more like him than any of the boys. She’d been six years old when Clement, the youngest had been born; only nine when their mother had died. A succession of aunts and vaguely-recalled relatives had raised the children in their father’s military absence. They’d been kept clean and dry and fed, and had played their days away with the multitude of cousins. Their father always joined them when he could.
None of them had been starved of love and affection. They’d all been happy children. Well, except for Clem. He’d brooded his youth away into resentful, angry manhood and looked likely to go every bit as wrong as Tommy or…
* * *
Everything was chaos. The yelling and shouting of the outlaws resounded around the gully, but they were muted by the sound of her heartbeat, thundering in her ears. It was only a couple of hundred yards from their hunkered position to the ‘Horses, but it felt like she was on a long-distance sprint. I’m cavalry, not infantry.
How could this be? How could this life-or-death situation be bringing up memories of Papa’s funeral like this? Why was she even thinking about her family? Why was she even thinking about…
* * *
…the twins. She’d not given thought to Jimmy and Jeremiah in a long time. Not since they’d cut ties with their siblings. But right now, as she stared at the uncaring wood that held her father’s body, she missed them with a razor-sharp keenness. Where had they ended up? Were they even still alive? She may have had no love for Tommy or his criminal record, but at least she knew his fate. Clem had become a gambler, a drunkard, a wanderer. A good for nothing who occasionally contacted his family to wheedle more money from them. Their father had always given in to his sob stories, riddled with the guilt of having been so absent during his youngest’s upbringing.
That would change now, she realised. As heir to the considerable Adams family fortune, Henry would take over the estate. And one of his first tasks would be to cut Clem off from his financial lifeline. The thought both pleased her and saddened her. Clem wasn’t a bad man, not really. Not like Tommy, who was rotten to the core.
The funeral procession turned from the main street and began the slow trundle up the hill to the cemetery. The coffin would be laid to rest in the same plot as the one which contained her mother and two siblings who never made it out of infancy. It was a beautiful spot on the hillside, overlooking the bend in the river. A peaceful final resting place for a man whose life had been spent engaged in war.
The world is changing, Willa, he had said, the last time they’d spoken. And I am not convinced it’s for the better. People are too quick to abandon tradition. Always remember where you came from. Always make sure you know that you are the product of many generations who survived overwhelming odds and still came out on top. Always put your best foot forward.
Distracted by her own thoughts, she stumbled slightly on the uneven ground. Ironic that she’d been thinking about her father’s most-used phrase when she’d done so. She cursed softly beneath her breath and immediately felt ashamed at her uncouth language. That turned to gratitude when first Frank and then Henry glanced at her with small, encouraging smiles. They’d never have offered a hand to help her. Not independent Willa, the girl who’d fought and climbed and swum in the creek with all her boisterous brothers. Not Willa, the young woman who’d fought the lingering misogyny that existed in the army and who had risen to the rank of Major through her own actions and her own merit, not because of whose daughter she was.
Had he been proud of her? Yes. No hesitation. He had told her so many times just how proud he was of all she had accomplished. He’d doted on her when she’d been a girl, just how he had doted on Edward’s two children in his final years. Teddy Adams had been a good man. A kind soul. Too good for the bizarreness and complexity that was becoming the world today.
But she would go on. She would act as a credit to his memory and to his name. She would set aside thoughts of her brothers and she would become a hero. Just like him. She would always remember his advice and she would always put her best foot forward.
* * *
She slid the last few feet that separated her from her vehicle. Her uniform was mud-spattered, her long hair loosened from its rigid braid and hanging in ragged strands around her face. But she had access to her Iron Horse now. Once she swung her leg over the saddle and leaned forward into the familiar position, she was no longer helpless, pinned down in a muddy bunker with no ammunition, no power and no hope. Now she was in charge. She flicked the power switch of the bike and heard the guns powering up.
Now she could fight back. She would always fight back. That was what she did.
She glanced behind her. The others had all made it. They were all still alive and they were looking to their commander for guidance. Now it was they who very much had the upper hand. Her hand close around the throttle and she gave a grim, tight smile. The rain drummed off the body of her Iron Horse, steaming slightly as it met the heat. She could feel the throb of the engine thrumming all the way through her body, bringing courage and certainty to her core.
I’m cavalry, not infantry.
“Let’s end this,” she said. It was not shouted, or demanded. It was a simple statement and around her, the unit nodded their agreement.
Engines roared and the Union, previously pushed into retreat, advanced on their enemy.
Best foot forward.