"Right then, off we go." Lieutenant Fernando Niembro called out, tapping his driver on the shoulder to set the half-track lurching forward down a lane turned to mud by a recently arrived summer monsoon. Behind him, half hidden by the unexpected downpour, he could make out the shapes of the limbers as they revved their engines and began to drag the 5.5 inch guns from their positions and toward the road.
Ahead of the halftrack a small recce car, its back marked with a bright orange square so they would not lose it in the rain, struggled to navigate the mud. He could make out two miserable helmeted heads hunched over behind the pathetic excuse for a windscreen and suddenly found himself very glad for the heating system in his own vehicle.
The view he had enjoyed a week ago of Osorno was blotted out by rolling squalls now; but even the rain was not enough to completely dampen the fire that burned furiously to the west where an ammunition dump had been hit; it appeared as some nightmarish red glow, ever shifting beneath the curtains of rain, and constant reminder of the savagery that was hidden beyond.
Little remained of the once picturesque town; savage shelling had been followed up with a full scale assault that had degenerated into bitter hand to hand fighting. Niembro, having never bombarded a town before, had been flabbergasted at how many Chilean soldiers had somehow survived the near constant rain of artillery and tank shells. Up on his hilltop, well away from the barn that had become the focal point of enemy artillery, he had watched the attack advance on the town.
The lane through which his half-track now rumbled cut through the Eastern portion of the battlefield and the shattered hulks of vehicles loomed up and then passed in the rain, the steady drum of rain on their steel hulls like some demented orchestra. It wasn't until they had gone the better part of a kilometre that he saw, for the first time in his life, the enemy dead; he had seen a few men killed on the ridge of course, but never a Chilean; he was about as junior as an officer might come after all.
There was a small cluster of them, splayed out in a fan shape around a crater in the ground where an artillery shell had exploded. Their light grey uniforms were shredded and their wounds were horribly white, cleansed by the pouring rain. Most were mangled beyond any recognition but one lay with his face turned toward the lane and, despite the rain, Niembro thought he could feel the accusing gaze "You did this to me. He turned away uneasily and looked Westward to where the fire raged. Never had he ever been so close to a battle and its aftermath. Before taking his position on the ridge top he had never ordered any rounds fired except in training; to see the real effect of it was something new to him.
Mud turned to concrete as the column of guns turned onto the main highway leading into town. It was a fine two lane affair that had once served as the main artery between north and south Chile. Somehow it had largely escaped the actual shelling of both armies, but the ditches were filled with discarded equipment, destroyed vehicles, and the bodies of the dead. The steel beneath his hands suddenly felt terribly cold despite the fact he was sweating beneath his rain coat and he turned his gaze toward the first of the broken buildings appearing out of the rain.
Ahead of him the little orange square abruptly pulled over to the right shoulder, so close to the edge he thought they might slide into the water filled unknown below. His driver followed suit and the guns behind them did the same. He leaned forward, eyes probing the rain, until he could make out the military policeman who had waved them over.
"Anything sir?" Sergeant Menem asked from the back of the half-track, half a headset still hooked over his right ear. He, as well as the rest fo the gun troop, was only too aware of how this same stretch of road had been bombarded the day before by retreating Chilean guns.
"Military police have waved us over..." Niembro paused to rub his eyes for a moment, trying to clear the water from them as it dripped down from his helmet. "Hang on, vehicles coming."
Large flat bed trucks loomed suddenly out of the rain, so large that he could hear their sides scrapping against the house across the road even as they missed his half-track by inches. Perched on the back, its barrel twisted impossibly skyward, was the imposing bulk of a medium tank. More trucks came, each with a damaged vehicle on its bed, until the night filled with the roar of their engines and Niembro wondered if they had any functional tanks left at all. Some of the drivers waved, others nodded, the majority however kept their eyes glued to the road. The sign he had seen a hundred yards back came to mind:
[i]ROAD TO THE FRONT. DAMAGED OR BROKEN VEHICLES ARE TO BE PUSHED INTO THE DITCH. DO NOT BLOCK THE ROAD.[I]
When the last of the trucks passed by, its deck occupied by an armoured car whose front tires were gone, the military police officer waved them forward. The rain had begun to slacken now - he was already soaked through - and for that he was glad. He cast a long eye down the road behind them and saw that the delay had created a back log of vehicles that disappeared beyond his sight; countless supply vehicles, artillery pieces, and trucks filled with infantry.
"Is there no other road...?" He asked to no one in particular. Menem replied, as he had half expected he would; the man spent as much time as he did staring at maps.
"No. There is a single lane railway to the west but I think it's been blown up by now."
"This is a fucking death trap..."
No one responded to that, but all were desperately glad of the rain that hid their movements from prying eyes. The last word was of Chilean forces withdrawing to prepared positions north of the Bueno River - The Good River - that name would soon be an ironic footnote in history.
No shells fell on the long column as it navigated the broken town, and the rain returned with such a vengeance that even the shattered Cathedral, upon whose proud but broken spires he had gazed for so many weeks, was invisible to the passing Argentine soldiers. The road had been bulldozed clear by tanks fitted with blades and the shell holes filled with crush that had once been houses. Few bodies were visible either, it seemed that most had been pushed aside with the rubble and Niembro found himself glad of that.
Their new position was a big field bordered on the west by the highway, the north by a small country road, and creeks on the other two. Everyone else halted on the roadway while the regimental officers made their down to assign space. Neimbro remained in his half-track and stared down at the map in front of him, tracing his finger over the new grid coordinates he would have to memorize.
Somewhere ahead of him, hidden by the rain, was the Hamlet of San Pablo, and beyond that the Bueno River. His war was just beginning.