The firing subsided quickly, and mercifully my headache began to recede. Slowly I was starting to think again, and I was able to stand without help. Martinez and Igor stayed crouched behind the cover of the rock, rifles aimed out at the desert. There wasn’t room for me to squeeze in. Besides, they didn’t need my help. It sounded like some of the trucks were driving away, most likely intending to circle the area and see if there was a way to attack us from the rear.
“Talk to me, Martinez.” I said, glad to hear my voice sounding strong and clear.
“Five vehicles. Four pickups and one Suburban. Each truck has three men in the cab with multiples in the back. Hard to get a count with them driving around us in circles. No idea on the SUV, but it’s probably their jefe.” She said, using the Spanish word for the man in charge.
“Cartel?” I asked.
“That’s my guess. All heavily armed. Looks like AKs, pistols and machetes. There’s a pintle mounted in one of the trucks, but so far no sign of a weapon for the mount. Thank God!”
“OK, we need to get that rear opening covered again. Rachel, take Irina and Igor with you and make sure we don’t get surprised from that side. I’ll stay here with Martinez. We need to hold these guys off until the Jarheads decide to show up for the party.” I was feeling better and it must have showed as everyone jumped into motion without any arguments or second guessing.
I sent Dog with Rachel, trusting him to keep her safe, but also calling out to her to keep an eye on him. These weren’t infected we were fighting and I didn’t want Dog taking a bullet because he wasn’t behind some kind of cover.
“Good to see you feeling better.” Martinez said when I joined her at the boulder.
“Who says I’m feeling better?” I said sarcastically. “And the next time I tell you to leave me behind…”
“I’ll disobey that order, too. Sir.” She interrupted, unapologetically. “Would you leave me behind?”
“No. But that’s different.” I said, watching two of the trucks pull up next to the Suburban and stop.
“Why? Because I’m a woman?” She challenged.
Jesus Christ! Sometimes, I really just can’t win. I had several things on the tip of my tongue to say, but bit all of them back.
“Just fucking with you, sir.” Martinez said with a small laugh, letting me off the hook. “I know why you wouldn’t. I was in Los Alamos with you. Remember?”
I smiled, thought about calling her a bitch, but settled for resting the dot in my scope on the face of the man driving one of the pickups. If these guys were cartel, they were just the thugs that were recruited locally. The Mexican drug cartels like to hire and use trained soldiers whenever they can. And with the money they have, finding former SF operators from just about any country on the planet isn’t a problem.
It made sense that none of those guys would have stuck around when the world fell apart. Money was now less valuable than toilet paper, quite literally, and they had taken off to find their families or to reach what they thought would be a safe area. All that were left were the locals whose loyalty was based on blood or community ties.
Two of the trucks were unaccounted for, but I figured out where they were a moment later when I heard automatic weapons fire from the far end of the gap. They’d found the opening and a big, pissed off Russian guarding it. The guys to my front heard the firing as well and started to move, but I pulled the trigger and sent a bullet through the head of the man I’d sighted on.
The rest of them started scrambling behind the vehicles, several of them ripping off long bursts from their AKs in our general direction. This was un-aimed firing intended to keep our heads down while they sought cover. Knowing that gives you the advantage of not feeling the need to throw yourself onto the ground, and I shifted aim to one of the men who wasn’t as well hidden as he thought and pulled the trigger. And missed. Fired a second time. And missed.
The concussion was apparently affecting me more than I realized. These guys were less than 100 yards away, and I know I can damn near shoot the wings off a fly at that distance. Especially when I’m shooting from a static position with my rifle firmly resting on a stable object.
Martinez had fired twice and there were two bodies lying on the sand to confirm her accuracy. Taking my face away from the scope, I rubbed both eyes, then sat back and poured some water over my head. Other than feeling good it didn’t do anything to reduce the halo in my vision.
“You OK?” Martinez asked when she noticed what I was doing, then had to duck when bullets began smashing into the rocks around us.
“I’m fine.” I said. “Just don’t depend on me for any down range kills for a while.”
The firing from our front quickly dwindled to nothing. That was out of character for cartel types. They liked to use bullets the same way they liked to spend money. The more the better. Either they were running low on ammo, or they were up to something. Poking my rifle through an opening no more than six inches tall I used the night vision scope on the rifle to see what they were up to. I would have preferred my goggles, but they were still on Evan’s head and he was lying dead somewhere out in no mans land.
“Hola, amigos!” A thick, Mexican voice shouted out in Spanish. I tried to spot the man talking, expecting it would be jefe, but whoever he was he was smart enough not to reveal himself.
“We are all in trouble here, don’t you think? Let’s put our guns down and talk like men.” The speaker switched to thickly accented English. Martinez glanced over at me and I shook my head. Put my gun down my ass. Charlton Heston said it best. “From my cold, dead hands.” Personally I would have added a few descriptive expletives to the end of that, but he was a classier guy than I am.
“ETA on the Marines?” I asked Martinez. She made a call on the radio in a low voice that I couldn’t hear.
“Ten minutes. They’re pushing beyond the safe speed limits for their aircraft.” She said.
“Brief them on our situation, and I want this fucker targeted as well as his buddies at the other end. Tell them these guys killed one of ours and I want them erased from the fucking planet.” I growled.
Normally I don’t get pissed off in combat. It is what it is, and while emotions are something that can’t be avoided, anger is one that all too often leads to bad decisions. But every now and then it’s OK to get mad. Get really pissed off and unleash some hell on earth. We didn’t start the fight with these guys. In fact, we started out trying to help some of them, and the new arrivals didn’t even try to find out what was going on when they showed up. Just came in guns blazing and killed Evans, and damn near the rest of us. Now it was about to be our turn to return the favor.
Martinez said something into the radio, turned to me and told me the frequency the Marines were on. “Keep this prick occupied while I talk to them.” I said, adjusting my radio. “What’s their call sign?”
“Thor five five.” She said, turning and yelling towards the parked trucks in Spanish.
“Thor five five, Dog two six.” I said when I had the unit on the right channel. Thor? Really? I had a sneaky feeling I knew who was going to answer.
“Hear you’ve pissed off the locals, Dog two six.” Zemeck chuckled in my ear.
“You know me.” I answered. “What’s taking you so fucking long? Stop off for a beer in Amarillo?”
“Negative. Pussy in Abilene. Your sister was in town.” He responded without missing a beat. And you wonder why Soldiers and Marines shouldn’t drink in the same bar.
“Hope she left you with a smile on your face, Thor. Got some locals down here that think it’s OK to shoot a young Air Force LT. I need you guys to come in hot.” I said.
“The lady already briefed us. On you in five minutes. We facing anything real?” He was asking if the bad guys had anything that could bring down an Osprey.
“Not that I’ve seen. Just small arms, Thor.”
“Copy. Get ready to duck. Thor five five out.”
Martinez was carrying on an animated conversation in Spanish. I recognized a few words and could tell she wasn’t exactly exchanging pleasantries with the man. I was keeping a close eye on my watch when I wasn’t trying to spot a target through my rifle’s scope. The conversation sounded like it was growing more heated and reached a point where Martinez stuck her rifle over the top of the rock and loosed a long burst of automatic fire in the direction of the vehicles.
“What the hell?” I asked when she retreated from their return fire.
“You said keep them occupied. That’s what I’m doing.” She said calmly, an innocent expression on her face. I couldn’t help but laugh. The more time I spent around her the more thankful I was that she was on my side.
I checked my watch again. Two minutes left. Peering back through my scope I saw movement along the desert floor. Someone was crawling across the sand at an angle that would reach the rocks a couple of dozen feet to our right. An area that we couldn’t see. I kept scanning and saw more movement as another man worked his way to our left.
The desert isn’t perfectly flat, undulating with small hillocks and crisscrossed with shallow channels carved by water as it rushed to the larger washes. All of that meant there wasn’t much of these guys exposed as they moved. My head was still pounding as I watched them through the scope, but I happily noticed that the halo in my vision was gone.
Telling Martinez to take the guy on the left, I sighted in and started tracking the one on the right. He was a large lump moving across the dark terrain, a large belly holding too much of his body up off the ground. I held on him until I liked the sight picture, then pulled the trigger and put a bullet through his ass, which was sticking up higher than the rest of him. He screamed and rolled, twisting to reach the part of his anatomy that had been shot. His change of position exposed his head and I drilled a round through it.
Martinez fired her first shot as I fired my second. I shifted to look at her guy, glad to see he was no longer moving. “Nice shot.” I said, then turned my head when the sound of approaching aircraft reached my ears.
“Marines are here.” Martinez commented dryly. “Really sucks to have to be rescued by them. You know we’ll never hear the end of it.”
I grinned as an Osprey suddenly appeared right over us, rotors tilting up to put the big aircraft into a hover. The wind they created was fierce, whipping up the sand and small rocks. I had to squint to see, but when they opened fire on the three vehicles and the men hiding behind them I forgot about everything else. A belly mounted minigun hosed down the target, and I could hear the ripping sound of a second one behind me.
The pilot slipped to the side as the minigun continued to pump slugs into the three vehicles. It only took a few moments of concentrated fire before first one, then in quick succession the other two exploded. The fireball was huge, lighting up the night and casting stark shadows among the rocks.
Minigun falling silent, the Osprey moved a safe distance from the burning vehicle and touched down in a maelstrom of sand and debris. The back ramp was already on its way down, and a second after landing a squad of heavily armed Marines boiled out of the aircraft with Master Gunnery Sergeant Zemeck leading them. A second set of explosions from the rear told me the rest of our attackers had been neutralized.
The Marines quickly spread out to form a defensive perimeter and Zemeck and two others walked over to check the area and make sure there weren’t any of the cartel members left alive. I sent Martinez to retrieve the rest of our group and clambered on top of the rock I’d been using for cover. I made sure to leave my rifle slung, not wanting an over eager Marine to mistake me for a bad guy.
Zemeck saw me and waved. I waved back, hopped down and strode over to meet him. He was standing a dozen yards from the burning vehicles when I walked up next to him.
“Guess that just about makes us even.” He said.
“Not even close.” I answered with a shake of my pounding head. “What the hell did you do other than come along for the ride? I think it’s your pilot I need to buy a beer for. Typical jarhead. Let someone else do the work and take all the credit.”
“You trying to stop bullets with your head again?” He asked, clicking on a small flashlight and shining it on my bandages?
“Not trying, unfortunately.” I said.
“You need a medic?”
“I’m good. It’s not a hangnail so you’re medic probably wouldn’t have any experience treating it.” I grinned.
“How ‘bout I leave your sorry ass out here and you can find your own ride home.” He shot back.
“That might beat being stuck inside that sardine can with a bunch of Marines for the next few hours.” I mused.
A Lance Corporal that had accompanied Zemeck stood staring at us. I saw his eyes flick to my oak leaf, then to Zemeck. He was probably wondering what the hell his Master Gunny was thinking to be talking to an officer the way he was.
“Lance Corporal, you got any body bags in that Osprey?” I asked him.
“Yes, sir.” He answered. “Why?” He probably thought I was going to make another smart ass comment.
“We’ve got a fallen man we need to bring back with us.” I said. He nodded and ran off towards the idling aircraft.
Zemeck and I walked over to where Evans lay. He was face down, sprawled out as he’d been shot in the back while he was running with us for cover. I kneeled and retrieved my NVGs, then gently rolled him onto his back and straightened his arms along his sides while we waited for the body bag.
The rest of my group started walking up and three of the Marines raised their rifles when they saw Igor and recognized his uniform. I gestured to Zemeck and he got them calmed down and their rifles lowered. After making the introductions, Martinez and I gently placed Evan’s body into the bag and zipped it up. She grabbed the feet and I took the head and we carried him into the waiting Osprey.