The grenade launcher thumped as I fired the first round. I immediately pulled the trigger again, sending a second HE - high explosive - round on the way to the open troop compartment door of the crashed Russian helicopter. The grenades travel fast, but not as fast as a bullet, and are so large they are visible in flight.
Tracking the first one with my eyes, I watched as it reached the door and impacted the figure of the man who had just hammered the damaged exit into the open position. The grenade detonated with a thunderous explosion, the body disappearing as it was shredded. A moment later the second one arrived and sailed into the maelstrom of the first.
It detonated deeper inside the heavily armored helo, the entire craft shaking from the blast. The ballistic glass windshield, divided into sections and braced with heavy metal frames, was blown out by the force of the expanding shock wave and cartwheeled across the surface of the lake. It struck the water with a large splash and quickly sank. Then the Hind’s fuel tank ruptured.
The entire aircraft shuddered before disappearing in an intense ball of flame and I spun behind the rocky outcropping to shield myself from the overpressure wave. It raced across the water and slammed into the snow-laden trees on the shoreline, blasting them clear of snow and snapping several smaller trees off at ground level. I checked on Rachel, Katie and Dog, relieved to see all three of them safe in the shelter of the terrain.
I started to poke my head out for a look, but decided to stay where I was for the moment when another explosion caused the trees over my head to sway. Munitions aboard the helicopter were cooking off from the intense heat of the fire. No one aboard could have possibly survived, and there wasn’t any point in me risking being hurt or killed, so I stayed where I was.
“Everyone OK?” I called out to Katie and Rachel.
“We’re good,” Katie responded, she and Rachel moving to where Dog lay in the snow.
Katie took his face in her hands and gently petted him, Rachel checking his injuries from the fight with the wolf. I was worried about him, but they didn’t need my help and it had been a while since anything additional had cooked off so I stepped out and surveyed the still fiercely burning aircraft.
The shell of the Hind was fully engulfed in flames that were burning so hot the icy lake water was flashing to steam where it touched the white hot metal. The steam mixed with the thick black smoke from the burning fuel and a massive column rose high into the air, clearly marking the site of the downed aircraft. Shit! If there were more Russians in the area they’d zero in on the location in a hurry.
“We’ve got to move,” I shouted to the girls as I ran to where they kneeled over Dog. “That fire and smoke will be visible for miles.”
They didn’t argue or question me, both with concerned expressions when understanding of what I was worried about dawned on them. With their help I got Dog up and on my shoulders, his belly against the back of my neck and each set of legs gripped in front of my body. I knew he was hurting because he didn’t try to resist the awkward position.
Turning, I began retracing my steps along the shoreline. I could feel Dog’s racing heart against the back of my neck. Occasionally he whined softly and I had no doubt he was hurting like hell, but he stayed still with his head resting on his shoulder, muzzle next to my face. From time to time his wet tongue licked my cheek.
As we moved, Katie took up position in front of me in case we ran into anything that wanted to do us harm. Burdened as I was, with both hands needed to keep Dog in place, I wouldn’t be able to respond and fight if needed.
“Faster,” I panted in the thin, mountain air as I struggled to catch my breath.
I had no idea if there were more Russians in the area, or even why they were here in the first place, but if there were I knew I didn’t want to be anywhere close when they arrived and found the crash. I desperately wanted to listen for the sound of rotors, but between my labored breathing and heart pounding in my ears I couldn’t hear anything other than the sound of my own footsteps as I loped along the shoreline.
Katie ran lightly, frequently turning her head to check on Rachel and me. I was glad she was because I had no idea what condition Rachel was in and wouldn’t have known if she’d dropped out. After what seemed forever we reached the campsite and I called out for Katie to stop. With her and Rachel helping we lowered Dog gently to the ground.
“Why are we stopping?” Rachel asked, sweat running down her face despite the frigid temperature.
“It’s all uphill from here,” I said, drawing my knife and starting to work on the parachute canopy she had strung between the trees for a windbreak. “Need a better way to secure Dog. Keep an eye and ear out for more helicopters.”
Rachel turned to watch the sky over the lake as I kept working on freeing the tough nylon. Once it came loose I quickly fashioned a sling, carefully working it under Dog’s body. With it in place I paused to rub his muzzle and he licked my hand before laying his head down.
“OK, we’ve got about five miles straight up this ridge,” I said, pointing. “Katie, you lead. Rachel, watch our backs.”
They both nodded and helped me hoist Dog in his sling onto my shoulders. Once he was up, I was able to wrap the canopy lines around my shoulders and secure them over my chest. This held him in place and freed my hands if I had to fight.
I was still breathing hard and a film of greasy sweat covered my face as I started forward. Nearly stumbling, I caught myself and had to wait a moment for a wave of dizziness to pass. Katie had already stepped off, but Rachel saw me falter and moved next to me, grabbing my arm.
“Are you OK?” She asked, concern on her face.
“Fine,” I said, swallowing hard and trying to catch my breath. I looked up and saw Katie coming back to where we stood.
“I’m fine. Let’s get…” I stopped when the low thrum of a distant rotor reached my ears. I didn’t bother to turn and look.
“Move!” I said, pushing myself forward.
Katie turned and sprinted up the slope, rifle high and tight across her chest. I followed her steps, bent forward at the waist to counter Dog’s weight on my back. At first I tried to keep my head up to scan the area ahead, but quickly realized it was slowing me down. Lowering my gaze to the ground I focused on Katie’s tracks, concentrating on keeping my feet moving.
Where the slope grew steeper I had to resort to using my hands to help climb, scrambling in the snow for something to grip and let me pull myself another step. My back ached and my quads were on fire. My breath was ragged, my chest hurting with every breath of the cold air I took, but I pushed the pain down and kept going. There were occasional shelves where the incline flattened for a few yards. Unfortunately, they were few and far between.
I lost track of time as we climbed. Every ounce of my consciousness was focused on staying on my feet and continuing forward. Sweat was pouring down my face and dripping off my nose and chin in a steady stream. It was getting harder to take a breath and all I could hear was the rush of blood in my veins. My vision was starting to tunnel, limited to the ground directly in front of my feet.
After what could have been hours or even a day, Katie suddenly appeared in front of me, placing a hand on my chest to stop me. She was saying something but I couldn’t hear her voice. My head felt like it was wrapped in thick layers of cotton and I wasn’t sure whether or not I was standing still. I could see the concern on Katie’s face, then Rachel moved into my field of view and both of them were reaching for me as everything went dark.
Katie tried to support John as he collapsed forward, but the best she could do was slow his fall. She and Rachel dropped to their knees on either side and worked the sling loose from his upper body, Dog stiffly stepping out of it and walking a few feet before lying down in the snow. Gently, they rolled John onto his back.
“He’s burning up,” Katie said when she placed her hand on his face.
Rachel touched his other cheek then wiped pink forth off his lips. She quickly opened his snowsuit. His heart was racing and his pulse was erratic. Working her hand inside his clothing she placed it on his chest and held it there for a few moments.
“Fluid in his lungs,” she said. “I think it’s high altitude pulmonary edema. Never saw it in Georgia, but I studied about it in medical school.”
“What’s that and what the hell do we do?” Katie asked, the fear clear to see on her face. John coughed, more bloody froth appearing on his lips and chin.
“Over-exertion at high altitude. It’s cold as hell. He just ran up a five mile hill with Dog and his pack on his shoulders. He’s got fluid building up in his lungs and his heart’s working overtime trying to get oxygen to his body. We need to get him to a lower altitude and get him on some O2. Actually, right now, we need to force some air into his lungs so he can breathe.”
Rachel wiped John’s mouth clean again before bending over and placing her mouth over his, and began forcing big lungful’s of air deep into his chest.
“How did you get here?” She asked Katie in between breaths.
“We’ve got a Jeep at the bottom of the slope.” They had crested the ridgeline that overlooked the lake before John collapsed. “How dangerous is this?”
“Very. Is there a town close?” Rachel turned her head and spit out a mouthful of blood tinged saliva.
“Not close, but we passed through one after we got into the mountains,” Katie said. “Maybe an hour or two with the snow.”
“We need to get him down there. Fast. I’ll have to keep up mouth to mouth while you drive,” Rachel said, standing and lifting up an edge of the parachute.
Working together, the two women spread the canopy out on the snow and rolled John’s unconscious body onto it. Katie helped Dog move, settling him on the nylon next to John, then grasped half the attached lines and pulled them tight over her shoulder. Rachel did the same with the other half and working together they began dragging John and Dog down the snow covered slope.