Monday, February 7, 2011

The Troublemaker 7 and 8

Chapter Seven

The instant he stepped onto the gray and brown stubble corn field, his world changed. Leaving the welcome and loving world of family dinners and peace, he now re-entered the world of pain, death and violence. This was the world that Gary had escaped from, even if only for a day. Leaving the world that Gary had one day dreamed of returning to; he knew that the reality of finding permanent peace and tranquility was probably just a dream. Gary’s slow deliberate steps crunched the dead corn stalks as his mind and eyes focused on the day’s dawn and the approaching tree line. Gary’s progress took him ever closer to the tree line and he found himself walking steadily faster, increasing his pace to reach the safety of the forests concealment.

Entering the woods on the same well traveled deer trail he had recently exited from, he immediately felt his time senses change. Once inside the woods, Gary felt like he was back in a slow motion world. Although he knew he was physically alright, the view his mind perceived was one that seemed like everything around him was just a little slower. Some people would call it a combat mind-set, Gary didn’t call it anything…he just operated in it.

Each step was slow and deliberate, with his eyes focused many yards down the trail and off to each side looking for possible areas for concealment and cover, or any indication of an area where he might be attacked from. Approximately fifty yards inside the woods, he heard a familiar authoritative voice inside of head command, “Hide, now.” This had happened to Gray numerous times in the past and each time it had proven providential in that it had saved his life or had given him the upper hand in an armed action. Gary immediately moved off the trail and into the brush to a group of man sized boulders about 50 feet away. The boulders were surrounded by a few bushes and small barren trees offering decent concealment and cover.

Moving as quickly and quietly as he was able to; Gary reached the boulders and removed his backpack setting it behind him against the rocks. Carefully undoing the flap of the pack he reached inside and took out the nylon gray and brown camo net. Taking the net and spreading it out in front of him, Gary started taking some leaves and twigs and inserting them into the small holes in the net. This would break up his outline and give him better concealment; hopefully whatever danger lurked would just pass him by. Gary quickly finished the camo net and sat back against the pack. Pulling the net over his Boonie hat and body, he blended in perfectly with his surroundings.

Sitting stone cold still, Gary began to assess his options. The Garand lay across his lap which could make for a possible entanglement problem if he had to come out from under the net and acquire a target quickly. Gary’s right hand began a slow move to unzip the side jacket pocket and bring out one of the fragmentation grenades. Without looking at the grenade Gary unclipped the safety device from the green and yellow explosive device.

Forest’s aren’t normally quiet places as there seems to be something always making noise. Usually it would be birds, especially when blue jays would fight with the barking squirrels or deer walking from their nightly feeding to their beds. With no wind or breezes blowing through the trees and the cold dry leaves on the ground, the sounds were amplified. Gary first heard steps off to his left; soft crunching and twig snapping steps which were regular and methodical; they could only be human. Gary didn’t look directly at the origin as direct eye contact could possibly give his position away; his peripheral vision picked up the movement.

The camouflage uniformed human moved; not looking at his immediate area, but focusing on his intended destination at the tree line. Gary also picked up other crunching noises even further out to his left, more troops…and then to his right. Gary was in the midst of the line of troops which were moving past him towards the corn field’s edge. Gary missed hearing two of the soldiers which were silently moving down the deer trail, he did hear one whisper talking which gave their position away instantly.

“Roger, Flight Control we are almost at the tree line and should be in position within a few minutes” The spotter said into his head-set microphone.

Gary saw the two off to his right. It looked like one was carrying a large scoped sniper rifle, which he identified as a .50 caliber semi-automatic Barrett. The one walking behind whose voice gave away their position, was strapped to a fairly substantial back pack; this must be the spotter and team leader and he carried what looked to be an MP-5 submachine gun. Within a few minutes, the patrol was in front of Gary, walking away from him to the edge of the corn field.

Gary knew that he could quietly walk away from this group and head back across the ridge to his hole in the wall; however another faint sound changed his mind. This sound was like someone cutting wood with a chain saw quite some distance away, which Gary knew to be either someone cutting wood…or a Predator. If it was a Predator, why would they be setting up across from Macs place? Unless Mac and his family was the intended target.

Anger and fear filled Gary’s mind as he slowly removed the camo net and stood up. As he did; he felt a puff of a breeze flow through the trees, the low pressure front was starting to move through the valley. Gary took the grenade and placed his middle left finger through the ringed firing pin, with the grenade on the outside of his left hand like a bizarre piece of jewelry; he was now free to hold the Garand by the forearm hand guard. Gary then unzipped his jacket pocket giving him access to the grenade on his left side. He began the stressful toe to heel silent stalk to the deer trail…only this time he would be hunting the hunters.

Once at the trail and stalking with the Garand shouldered and safety off; Gary slowly and cautiously moved towards the tree line. Standing behind a hickory tree that was off to the right of the trail and about 15 yards from the tree line gave Gary a somewhat obstructed but none-the-less decent view of how the patrol had set up for their attack. To his left and out front about 50 yards away were grouped five soldiers laying in prone positions. This group looked to be carrying MP-5 submachine guns and had on black nylon ammo and grenade vests. While to the right and also in front about 50 yards away were three prone soldiers that were set up behind two SAW M-249 machine guns resting on their bi-pods. Their ammo carrier lay in their midst with cans of extra ammo and replacement machine gun barrels. Directly in front of Gary and less than 10 feet into the corn field was a two man sniper/spotter team. The spotter was using his backpack for a binocular rest as the Barrett had its own bipod for support. The sniper was focused through the scope at the farm house a mere 200 yards way, which for the Barrett was almost point blank range. All of the soldiers wore black knit navy type watch caps instead of the normal high visibility blue UN helmets.

Gary had to evaluate his choices, who to attack first? If he attacked straight on he could get two or three with the initial shots from the Garand, but two or three meant that seven or eight would still be around to get him. The overwhelming array of firepower was definitely against Gary; however, he had the element of surprise which he would have to use to his advantage. Gary thought that the most dangerous threat initially would be the spotter, followed by the sniper. The sniper was second, not because of the awesome firepower of the Barrett, the sniper would have a hard time turning that large rifle on Gary, but because of his proximity to him. Looking at the two remaining groups Gary chose the group of five with the grenades and MP-5’s, followed by the machine gunners. Gary quickly thought out a plan, where split second timing, marksmanship and luck would all play a vital or fatal role.

Sliding the Ruger silenced pistol out the side holster quietly, Gary knew he only had a few minutes remaining before their attack began. Holding the grenade and the Garand together with his left hand Gary crept along the trail to a oak tree and took his position about 15 feet just inside the tree line behind the sniper/spotter. Raising the Ruger with one hand and focusing the front sight on the back of the spotters head, Gary remembered why he hated one hand shooting…he couldn’t hold the pistol still. Taking a very silent deep breath, Gary leaned the Garand against the tree while keeping the grenade in his left hand. Now all he needed was something in front of the soldiers to divert their attention.

Colonel Farzhi sat in front of his computer monitor and watched in real time the images sent by the Predator. The Colonel had communications with both Captain Haki and Flight Control.

“Navajo, this is Flight Control; we are flying from north to south at 10,000 feet and have the target in sight. Navajo, we are rapidly losing our window for a good weapons release. The weather is closing in fast and we are being buffeted by tail winds which are at our maximum. We can still release the two Hellfire’s, but we’ll not be able to stay around very long to give you any type of battle damage assessment. Do I have permission for weapons release?”

“Flight Control, this is Colonel Farzhi. Can you give us a quick pass over the area, before you go ‘weapons free’ with optical and your infrared cameras?”

“Certainly Colonel, I’ll start the imagery now.” Flight Control cursed under his breath, as he wanted to fire his missiles and get the Predator home in one piece. The pilot switched from the narrow targeting view mode to its wide angle view and flew down the valley sending the information in real-time back to Col Farzhi. Captain Haki listened to both conversations; maintaining his radio silence.

In the kitchen of the Finney farm house; Mac was tearfully explaining to Molly and Charlie about his past. Outside in the front yard, King had smelled the foreign scent of curry from the soldier’s bodies near the woods and started barking furiously.

The Predator approached the end of the valley and was about to do a 180° turn when Colonel Farzhi spoke. “Flight Control I am having a difficult time with the infrared image. What can you tell me about what we are seeing?” The images sent were intermittently displayed with puff of clouds and a slight gray haze.

“Colonel, I see an individual that looks to be about 50 yards south of the target. This person looks to be with some goats or sheep or some kind of animals. I also see what looks to be a dog in the front of target next to the road. The house itself gives no indication of activity in any specific room, as they all show signs of heating. I also see your…” Flight Control mentally counted the white human forms that contrasted on his green screen “…eleven man assault team positioned near the trees. I am now beginning the turn for our firing run.”

Laying prone and focusing the binoculars on the alerted dog, Captain Haki had given his sniper a slap on the back indicating to him that he was ‘good to go’ in engaging the viciously barking German Shepherd, which could alert the terrorists inside. Captain Haki also heard Flight Control say that there were eleven men in the assault team, which he dismissed as a miscount on Flight Control’s part.

The Predator was bouncing around slightly at 10,000 feet and flying into a stiff 30 mph headwind. When the craft was flying down wind, it used very little power. Now that it was turned into the wind, Flight Control needed to add power to maintain a safe launch speed. Increased power means increased engine noise, which became obvious to all on the ground.

Colonel Farzhi rewound the recorded computer digital image that the Predator had shown of the assault team. The Colonel knew there were supposed to be ten men, but he didn’t want to make an assumption that Flight control was incorrect in his count. “Navajo, this is Colonel Farzhi…there is someone standing directly behind you.”

Gary was waiting for the right moment to make his move; the moment came when the sniper fired. Within a split second after the immense roar of the .50 cal, the spotter turned and incredulously looked right at Gary, who fired the silenced pistol twice into the spotter’s forehead. The spotter’s eyes rolled upward and twin streams of blood poured out the .22 caliber impact holes. Gary then aimed and fired twice more into the back of the snipers head, with the black watch cap filtering out the draining red blood. The sniper simply slumped over the Barrett. The first part of his action complete and with a fluid motion, he replaced the Ruger in its holster and quickly and lifted his battle rifle.

The first Hellfire sizzled down from its 10,000 foot launch altitude to the target in slightly over 7 seconds. It impacted the farm house with a thunderous roar. The Hellfire’s twin warheads blew through the wood structure with tremendous force blowing out the walls and creating huge ball of explosive fire. At the impact, the assault team to Gary’s left front stood up and started their march to the house.

Gary reached his right hand over to the dangling grenade and pulled the body free from the safety pin, while still holding in the safety lever. Gary took two steps out into the corn field and turned left towards the five man assault team. Releasing the safety lever; he counted ‘one thousand one, one thousand two’ and lofted the grenade on a high arc similar to how an NFL quarterback would loft a football, leading his wide receiver to a touchdown in the corner of the end zone. The assault group on Gary’s left side wouldn’t be catching footballs today.

Gary didn’t wait for the explosion; he immediately turned and raised the Garand and went to a kneeling position, aiming at the first machine gunner on his right side. Taking deliberate aim, he touched off his first round, which impacted the head of the near gunner.

The grenade exploded, as did the second Hellfire missile.

The ammo carrier raised himself up and turned towards Gary, who promptly fired his second round into the ammo carrier’s chest. The ammo carrier fell backwards and onto the far machine gunners legs. The far gunner, who by now felt the blood and brain material spatter from the near gunner, tried to swing his SAW towards Gary. The SAW started spitting out automatic fire which was inaccurate and nowhere near Gary. Gary fired his third round into the gunner’s shoulder, which penetrated deeply into his upper chest area causing soon to be fatal internal wounds. The stunned and disabled gunner looked one last time at the American who would send him to Allah…Gary obliged him with his fourth round.

Feeling the buzz of a 9mm bullet flying near his head, Gary dove and rolled to a prone position facing the assault team. Seeing a staggering and bleeding soldier with his left arm hanging limply at his side and trying to aim his MP-5, Gary fired his fifth round into the mans chest shoving him back wards. Taking stock of the shredded assault team Gary saw that the grenade had air burst in front of and in the middle of the group. The middle three were down and possibly dead, one was definitely dead and one was trying to crawl on hands and knees away to the woods. Gary shot him in the left side of his chest, dropping him flat.

“Navajo! Navajo! Do you copy, over?” Colonel Farzhi shouted into the microphone to the now dead Captain Haki, as he now was insane with rage. The fleeting images of the attack were sent to him in real time from the Predator as it exited the area. Colonel Farzhi ordered the other ten man team into the area.

Gary stood and felt his legs shake. He reloaded the Garand and trotted over to the downed assault team. Gary fired one of the high powered .30 caliber rounds into each mans head, ensuring that they were truly dead and making a disgusting mess of the group. Feeling no remorse, he finished his grisly business unemotionally and moved over and did the same to the machine gunners.

Noticing the smoking and burning Finney home, Gary started towards it. He knew that it would be a miracle if anyone survived the two blasts. Starting through the corn field, out of the corner of his eye movement caught his attention. It was a Humvee making its way down the road towards him.

“Oh shit!” came out of his mouth without thinking.

Gary turned and ran back to where the dead machine gunners lay. He took the machine gun out of limp arms of the first gunner and twisting the rifle around so that the gunners head and shoulders were in front of the weapons muzzle for concealment, Gary waited for the fast moving Humvee to close. Gripping the machine gun by the pistol grip and steadying it by pressing his left hand onto the stock and into his shoulder, he breathed deep and sighted the weapon. Just a few pounds of pressure on the trigger opened a murderous volley of fire against the moving vehicle. Bullets streamed out unmercifully, like raging hornets searching out a threatening foe. The small caliber projectiles impacted into the thin skinned Humvee, first into the windshield, causing the driver, whose life was abruptly ended to lose control and plowing the military vehicle into the near side ditch. Dirt and grass flew out from the front as the Humvee crashed to a stop. The deadly volley of metal continued, walking along the vehicles side, piercing the interior and its human cargo, while smoking hot brass and the links that held them in their neat boxed magazine, piled up on Gary’s side. The Humvee’s body did little to shield the men inside. One of the wounded soldiers tried to make his escape out the back of the vehicle and away from the onslaught, a short burst dropped him.

Gary had stopped firing. The SAW‘s barrel smoked from the intense heat after firing almost a full 200 round box magazine. The watch cap and hair of the dead man in front of the machine gun smoldered from the muzzle blast.

Gary left the smoking machine gun and his Garand at that spot; he then picked up the other SAW and slung it across his shoulder. Running to the destroyed farm house, Gary surveyed the damage as he came into the front yard. King the Shepherd was literally torn in two from the impact of the sniper rifle’s bullet.

He called out “Mac! Molly! April! Charlie! Where are you?”

The house was blown apart from the Hellfire’s impact, and flames started consuming the shattered wood. He then heard someone wailing around the rear of the once beautiful home.

Running around to the rear of the house, he saw April on her knees and crying loudly. The portion of the body that lay in front of her was Mac. “Daddy, don’t die! Daddy…please don’t die.”

Gary stepped softly over to April and looked down at his friend. He then knelt down and placed his fingertips on Macs carotid artery, there was no pulse from his severed friend.

April looked up and screamed “Where were you?! Why didn’t you stop them?!” April jumped up and started to swing at Gary “It’s your fault! They killed my parents because of YOU!” April in a fit of rage slapped Gary across his face hard and then started slugging him in the chest with her fists.

Tasting the metallic flavor of blood, he was taken back by this and grabbed Aprils wildly flailing hands. “April…they didn’t come after me…they killed your Mom and Dad and Charlie because you all helped that Jewish family.”

“That’s not true…that family didn’t hurt anybody.”

“Listen to me…”Gary held April as she slowly stopped struggling “…those guys have no idea that I even exist. They killed that family and dumped their bodies on the other side of that ridge…April, I found their bodies yesterday.”

April looked at Gary not knowing whether to believe him or not. She said quietly “But how would they have known we were the ones that helped them?”

“I don’t know, maybe they tortured them and got a confession…I just don’t know.”

“I don’t believe that the Greenberg’s would have told them about us.”

“I don’t know how they found out, but I do know this…they will be coming back.”

“Why? They’ve killed everyone and blown our home up.”

“April, trust me on this, they will be back.” Gary paused and then continued “When they do come back, you and I don’t want to be anywhere near this place.”

April looked down at her Dad. “I can’t believe they’re gone…”

“We need to go April; I don’t think we have a lot of time…please.” Gary lifted Aprils face and held it so her wet eyes met his. “Your Mom, Dad and Brother were the closest thing I have had to a family in a long time…I am so sorry.” Gary held April as no words could comfort her in this loss. With that said Gary held up April under her arms, supporting her as they started walking towards the corn field.

April sobbed uncontrollably, again she cried “Why!”

“Why? They did this because they think can get away with doing it, plain and simple.”

Chapter Eight

It only took a few steps before April had gathered her strength and shrugged off Gary’s physical help. April stumbled along, wanting to be alone with her thoughts and the overwhelming grief. Gary walked by her side, saying nothing. He led her through the cornfield to the remnants of the recent battle. When the pair reached the kill zone, April looked at the men with their blown apart heads, turned pale white and vomited. As she was on her knees retching “Did you do this?” April’s voice carried a degree of astonishment and disgust.

“Yes, I did.” Gary knew that April was sick from shock and unaware of the reality of this situation. To tell her everything would be too much for her to handle at this point. “April, these men came to kill you and your family. I tried the best I could to prevent that…I got the soldiers, but couldn’t get the Predator…I’m sorry.” Guilt and emotion came over Gary and he knew that he was starting to feel the shock of their losses also.

Looking nervously over where the Humvee was nose down into the ditch, extreme anxiety overcame him as he expected any second to see an armored vehicle come into sight. Gary took her by the shoulders and looked her directly in the eye. “I need your help…please. There are some things we have to take care of first…then we have to leave, alright?”

“Ok…do you really think they are coming back?” April sounded nervous

“Oh, yeah. They’ll be back, and the next time they come, they’ll be better prepared…and very pissed off. Now, here is what I want you to do. I need to find a place in the woods, preferably in those boulders where we can stash these weapons. I want you to find me a spot, ok.”

“I think I know of a place already. Charlie used to play over here and he had a place he called the ‘fort’, I’ll see if I can find it.” April took off up the deer trail.

Gary sprinted to the machine gunners and picked up the SAW and his Garand. He started lugging all of the weapons from the soldiers to the deer trail entrance where he stacked them. The pile grew with MP-5’s, magazines, grenades and the vests that weren’t shredded by the grenade blast. This was added to with the two SAW’s and their four 200 round cans of the 5.56 ammo, spare barrels and the Barrett with 2 spare magazines. Gary then began to visually size up the soldiers, selecting the spotter; he started taking off his clothes and boots.

April returned “I found the place, it’s not too far…”Her voice trailed off as she saw Gary stripping the soldier of his coat, uniform, insulated underwear and boots…”What are you doing?”

“I’m getting you some better clothes and boots; he looks to be about your size.” Gary said

April stared angrily at the stripped dead soldier, now without any pity or guilt and spoke one word to him. “Fucker”

Gary finished and looked up smiling at April’s choice of word. “Ok, let’s find that spot. You take a couple of the MP-5’s.”

“What’s an MP-5?”

“This is.” Gary lifted two of the submachine guns and slung them over her left shoulder, he then lifted two more and slung them over her right shoulder. Gary himself picked up the Barrett “Man, this is one heavy weapon…go ahead, lead the way.” April led Gary along the path and into the trees to a spot where the rocks looked like they were piled on top of one another. One side had a small opening similar to his cave. “Perfect. Nice spot, let’s see if it holds up.”

The wind started picking up making the barren tree limbs smack against one another. Swirling tiny snow flakes started filtering horizontally through the trees as the temperature became noticeably colder. Gary slid in the Barrett and placed the MP-5’s around the sniper rifle, trying not to harm the telescopic sight. As they headed back to pick up more arms, Gary went over to the rocks where his backpack and camo net were. Taking this; they both headed back to the field. Gary put a loaded grenade vest with six magazines of 9 mm ammo on April. He then put a vest on himself and taking one SAW and two boxes of linked ammo, he shouldered a MP-5 on April and headed back to the weapons cache. Once completed; they returned for the final load to hide at their weapons cache.

Gary took the spotters coat and gave it to April, which she put on over her light blue down ski jacket. The temperature was dropping rapidly and the snow started falling faster, with some of it starting to stick to the ground. Gary lifted the spotters back pack. “Whoa! This looks a lot heavier than it is, here you carry this.” Gary took the spotters clothes and boots and stuffed them into the top of the pack and helped April strap it on. Taking two grenade vests and stripping them of their contents, he loaded the ordinance into his backpack. Bending down to lift and shoulder his pack. “Holy crap! This is way too heavy!” Gary then had April drop her pack and he took a few grenades and some of the MP-5 magazines and split the load between them. “That’s better, is this too heavy for you April?”

“I’m fine. How far do we have to go?” April grunted

“We have a good hike ahead of us…here take this MP-5” April shouldered the submachine gun while Gary shouldered his Garand. Grunting under the weight; Gary said “We’ll head back to the base of the ridge and then work our way south. We have to cross this ridge and then, go over to the next ridge.” A daunting task considering that the pair was fully loaded. “We’d better make tracks before this snow gets bad.” The overloaded duo then started off. After a couple of steps, Gary immediately halted. “Aw shit, I almost forgot something.” Gary took off the Garand and then the pack. Reaching inside he took out a Mark 67 Fragmentation grenade, then sat down beside the dead spotter, feeling the back of his neck. Taking his pocket knife out and finding the soldiers Encompass chip, he unceremoniously removed it.

“What are you doing?” April asked, puzzled at Gary’s motive.

“I’m taking his chip out.” Gary leaned over to his side and reached deep into his pocket, removing and displaying the small folded square of aluminum foil which held the other devices. Looking up at the curious April “I took the chip out of the baby from that Jewish family; maybe it’ll turn out to be something important.”

April felt the area behind her neck and asked “Do you think that they can really track someone with these things?”

Gary thought for a moment, then answered “I don’t really know, but if they have that ability, then we’ll soon find out…right?” Gary smiled

April thought for a moment “So, do you think that the aluminum foil will stop the chips signal?”

Gary nodded yes. “In my pack is a roll of duct tape…if you’ll get it for me, I’ll take some of this and cover yours up.”

April dropped her pack with a thump and quickly dug through Gary’s pack. Finding the roll of sticky gray tape, she then handed it to him.

Motioning for April to sit down “Have a seat, lets’ see where your chip is.”

April sat next to Gary on the cold damp ground holding her hair up like she was making a pony tail. Gary felt through the soft wisps of her neck hair and found the tiny lump under her skin. Taking a small portion of the folded foil Gary taped it over the back of her neck. He patted her on the back and said “There you go…finished”

With April taken care of, Gary started back to work on the spotter. Removing the safety clip off of the grenade and pulling out the safety pin, Gary half rolled the dead spotter over and placed the explosive beneath him. Gently lowering the soldier and holding the safety handle he gingerly set the grenade under the soldier with his dead weight holding the safety handle in place.

Looking up at April and smiled “This will give them a nice surprise”

Gary again loaded up and the duo finally headed into the woods. They were making good time as they reached the base of the ridge. “April, have you ever been to the other side of this ridge?”

“Yes, but just from walking along the railroad tracks, not from climbing over it. Are we going to climb over…this?” April’s voice gave away her feeling that she hoped they were going to take an easy route.

Gary nodded and pointed up to the peak of the ridge. “On the other side, almost directly across from where we are is a mass grave with those Jewish people and maybe 25 or 30 other people in it.” It was time to start letting April in on the reality of what these people were up to.

April stopped and looked up at the top of the ridge and then at Gary. “A mass grave?” April sighed at the horrific news.

After walking along base and around the oddly spaced boulders, they reached an area where the ridge tapered down; they could now look for a route where they could climb up to cross. Walking up the slope with their heavy loads was back breaking and muscle searing work even though the snow was less than one inch, it continued steadily. In some places they had to climb on hands and knees, eventually making the crest where they took a small break. Gary and April passed a canteen back and forth, draining it quickly. Digging a MRE meal out of the side pocket of his backpack, the two shared the high calorie food as well.

“Do you think we are safe now?” April was breathing heavily and was sweating matting her hair on the side of her face. Snowflakes had settled on her blue wool ski hat and her cheeks were bright red, giving the impression that the woman would have fit in on any ski resort.

Gary had scraped off a small patch of snow and was sitting on bare rock, when he opened his jacket the hot humid air inside escaped showing some wisps of steam, fogging his glasses. April did the same. “If they flew over us with an Apache helicopter, their FLIR would pick us right up. I don’t think that the base where these guys are from has Apaches though; at least I haven’t seen any flying around here. I think that when the military left to become World Police, they took most of their Apaches with them. The Predator can’t go through the weather like an Apache can. For right now, we should be somewhat safe; however, we won’t be totally safe until we make the cave.”

“What’s a FLIR?” The exercise from climbing with the laden pack was having a positive effect on April, taking her mind off the events a couple hours earlier.

“It’s called Forward Looking Infra-Red. Basically it sees your heat signature and it’s very good. It does have its limitations and if you know what you are doing, you can get around it. Are you ready to get started again?”

Heading downhill was much easier than the climb up. They spent some of the descent on their back sides sliding along the slick rock in the shallow snow. On a ledge about 6 feet from the bottom Gary lost his footing, slipped and fell to the ground, landing unceremoniously on his rear end.

“Oh…” Groaning, he rolled over on the ground as the pain from the hard landing sent a wave of agony through his body.

“Gary! Are you alright?” April scrambled down the ledge and rushed over to him

Rolling over and blinking away the swirling stars in his eyes. “Yeah, I think so…” He took a deep breath “…that’s going to hurt tomorrow, for sure.”

April dropped her pack and knelt over him. “I’m sorry I hit you.”

“You mean, back there?” Gary had to think for a moment about what she was talking about “Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ve never hit anybody before like that…you know I gave you a fat lip.”

“Yeah I know…don’t tell anyone alright? I don’t want ruin my image.” They both chuckled.

Dusting off the snow and detritus, they started bush whacking through the woods and road ahead. This area of woods wasn’t nearly as open as the previous forested area. The small branches, cold and stiff from the winter wind and snow, snapped at their legs and faces, leaving red lines of stinging contact. The tree line ended at the graveled access road. Pausing cautiously and peering around the base of a tree, they looked both ways for any signs of people or vehicles. Everything looked quiet, so they quickly crossed the road and then the railroad tracks. Stopping at the edge of the stream Gary thought about how they were going to cross.

“Those rocks look really slick with this snow on them; we’ll really need to be careful here.” The snow was almost an inch at this time and was covering everything. Gary gingerly stepped into the shallow stream and cautiously short stepped towards the middle. The icy cold swift moving water was almost to the top of his boots and started to soak his socks. He turned to April holding his hand out to help her. “This doesn’t look…” The words stopped in mid air as Gary’s feet went out from under him and he landed square on his side with a splash. “….SHIT!” Gary tried to jump up but with the huge load he was carrying all he did was flop around in the water; further soaking himself.

April tried to hold back her laugh, but couldn’t. “Are you ok?” She said trying not to sound to obvious about the humor of the situation.

Gary finally stood up and with water dripping from head to toe, smirked sarcastically “Ha Ha” Turning and making no effort to keep dry this time Gary went to the far bank and removed his weapons and pack, setting them down with a thud. “Ok, now it’s your turn” Knowing that being wet and cold was a dangerous combination, he lifted April under her arm and back and half carried her across the freezing water.

“Who says that chivalry is dead?” April said smiling

“Yeah, I’m a regular knight in shining armor.” Gary smiled back, then collected himself and motioned to their intended destination. “We need to get moving before these wet clothes and this cold weather lets hypothermia set in. The base where we’ll start our climb up is over there” Turning to his left and pointing to a high granite cliff. “Up there is where we are headed. I hope you’re not bothered by heights.”

The quiet albeit humorous moment was interrupted by a deep booming explosion muffled by the falling snow, it emanated from the booby trapped spotter.

They heard the sound and without a word quickly made their way into the brush to the place where they would begin their climb. Gary was leading the way and within 50 feet of the base where they would start their climb, April cried out.

“Ouch…Ouch…I’m stuck!” April was impaled by a rather large blackberry bush, its hardened thorns snaring her legs and backside.

Gary came back to April’s aide, and as he was tearing away the brush, he saw their tracks and pointed them out. “Look…we might as well have a neon orange sign that says ‘Here We Are’.”

Forgoing the pain of the fall, the freezing wet clothes and bleeding legs, they began their energy sapping climb. It was physically exhausting and made worse by the increasing snow, wind and slick rocks. Two hours of non stop, back breaking, numbed fingered climbing…spurred on by fear and the consequences of being discovered. After reaching a level pine tree filled spot, Gary was able to take a breath; they were almost home. The winter darkness was closing in fast and the snow was continuing it’s steady pace. Gary led April through the trees to the granite walkway that would lead down to the cave.

“We’re almost there.” Gary said breathing heavily and trying to catch his breath after finding the familiar rock path.

April was bent over, trying to catch her breath, as she looked at the darkening down slope and the narrow ledge that she would have to negotiate. “I can’t do this.” April said as clouds of warm vapor highlighted her words. She was, from childhood, deathly afraid of heights.

Gary, again in the lead, had gone only ten feet or so down the granite trail; he turned and saw her standing still, frozen with fear. “Are you afraid of heights?”

April nodded nervously.

“Ok, the ledge is pretty wide so you’re not going to fall off.” He tried to instill some reassurance in her. “It might be better to look at the wall and run your hand along it as you come down.”

April didn’t move as her fear cemented her feet and heart in place.

Gary’s leg muscles protested at the command to do more work, they groaned and ached as he struggled to make the short distance up to April. “Ok, hold my hand and look at the wall.”

April clamped onto Gary’s hand and focused narrowly onto the gray wall in front of her. Taking small sliding baby steps, she allowed him to lead her sideways down the walled slope.

Reaching the makeshift branch covered door that concealed the cave entrance, Gary removed it with one hand and set it aside, exposing the narrow dark hole. Turning April around to face him, he said softly. “Ok, now look at me, not down, but at me.” April nodded and did as she was told. Gary pulled her close and removed the submachine gun and her pack, releasing them gently to the snow covered ledge. “Now I want you to get on your hands and knees and go backwards into the cave.” April gulped then nodded, moving her hands forcefully down his coat, as much as a drowning person would cling to their rescuers neck. Slowly and fearfully she finally was on her hands and knees. The time it took her to physically back into the cave could be measured in milliseconds as she wasted no time in seeking safety.

“Here take the backpack…and the MP5.” April’s arms stuck out from the entrance and pulled her pack and weapon inside. Gary then removed his weapon and pack, setting them next to the entrance; he also quickly backed into the dark cave, pulling his cargo in behind him.

Once inside, Gary took a small LED quarter sized emergency light that was attached to his coat and pointed it towards the wall, creating a circular cool blue light pattern. April sat close to him at the front of the cave, staring into the blackness. “April, there’s a candle and lighter on that rock over there.”

April looked up at the small flat rock that jutted out and without a word spoken scooted over towards it. Her fingers were very cold and stiff as was the butane fueled lighter.

Gary heard her try to light the lighter a number of times as he moved their packs and weapons further inside the shelter. As he turned in to the black hole, he heard rather than saw April holding lighter cupped in her hand, blowing on it to warm it up.

The butane warmed up in April’s hand and ignited on the next try. “Yes!” April was thrilled as she lit the slim white candle. The candles glow illuminated the cave with a dim yellow-orange flickering light, creating a picturesque image of April, her breath visible as a stream against the black backdrop of the shelters interior.

Gary went past April and into the rear of the cave feeling around like a blind man for the wood pile. Taking a few pieces of the dried wood and his ax, he came back out to the cold fire ring and started breaking them down into kindling. Using his knife to shred some bark and small pieces of wood into tinder, he made built a small pile in the rock fire ring. “Would you bring that candle over here, please?”

April had stared into the candles flame, mesmerized by the light, and the secure feeling that the miniscule amount of heat and light that it put out. Looking around she realized that there was actually room to stand up without smacking your head, unless you were over six feet tall, which she wasn’t. Holding out the candle to Gary “Here”

Gary took the candles hot wax and poured it on some small dry pieces of wood piled in the fire ring. He then took a tiny piece of the wax coated wood and lit it with the candle, placing the bright flamed tinder in the pile he just created. Within a few minutes, the tinder burned and after adding a few pieces of kindling, the fire crackled and popped larger and brighter. Gary set the remaining kindling and some large logs next to April, wordlessly giving her authority over the flame.

Gary crawled back to the entrance and pulled both packs and weapons back to the now glowing fire ring which was also his living area. The area where he had spent so much of his time was about 10 feet from the caves windswept entrance. Wind gusts punched into the cave which made the fire occasionally go horizontal, showering the interior with bright sparks. Once the fire was going well, he went over to the entrance of the cave and set the branched doors against the outside and inside opening. The thatched doors would filter most of the icy blasts; however the snow would eventually coat the outside branches, allowing the heat to build up comfortably. To further insulate against the cold winds, Gary took the 8 X 10 foot blue plastic tarp and with a few sapling poles he had cut, propped the tarp against the ceiling and walls of their shelter, creating a thin blue wall. The diffused wind gusts that managed to filter in gave the impression that the tarp was breathing.

April sat next to the fire, deep in thought and had her hands exposed to the warming flames.

Gary walked past her unnoticed again and began to set up another make shift wooden structure, this time about 6 feet past the fire ring to the rear of the shelter. This group of poles was tied together with some of the nylon 550 cord; creating a drying rack. He had used this in the past for clothes and for the venison.

April finally noticed that Gary was working on something, and asked. “What are you doing?”

“I’m setting up a drying rack…I’ve used this in the past. It does a great job of not only drying clothes but helps to create a smaller space, so we don’t have to use as much wood to heat with.” Gary was still wet inside and out. His pants, which were recently frozen stiff, were now starting to thaw which made them cling to his legs.

April sat across the fire from Gary and watched as he started to take off his coat, pistols and holsters and empty his pant pockets of the gear he carried. Hanging the coat up on the rack and sitting down on the dirt floor, she watched as he removed his soaked boots and socks, revealing white and wrinkled tired and sore feet. The pants and sweat soaked sweatshirt came off next. April said nothing as he stripped own to the black thin pajama-like insulated underwear and then to his plaid boxer shorts and sweat stained t-shirt. She decided that drying off was a good thing and at this point in their relationship had no qualms about stripping down and hanging her wet clothes on the rack.

It was when she got down to her soaked jeans and tried to remove them, she quietly exclaimed “Oww…I think I still have some of those thorns in me.”

Gary was sitting opposite the fire from her on the laid out sleeping bag which sat on the on the cedar branched bed. “Do you need any help with that?” The question wasn’t in any way sexual or suggestive, just a helpful offer.

“Can you see if I have anything sticking in me?” April stood next to Gary and he ran his hands up and down along the wet fabric, finding and pulling out a few of the large thorns. He also noticed some small dark crimson spots on her pants.

“Looks like you got stuck pretty good…you’ve got blood on your pants. You should make sure you don’t have any of those tips imbedded in you, they might get infected” He paused and added with a smile “Then we’d have to amputate.”

April looked at him also smiling “Shut up…or I’ll give you another fat lip.”

Gary threw up his hands in mock surrender “Whatever you say.” They both started to relax.

April took off her pants and the damp wool gray turtle necked sweater she had on, and hung them up to dry too. Gary had his feet near the fire, trying to get some warm life back into them. Looking up, April stood in front of him in just her T-shirt and white cotton panties.

Gary didn’t know whether to look, stare or turn away. His eyes quickly moved down and his face felt flush as he gasped “Oh jeez…”

“I think we’re past that Gary.” April said as she sat next to him. Their eyes met as she tried to wordlessly convey that they had reached a different level in their relationship, a level she hoped he would understand.

Gary smiled nervously, feeling like a teenaged boy on his first date with the Home Coming Queen. Quickly he deflected the subject “You’ve got blood on your legs.” He said as he touched the dried spots that peppered Aprils smooth skin.

April looked at the small wounds “Crap, those thorns really did get me good.”

“Hold on I’ve got something that’ll get that off.” Going behind the improvised clothes rack to the rear of the cave, Gary rummaged through the food supplies and for some basic first aid materials. Finding what he needed and taking with him a cotton wash cloth which he wet with some of the drinking water out of one of the 5 gallon jugs. “Why don’t you turn over and I’ll get you cleaned up.”

April rolled over, lying with her body parallel to the warming fire. Gary kneeled next to her and got a good look at what was in front of him. Thin and fragile exotic model type women held no attraction to Gary. It was the All-American woman, with a confidence about her own beauty and flaws that he was wildly attracted to. As April lay in front of him in the dim fire light, he was captivated by her unvarnished beauty. Quietly he muttered to himself. “Wow”

April whispered “What?” She didn’t know whether he was talking about the wounds or her body. When Gary told her that she had nice hands, April didn’t know if he was just making it up to be nice, or if she really did have nice hands. The insecurities over body image didn’t hold much of a place with April. However she did wonder if he thought that she was attractive.

The wash cloth soaked with the cold water, startled April out of her thoughts as Gary without warning put it on her leg. “Hey…that’s cold!” She exclaimed, flipping over and sitting up abruptly.

Gary smiled and chuckled “Sorry. I need to wash the blood off of you…I’ll be quick about it, ok?” Gary guided her back into the position she was moments ago and continued. The blood came off easily with a gentle rubbing and revealed numerous tiny black dots where thorn tips were imbedded. “Looks like you got shot with a shotgun.”

“Does it look that bad?”

“Oh, you’ll live. However, there are a bunch of thorn slivers that are still inside your skin.” Gary got up and again went into the rear of the cave, returning with a battery powered LED camp light. Their area instantly lit up ten fold, removing the soft glow of the fire and brightly illuminating his patient. “Now, I’m going to use my knife to get these out of you…it shouldn’t hurt, but if it does…please don’t jump up, ok?

April resigned herself to the impromptu surgery, which was nothing more complicated than removing splinters. “Ok, be nice now.”

Gary handed her one of the fleece blankets, which he rolled up in a pillow shape. When her head hit the pillow, he started to gently pick out the slivers with the tip of his knife. To see if he had missed anything, he ran his hands softly along her legs, feeling for any bumps or exposed shards. “If you feel anything, let me know, some these are pretty tiny.”

April nodded as the pain of the knife was bearable and minor, however as Gary gently ran his hand along her aching legs, it was becoming enjoyable. “That feels so good…my legs really hurt.”

“They feel like stone…your muscles are very tight.” Gary took some of the antibiotic salve he had and dabbed the larger puncture wounds, lightly massaging it in. “Um…April there is one area that I didn’t get. “Gary said as he gently with one finger lifted the elastic of her blood spotted panty. “Your underwear has a few blood spots, it looks like you might have a few in your…uh, um…butt.”

April half turned over, trying to look at the area Gary was talking about “Ok…so what’s the problem. Don’t tell me that you’re embarrassed…are you?” April smiled demurely at the man who for the past 24 hours dominated her thoughts.

Gary, lying said “I’m not embarrassed.”

April lay back face down, took a deep breath and pulled her panties down to her knees, revealing more than just thorns.

Gary looked at her perfectly rounded cheeks that had just a hint of tiny fuzz like hair and sighed, smiling. The wash cloth removed the few blood spots that were left and he then gingerly dug into her flesh, releasing the thorn tips. “ how come you’re not married?”

“Oh, I don’t know…I guess that I never met Mr. Right. It’s not like Simmonsville or this area has a lot to choose from. I mean I dated and everything, but when it came down to it, I haven’t found the person that I was willing to spend the rest of my life with.”

Gary nodded silently as he continued to work. “I understand that.”

“So…what was your wife like?” April asked

Smiling at the memory “Cathi was great…we were good friends and I guess that was the base of our relationship. The love flame, if you will, wasn’t a torrid as some would think, but it was a solid love…if that makes any sense at all.” Gary paused again “She was also an awesome mother too…I guess that’s one of the things I miss the most, the family part.”

“Were you happy?”

“Yeah…very much so.” Gary finished and pulled Aprils panties back up and gave a quick pat on her firm rear. “Ok, I think I got them all.”

April started to turn over and get up, Gary’s hand held her down “Hold on there tiger, I’m not finished yet.” Gary moved himself down to her feet and started to massage them.

“Oh my…that feels so good.” April said softly as she offered herself up to him.

Gary worked his massage up to her calf muscles, rubbing his hands and fingers deep into her tired muscles. With moans and groans of approval, he slowly moved up to her thighs and bottom. “This doesn’t hurt, does it?”

“Oh…yeah…I mean, no it doesn’t hurt…please don’t stop.” April said softly.

Gary smiled as he moved the deep massage up to her lower back, and began running his thumbs up along her spine and between the tissue of her ribs. There was no resistance from April as Gary found the small knotted muscles and worked them loose. Not a word was spoken during this time as he reached her upper back and shoulders. Setting her pony tail off to the side, he tried as best as he could to massage the area under the duct taped foil on her neck and then he finished.

“Aw…please don’t stop.” April said again almost begging.

Gary lay down beside her and they looked at each other. It was a very quiet and intimate moment, their eyes speaking silently to one another, and their smiles confirming that they had both found something missing and something special in their lives. Gary set his hand on her face, tenderly caressing her hair line and cheek. “You are so beautiful.”

April smiled and moved closer. A brief first kiss and with arms wrapped around each other in strong embrace, they both knew it was real.

Gary broke the moment as he whispered into her ear. “Hey…are you hungry?”

April’s eyes went wide “I’m starved”

Gary sat up “Let me see what I have.” He started to go into the back of the shelter towards the food.

A thought came to April as she remembered “My Mom packed some food for you.”

“Are you kidding me? That’s awesome.” Gary went to his pack and after bending over to stretch the tight hamstring muscles in his tired and overworked legs; he opened the pack and started unloading the contents next to their sleeping bag. It was like a miniature version of Christmas Morning. Gary pulled out the grenades and camo net and his cleaned spare set of black polypropylene undergarments. Molly had also set inside the jeans he had worn last night and a couple of pair of relatively new tan wool hiking socks. There was also a clean pair of Macs boxer shorts. “Fantastic…this is great!” Gary offered the black thin undergarments to April. “Try these on, they might be big on you, but at least they’re clean and dry.”

Standing up April turned around with her back to Gary and removed her t-shirt and bra. “No peeking.”

“I thought you said we were past that.” Gary said smiling as he watched in awe the beauty of this woman unfold in front of him.

“Only I can say that.” April coyly stated; smiling as she knew Gary was enjoying the show…her show.

“Oh…that must be a woman’s prerogative, right?” Gary said shaking his head

“Now you’re getting it.” April smiled as she turned around; the ill fitting large black top went down to the top of her thighs. “Turn around” she said motioning with her finger in a circular pattern, as she removed her panties and put on the black poly bottoms.

“Women…go figure.” Gary muttered with his back to April. The sexual arousal and promise inside their shelter was spectacular compared against the back drop of war and death.

Gary went back to the backpack and continued removing and enjoying the surprises. Next was a bath towel in which Molly had wrapped a wash cloth, bar of soap, toothbrush and tooth paste. Nestled beneath this was a small yet solid Sony short-wave radio with a bag of extra batteries and external antennae. “Sweet! A radio!” Gary was ecstatic over the gifts…especially this one.

“It’s a short-wave radio with some extra batteries and antennae.” April grinned as she was the one who gifted them to him.

“Is this from you?” Gary opened the black faux leather case the radio was in and a folded piece of paper fell out, landing on his lap. Opening the note, the hand written message said “I hope you enjoy the radio. Come back soon…April.” Gary was genuinely touched and his throat filled with emotion. “Thank you very much; this is very generous of you…and you really wanted me to come back?” He reached over to April and kissed her again, their second kiss a little more passionate than the first.

“There’s more, keep looking” April grinned as she enjoyed playing Santa Clause.

Gary probed further and found a sealed bottle of Crown Royal whiskey in its purple cloth bag. Gary pulled out the whiskey and smiled at his sneaky friend. “Thanks Mac!” He said to the heavens above and gave his friend a thumbs up. Continuing deeper he found a half filled and neatly folded paper grocery bag. It was filled with six turkey sandwiches, leftover from their meal yesterday along with fruit, chocolate candies and nuts. “No wonder this pack weighed a ton! April, this is really too much. Thank you…lets eat!”

The bags contents were laid out on the sleeping bag and Gary went back to the food area and produced a couple of mismatched indestructible plastic plates that Farmer Johns wife had given him, along with two well used plastic tumblers. April set out the bath towel, arranging the plates and cups; the picnic setting was simple and romantic. Gary turned off the bright LED camp light and the ambiance instantly changed from ‘surgical suite’ to ‘fireside dining’.

The pair was famished to the point of headache; they each inhaled two of the smashed turkey sandwiches made with homemade bread and drank their fill of cold clear water. As their food was being settling in, Gary opened the whiskey and poured a few fingers each in both glasses. Along with the whiskey, he opened a small bottle of ibuprophen and passed it to April; they both gulped four and sipped on the whiskey. Laying back on the sleeping bag and propped up on their elbows; both were satiated from the meal and exhausted physically and mentally from the day’s events.

April, thinking that some music might be in order, took the radio and attached the thin wire retractable external antennae. “Would you like to listen to some music?” She handed the end of the antennae to Gary. “If you put this outside we should get decent reception.”

Gary put on the cleaned jeans Molly had set aside for him, and then led the wire around the plastic tarp and to the caves opening. The thatched doors offered some resistance from the snow that was piling up out side and with a shove the snow gave way. He tossed the end out of the cave, and then poked his head out of the hole to check the weather briefly. The snow was still falling heavily, the only sound made was the gentle noise of the flakes hitting against each other as they piled up on the white landscape. The wind had died down, making it a quiet and beautiful winter’s night outside the shelter

Gary stepped back inside after resetting the doors, shook off the snow that had landed on his head and shoulders, then went to the drying rack and began turning the clothes as April set a couple logs on the dying embers.

“Is it still snowing?” She asked while rearranging the dying embers into a red hot pile, then pacing the logs expertly on top.

“I guess we have about six inches right now, and still coming down hard. The wind has died down, so that’s a good thing…it is really beautiful outside.” Then as an afterthought “I love a good snow.”
April had the radio tuned to a faint signal from Baltimore. “…the weather is today’s top story. Meteorologist Tom Stone is here with the latest. Thanks Dave; folks we are in the midst of a huge nor’easter. The Baltimore area has received eight to ten inches so far and this front has stalled…so it looks like we have more…much more on the way. Make sure you stay off the roads as much as possible and keep warm. The seven day forecast shows that a warm front will eventually move up from the south; this will push this cold front we have over us now, off to the coast; and in a few days bring warming temperatures…melting the snow. This brings the possibility of flooding in low lying areas, so be prepared for that. I’ll have more weather information on the 10 o’clock news.”

April and Gary looked at one another shrugged their shoulders and accepted what lay in front of them. They weren’t going anywhere for a while.

The announcer came back “Thanks Tom. In national news today, a military helicopter crashed killing 12 soldiers in Afghanistan…The Agricultural Department announced record wheat and corn harvests for the past year…Sources say that we could even exceed those records again this year…UN Secretary General Santana is quoted as saying that the record harvests will benefit the areas of the world which is currently experiencing food shortages due to a worldwide drought…in other news…a Terrorist group was broken up today by World Police Peacekeepers in central Maryland…reports say that four people were killed as they attacked a Peacekeeping patrol….The group headed by resident Mac Finney near Simmonsville, was reportedly involved in gunrunning and black market racketeering…This is the tenth group that has been broken up by World Police Peacekeepers this month…in Sports...”

The romantic peaceful calm Gary and April shared was interrupted by the lie.

April shouted at the radio “That was my family they killed, you FUCKING ASSHOLE! They WERE NOT terrorists or gunrunners!” April felt a huge and heavy load on her heart from her family’s murder, and began to break down crying. The bug-out to the cave had given her little time to think about their deaths; and it hit her with hurricane force. She sobbed deeply, holding her face in her hands; tears streamed out and onto the floor.

There wasn’t anything that Gary could say to her, this was something that she needed to deal with on her own; all he could do was to put his arms around her and be sympathetic; as someone who went through the exact same thing three years previously. “Let’s change the station, ok?”

April rubbed her eyes dry began to scroll through the Short-Wave bands. Finding a station that was broadcasting from Africa, they listened briefly to some exotic music. The announcer came back on the air after the song finished. “This is Radio Mozambique and we now end our broadcast day…please join us again in 8 hours for news and entertainment…”

April’s agony continued as Gary said to her “Maybe we should try to get some sleep.” Gary held her and kissed her tear stained cheek, then turned off the radio. “I’m sorry about today, I really am.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for Gary, It’s not your fault…it’s their fault” April said through a swollen throat.

The emotionally battered and physically exhausted pair lay down on the opened sleeping bag, covering themselves with the thin blankets. April had turned away from Gary and stared at the hypnotic flickering flames of the fire. As he lay next to her, she took his arm and wrapped it around her body, holding on to it as a child would hold on to a teddy bear. Gary pulled himself closer; their bodies separated only by the thin poly undergarments, kissed her behind the ear and whispered “Good night.”

Within a matter of minutes, they both were deep in sleep.

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