The four men in U.S. Army combat uniforms stumbled out of the ravine, and trundled through the orderly rows of pomegranate trees at a tired run. Two of them supported a wounded man between them. They halted at the edge of the orchard to quickly scan the stretch of open ground just ahead. Beyond was the extraction place, behind a tumbled down mud brick wall. Camel dung fouled the ground amidst a scattering of aromatic rosemary bushes.
"Go! Go!" panted one of them, a short, black man with sweat rolling down his face in little rivers. "I'll hang on here. Just get on that radio."
He slipped a few yards to one side and sank down onto his belly behind a fruit tree.
Garrick Connolly nodded gratefully in the black man's direction, relief evident on his square, sub-nosed features that someone had taken charge and was making decisions now that the officer was dead. He moved onward without speaking, carrying the wounded man with his remaining comrade.
The wounded man's right leg dangled horribly. A piece of bone, jagged and gleaming white in the hot sunlight, had erupted through the skin of his thigh. A gobbet of flesh appeared set to fall off.
He was unconscious, but when they fell sprawling on a patch of slippery camel dung, a horrible, bubbling scream issued from his throat.
The other man, Robert Maguire, a tall, weedy youth from South Carolina known simply as "Molly," scrabbled backwards in quick revulsion. His eyes looked as agitated and unpredictable as storm scud. His big, under-slung jaw quivered like a baby's set to cry."Sheeeit!" he spewed, despising his wounded friend for his suffering, and for adding to their danger.
Garrick Connolly eyed him disgustedly. "Go ahead," he growled. "Get that radio working. I'll carry him."
"Yeah, man. Shore." Molly licked his lips appreciatively at the offer. He darted a glance at the pomegranate orchard to the rear, then left, his skinny body gliding across the dry Afghan ground as quick and as noiseless as a snake.
Grunting softly, Garrick got the injured man up onto his back. In his early twenties, slim-hipped and wide-shouldered, Garrick carried the load easily. With slow, careful movements to ease the wounded man's injuries, he worked his way along the path Molly had taken.
Molly's voice on the radio drifted in, giving their situation, the words tumbling out. "We got mortared," Molly babbled, "got our shit scattered, only four of us left–one hurt bad. Hajis coming up fast. Require extraction soonest! Repeat, soonest!" He gave their position. "Do you read that? Ovah."
"That's a Roger, good buddy. Ten minutes."
Molly threw himself to the ground, flinging sweat from his face. A soft noise sounded and Garrick appeared. He lowered the wounded man gently to the ground.
"Choppah's comin'," Molly blurted.
"I heard. Thank Christ!"
Molly kept staring at him. "What'cha think?" he shrilled.
Garrick's soft hazel eyes, his one truly beautiful feature, narrowed into anxious slits at these signs of panic, and they tightened further when he looked to the wounded man painting crimson patterns on a patch of sparse grass with blood from his smashed leg. It was their responsibility to get him out, and if Molly didn't keep his head....
"You all right?"
"Shore," Molly shot back. But the telltale tremor in his lantern jaw was back, so Garrick knew he was lying.
Nothing in boot camp, or in advanced individual training, could possibly prepare a soldier for the shock of his first firefight. The realization that enemy soldiers were actually intent on killing you. Killing you! He winced, hearing again the evil sound mortar rounds make leaving the firing tubes–phafft, phafft–and the shattering karrumpp as the shells sent shrapnel and stones and dirt winging in all directions.
A spine of rock slanted down, providing a narrow place for them to shelter behind, the broken mud-brick wall offered some small protection also. Garrick squatted in the meager shelter and waited. He placed a smoke grenade close at hand, and removed the safety clip from a fragmentation grenade. Then, he fell to checking his rifle with nervous fingers for something to do. Long minutes went by. A soft breeze arrived, fanning his cheek and teasing his nostrils with the combined scent of camel dung and rosemary.
"When's Simpson coming?" he wondered aloud, referring to the black soldier at the pomegranate orchard. "He should pull back. We're gonna be outta here soon."
As if in answer to his question, a lone rifle shot cracked, sounding like one of the World War Two vintage .303s the Taliban sometimes used for longer range work. Garrick's stomach jumped ever so gently. An eternity dragged by, then a recognizable three round burst from a M4 carbine erupted. That would be Simpson.