by Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 20

20

PJs

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

It was kind of fun to watch the crew breakdown the camp, because, of course, as they progressed it meant he was closer and closer to a rescue.

The cook made everyone a big, sit-down breakfast at sunrise; then, after preparing sandwiches for later, began packing up his kitchen gear.

Meese was right, the two Sherps and a few final crates were loaded onto the Chinook at a little after one o’clock. It soon took-off and in its familiar nose down position moved up the valley; he watched it with the monocular until it finally disappeared in the distant haze.

He called in to Irwin they could now move to phase two but knew there were still several more hours to wait, because one part of the plan included a built-in cushion, to make sure the transport didn’t circle back, having forgotten something.

The other part, the more crucial part, was that if the Russians followed their regular patrol pattern, one of the Hinds would overfly the valley later in the afternoon, heading west. To cover this contingency, an Air Force high altitude spy bird was circling above the Wakhan Corridor in Afghani air space, but still able to spot the Russian helicopter taking off from the base at the east end of the lake. They also wanted to wait because with the westbound patrol on their schedule, Russian radar operators would be more focused in that direction, and even though the Pave Low planned to fly nap of the earth to reach Meese’s position, hopefully well below any radar, they didn’t want to take any chances.

Irwin and Meese were birds of a feather in their thoroughness and attention to detail.

***

The Hind did overfly Meese’s position at a little after three, as expected. He didn’t call it in, though, because he knew “they” already knew from the aerial surveillance. But he did celebrate by squeezing the last couple of ounces of his peanut butter into his mouth, letting it slowly dissolve, for the moment quieting the growling from his stomach.

***

Twilight was an hour away. The Russian Hind had to be at least a couple hundred miles to the west by now and the radar spotters at the Lake Zorkul base should be getting bored and less attentive. Meese’s sat phone vibrated. He activated it and heard a single word, “Go.”

He didn’t have to say anything, but probably couldn’t have even if he’d wanted to, as his throat was choked with emotion; his rescue was underway for real.

***

He heard the unique thrumming of the Pave Low’s six-blade main rotor coming up the Pamir River gorge for twenty minutes before its grey and tan bulk swung into view out over the valley from the right. In contrast to the sleek lines of the Eurocopter, or the menacing quality of a Hind, the Pave Low had a strictly no-frills, utilitarian aspect. Meese had never seen anything so beautiful.

It flew a short way up the valley, then did a one-eighty, its windowed cockpit now facing the ridge he had been hiding on top of for nearly a week. Using his elbows, he scooted forward to the edge and waved; it was all the effort he could manage. He didn’t need his monocular to see the pilot wave back.

The pilot then jerked his thumb to the right, telling Meese they intended to land on the valley floor at the base of a manageable upslope a mile to his north. It was as close as the big bird could safely get to his position.

After setting down, its nose now facing south, toward their escape route, he watched the helicopter’s side doors slide back and six men jump out, all wearing tan jumpsuits with the squiggly brown camo pattern, like worms were crawling all over them. Two had their M4s in the across-the-chest position; they moved away from the helicopter and did a three-sixty visual survey to secure the landing zone.

The other four, their carbines slung over shoulders, pulled a basket stretcher from the helicopter and started up the side of the valley at double-time.

One of the rifle-at-the-ready PJs stayed with the helicopter, the other followed the rescuers, guarding their six.

Meese watched until they disappeared from his line of sight behind the rocks three-quarters of the way up, confused because he was suddenly shaking uncontrollably.

He knew it wasn’t from the cold, as the “summer” temperatures up here were usually in the upper-teens and low twenties and his cold-weather jump suit, sleeping bag and tarp had been more than enough to keep him warm.

So, maybe it was just a low blood sugar reaction from lack of food.

Or maybe he was simply overcome with excitement over his impending reprieve from what could have been – should have been? – a death sentence.

***

He waited until he heard the crunching of multiple boots approaching in quick time on the path behind him. While he was successful in rolling over onto his back, he failed in trying to sit up to greet his rescuers; his joints were stiff and uncooperative, his muscles weak and unable to support his weight, and there was no feeling below the knees.

A moment later one of the PJs appeared between the rocks a few feet from the bottom of his tarp, looking down at him.

He had a big smile, “You the guy who called for a taxi?”

It was so typically PJ-low key… It was so unbelievably absurd under the circumstances… And it was so amazing to hear… Meese lost it. He cried and laughed and shuck, all at the same time, choking on sheer joy, wanting to, but unable to say anything.

The PJ knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder.

“We gotcha, man. You’re gonna be okay.”

All Natty Bumpo could manage was to grin and nod…

Next: Personally, I’d prefer a ham on rye with mustard and Swiss cheese, and a cold beer

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day Chapter 19

19

Trophy Buck

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

If the mountain had indeed had it in for Wade Meese yesterday, he must have won the test of wills, because on Tuesday, the fourteenth day since the ambush, his luck changed.

As usual, the first Sherp left camp at sunrise to systematically work its way eastward, starting from his end of the valley. He watched until it stopped at the base of the slope close to four miles away, even with the monocular nothing but a squarish red dot resting in a sea of grass. But the spotters must have sighted an attractive target because the second Sherp left camp twenty minutes later with its driver and cargo of hunters.

He watched it crawl across the valley floor until it joined the first. At his extreme distance he couldn’t make out any distinct figures of ibex or humans moving about, so didn’t know what was actually happening; what’s more, the wind was at his back, so he wasn’t even likely to hear any rifle reports.

After nearly two hours the two Sherps started back to camp.

When the first arrived, its side doors flew open, the three hunters quickly jumped out, handed off their rifles to nearby red-suited attendants, and ran to meet the second vehicle.

He raised an eyebrow: Maybe…

When it turned into the camp, even from two miles away Meese could tell the ibex strapped to a rack on the back was an unusually large buck with a twin set of horns completely out of proportion to its body size – they were so long they even curled back on themselves, which he knew was a rarity.

Maybe… He wouldn’t, couldn’t, allow his thoughts to go further along that line; not yet.

As soon as the second Sherp stopped, the three hunters and several of the worker bees gathered around; one of the worker bees produced a tape measure and made a show of checking the ibex’s horn. He held the tape up for everyone to see, like a fisherman boasting about a big catch.

Maybe… Meese’s spirits rose when he saw lots of high fives and hand shaking. It looked like the young principal was getting most of the attention, as if he was the one to bring down what they obviously considered a prize trophy.

The cook produced a bottle – which he assumed was vodka; what else? – and what looked like white plastic foam cups for everyone and there were many toasts. After a few moments they all moved under the open sided pavilion and the cook produced what appeared to be a treat – caviar with crackers? – and then began preparations for a meal.

The group ate and drank for nearly two hours, with many more toasts accompanying the food. He grinned at the sight of all that food, but it was a rueful smile as he had had only two energy bars to eat over the last four days. While he couldn’t hear what was being said under the tent, their body language certainly suggested it was a celebratory party.

When the principals finally rose from their table and headed for their tents, everyone else followed suit. The camp was quiet for several hours, long enough for Meese to doze off.

What woke him was the whine of the Eurocopter’s engine starting up.

Maybe this is what they’ve been waiting for, he couldn’t hold off a surge of hopefulness any longer, they’ll pack up and leave.

It was past four-thirty when the principals emerged from their tent with three attendants carrying bags and made their way to the helicopter. It took off and headed east, toward the other end of the valley.

His hopes soared: Maybe I’m not gonna die out here alone…

He felt like he could have high-fived the bear if the critter had still been around. He thought of calling Irwin to share the news, but then second guessed himself, wanting to make sure they were, in fact, leaving; he didn’t need another disappointment.

He watched the man tentatively identified as the foreman-type begin issuing orders to the worker bees and while they took their time about it – still hungover? – they started emptying the center tent of crates, folding tables and chairs and sleeping cots and hauling them to the Chinook.

It was all the “proof” Meese needed: He made the call.

He told Irwin he thought it would take the crew at least until the next afternoon to have everything packed and loaded on the big transport helicopter.

Irwin agreed they would execute phase one of the ex-fil plan after midnight tonight, which meant sending a pair of MH-53 M Pave Low IIIs – the Air Force’s venerable workhorse search and rescue helicopter – in his direction from Bagram Airfield.

One would be carrying extra fuel for the two birds, as the roundtrip from Bagram deep into Afghanistan’s Panhandle and back was at the upper end of their range.

The second would be carrying a half-dozen Air Force Pararescuers, respectfully and affectionately known as “PJs” to the many downed pilots and special ops types like Meese they had snatched from harm’s way behind enemy lines.

Using their night flight capability, the two helicopters would fly as far as a pass through the Nicholas Mountains on the Afghani side of the Pamir River fifty miles to Meese’s west and wait there for his update the camp had been cleared and the Chinook had taken off.

Then the PJs would come fetch him.

Next: You the guy who called for a taxi?

© 2019 Dave Lager

On target

“There is only one plot – things are not necessarily what they seem.”

Jim Thompson (1906-1977) – Novelist, screenwriter

From a writer considered to be among the giants of the hard-boiled crime genre.

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 18

18

The Mountain Tries to Break Him

Monday, July 18, 2005

On Monday the mountain tried to break Wade Meese.

Its first effort involved the scouts going out at dawn, as they had every day since he’d arrived. Not quite an hour after they’d disappeared up the valley the three principals and a driver raced off in a second Sherp. He couldn’t help getting his hopes up: Would they bag their trophy today and no longer have a reason to stay?

But ninety minutes later both the Sherps returned to camp empty-handed.

Okay, he told himself, a setback; there’s another day tomorrow… It kind of worked to keep his spirits from sinking too low, kind of…

Its second try was at noon, when two of the oligarch’s employees broke open a crate and set-up a portable satellite dish behind the center tent. “The boss” apparently wanted to be more in touch with his business activities, suggesting the entourage now expected to stay for a while.

This figurative punch to the gut was harder to recover from; he began to think of putting a bullet in head as a more attractive alternative than starving to death. But ever the planner, the analytical thinker, he decided it would mean “they” would probably hear the shot and come to investigate only to discover an American where he wasn’t supposed to be… So, decided if it came to it, he would retrieve the buried knife and open his wrists. Knowing he still had some control over his fate lifted his spirits, kind of…

The third crack at Meese came in the early evening.

Throughout the three days since he’d killed the wounded ibex, there’d been the occasional snarls of carrion feeders fussing with one another over a morsel they had torn from the poor critter’s body. He was used to it, not even bothering to crawl over to see who the opportunistic culprits might be.

For one, he simply didn’t have the strength, for another he thought of what was going on as a part of the natural order of things – nothing went to waste in nature.

He’d been watching the five men who generally acted like “worker bees,” joined by one of the principals – he was a bit shorter than the other two, perhaps one of their teenage sons? – playing an informal game of three-on-three American-style football when he heard a deeper and throatier growl than the more familiar snarls of the carrion critters; it definitely had a warning tenor.

In this part of the world only a brown bear made a menacing sound like that. He froze in place, now on alert, listening, sure it had come from over by the ibex carcass, not anywhere close to his position…pretty sure, anyway.

But after a few moments he heard the crunch of gravel; something was moving closer. It was not the sharp crunch a human boot makes, but a soft crushing sound, like from the padded paw of a large animal.

Maybe the bear was only making his way along the path and would move on, after all, he didn’t even know Meese was there. But the steady crunching stopped, and he could hear distinct snuffling near the entrance to his rocky hide, like it was sniffing at the ground.

The last time he had made his way in that direction was Friday – he blinked, suddenly realizing he’d now been lying on the edge of this outcropping for three days – surely a human scent would have dissipated by now…surely.

Meese had spent all that time on his belly, partly because it was the best position from which to observe the camp, but also because it was the most comfortable, he could rest his left cheek on a forearm when fatigue overtook him. So, it was quite natural to leverage himself up on his left elbow and twist around to look back over his right shoulder.

He and the bear were almost eye-to-eye.

It was standing five feet from the end of the camo tarp covering the sleeping bag, staring at him curiously; he could see its nose twitching, as if trying to make sense of what it was smelling.

Meese knew he should be frightened. With a couple of swipes of its powerful claws it could shred his body. If lucky, it would kill him outright. If not, it might leave him to slowly bleed to death. In either case he would then become carrion in his own right.

But the thought calmed him rather than sending a rush of dread through his body. He had given the ibex what he thought of as a death with dignity, sending its life energy, its soul…

Even with the bear staring at him he had to smile, recalling an argument he’d once had with another recruit in boot camp. A person of strong religious beliefs, he’d insisted because animals did not have the ability to choose whether or not they believed in God, they didn’t have souls. Meese thought the idea utterly ridiculous; if you were alive you had a soul.

…sending its life energy, its soul back to wherever it had come from, to become part of the life energy of another living creature. If it came to that, he would much prefer the bear do him the honor of such a death with dignity, rather than slowly starving to death or being poisoned by his own blood.

Perhaps the bear sensed Meese’s calm, or rather, didn’t sense any fear or threat; or maybe its curiosity was satisfied; in any case it turned and shambled off.

But the mountain wasn’t quite done yet.

Afghanistan and its environs are essentially an alpine desert. Yes, in the winter months there’s plenty of snow, especially at higher altitudes, but in the summer, rain is rare; in fact, in the more than two weeks he’d been out in the Kush there’d been none.

He could even see it coming. The sun, now barely above the tops of the mountains behind him had turned the wall of rain approaching from the east end of the valley into a shimmering golden curtain; it was quite beautiful.

He pulled the tarp up over his head, leaving only enough room so he could watch the men down in the camp scurry for the cover of their tents, and smiled.

If the mountain had indeed some malevolent intent for Wade Meese today, it badly underestimated him. It did not appreciate how mission-driven he was; as long as he had a mission to accomplish, he was hard to defeat; his mission now was to survive.

Next: The trophy buck

© 2019 Dave Lager

It’s human nature

“Writers are always selling somebody out.”

Joan Didion (1934- ) – Novelist, journalist, social commentator

Our characters can’t get to redemption without betrayal, either of someone else or themselves.

Sniper’s Day Chapter 17

17

Party Time

Saturday, July 16, and Sunday, July 17, 2005

Now it was a waiting game: When would the hunters either find the trophy they sought or get tired of the quest and, in either case, pack up and leave?

On Saturday morning soon after sunrise one of the Sherps headed out from camp. As it had done yesterday, it first came in his general direction, but then veered off, slowly patrolling along the base of the valley’s upslope, eventually disappearing toward the east end of the valley, eight or nine miles away.

He waited, mostly watching the camp activity for another Sherp to start up: It never did. Instead, two hours later the first Sherp returned to camp, apparently not having spotted any ibex within range or that might include one or more big-horned males.

He waited, mostly watching the camp activity…

At mid-morning he took a couple bites from a half energy bar, saving the other portion for later.

He’d been dithering about checking his feet again, afraid of what he might find. No, it was more like knowing what was there and not wanting to face it. Pushing past his hesitancy, he forced himself to get the job done: It was bad.

The toes on the right foot were a dark blue, almost black, and the discoloration seemed to be starting up the instep. He closed his eyes and sighed at the frightful sight. It was now inevitable he would lose the toes and quite likely the foot.

The toes of the left foot had turned a greyish-white and the skin hard to the touch; another day or two and they’d probably be as bad as the right.

The blisters on his right foot were the size of fifty-cent pieces, swollen with puss and painful to the touch; two new ones had appeared on the left foot…they all needed to be drained.

He retrieved his sewing kit, actually a narrow plastic tube not even as thick as his little finger, that held a couple of needles and some thread. Using an alcohol wipe from a field med kit, he cleaned the end of the needle and swabbed the blisters, then slid the needle into each one at its base; he didn’t feel a thing. The puss was under such pressure it squirted out pretty much by itself, which was mopped up with gauze pads. Then using fresh alcohol wipes he recleaned each blister, applied an anti-infection ointment and covered them with bandage patches.

The nasty task out of the way, he returned to his waiting and watching the camp activity below, partly out of boredom, as there was nothing else to do, but mostly as a distraction from the dark thoughts nipping at his consciousness.

He studied the camp the way he would a possible kill zone. The pecking order below was soon apparent. There appeared to be three principals; it was easy to tell them because of their more upscale cold weather suits, they were the only ones carrying rifles and they didn’t do anything around the camp.

There were two men dressed in outfitter-type gear; he recognized them as the pair who left camp every morning in a Sherp to scout the valley. Then there were seven men all wearing identical bright red, one-piece cold-weather jump-suits with the centurion logo over the left breast; probably the oligarch’s employees. One was clearly the cook, as he spent most of the time in the open sided pavilion preparing food; one acted like a foreman; and the five who were left – he assumed this group included the helicopter pilots – did most of the work around the camp.

Sometime late in the afternoon he saw one of the five head for the Super Puma, climb into the cockpit and start it up. With mentally crossed fingers, Meese hoped he was warming it up and that the three principals would soon emerge from their tent with a couple of their people carrying suitcases and fly away. No such luck.

After a few moments the helicopter did take off, empty except for the pilot. Maybe they needed supplies, Meese thought; a vodka run perhaps?

It did turn out to be a supply run of sorts. The helicopter returned in three hours, a little before twilight, carrying several boxes of supplies, as well as passengers: Four girls totally inappropriately dressed for alpine weather, right down to their mini-skirts and six-inch spike heels.

A party in the middle of the three big tents was soon underway; he could even hear the deep thump-thump of heavy metal rock from two miles away. Everyone in camp was invited except the chef, who made regular trips from his kitchen under the pavilion to the party tent with plates of food.

***

The party went on most of the night. He could tell because at intervals he would wake up and still hear the music’s unrelenting base beat, and because no one stirred on Sunday until almost noon. The helicopter left with only the girls around two o’clock. He spent most of the day waiting, watching the camp activity, what little there was, and dozing.

There wasn’t going to be any hunting today, let alone breaking camp.

Next: The mountain tries to break him

© 2019 Dave Lager

Sniper’s Day Chapter 16

16

Ibex

Friday, July 15, 2005

Irwin was the classic buttoned-down bureaucrat. He wore a clean, starched white shirt every day, never removed his suit coat and heaven forbid you would ever catch him with a loosened tie. His manner was always business-like, even brusque, and a persistent scowl discouraged any useless chit-chat. If he hadn’t been the CIA’s Afghanistan section chief – which is what everyone assumed was his job – he’d have made a good member of congress or corporate CEO.

Which is why the reaction to the news of Meese’s badly frostbitten feet was so uncharacteristic. There was two seconds of silence on Irwin’s end of the sat phone, then a short sigh followed by a hoarsely whispered, “We’ll get you out of there, Natty…that’s a promise!”

But then, reverting to the all-business Irwin, and with a tone suggesting he was talking not only to Meese, but several colleagues listening in, he said, “Okay, let’s get to work on Plan C.”

***

It was late in the afternoon. Meese had been dozing but was jolted to alertness by the crunch of footfalls on gravel, as if someone was approaching with caution. Had he been spotted from the camp below? He waited.

The crunching was coming from the north, a hundred feet or so further along the path he’d originally been following. While the surrounding rocks prevented anyone from seeing him, they also meant he couldn’t see whatever was coming. He drew the nine-millimeter. Discovery meant death; might as well go out like a warrior.

The crunching moved closer, but also seemed to slow down: Were they trying to be stealthy?

Then there was a thud, as if a body had hit the ground, followed by raspy breathing. He waited, caught in a quandary: Ignore it or check it out? The latter won…

Pushing himself up against one of the rocks, by keeping his right leg straight out and stiff he found he could take gimpy steps just putting weight on the heel, avoiding the painful blisters. It helped if he could also keep a hand on the rocks for balance.

Emerging from the hide, twenty yards along the trail to his right he saw an ibex laying on its side. It was the other male he thought might have escaped the hunters. While up close its curved, twin horns were impressive, they didn’t look to Meese to be anywhere near the five-feet-plus trophy length hunters coveted.

Hobbling closer, Meese could see a bloody wound near its left back flank. Had the bullet hit a vital organ, or was the poor creature only bleeding out? It must have made its way along the ridge, for what, more than a mile before finally running out of steam?

Its legs jerked in a feeble attempt to get up; he could hear it softly grunting with the effort.

Wade Meese was a trained killer, cold and efficient. Over the last two years he had taken down upwards of a hundred targets – human beings – without remorse: It was his job and he was good at it. But both had voluntarily put themselves in harm’s way and, so far, he had been both lucky and skillful enough to prevail.

But this blameless creature didn’t understand what was happening to it. Its only desire was to return to its appointed role in the universe, wandering the grazing fields of the mountainside; all it “knew” was some mysterious force was preventing it from doing that. As far as Meese was concerned, it in no way deserved the indignity of slowly dying, always with the hope – expectation – it should be able to simply get on with its ibexerly business.

Under normal circumstance it would have been easy to put a nine-millimeter into the back of its head, but he didn’t know how far the report might carry and who might hear it. Instead he returned the Barretta to its holster, knelt as best he could behind the ibex, its head to his right, and put his right hand on its forward shoulder because it seemed to be the right thing to do, that it might provide a bit of comfort for the creature as he went about doing what needed to be done.

He withdrew the Ka-Bar, wrapped his left hand around the hilt with the blade down and positioned it over the ibex’ heart, but had to turn his head away as he plunged it into the creature’s chest. It went in much more easily than expected. There was no sudden jerk of pain, no mewling death cry, the ibex simply went still. He could feel its last breath leave under his hand.

Although not a religious man, you couldn’t be and do what Meese did, at the same time he didn’t believe this was all there is. While he didn’t know what exactly, he was pretty sure we came here from somewhere before arriving and went somewhere after we left.

So, his final thought to the ibex was a peaceful one, “Be along on your journey.”

Both the knife and his glove were soaked in the ibex’ blood. Usually the knife would be cleaned off with water, but he was down to half-a-liter and the nearest snow to replenish the water bottle was an impossible-to-reach thousand feet up the side of the mountain. He buried it and the glove – the latter replaced from a spare pair in the backpack – under loose gravel on the way back to the hide.

***

He’d been kind of expecting it, so was not surprised when in the late afternoon he heard the thwap-thwap of an approaching helicopter, only this time coming from the west, behind. Other than the pair that had attacked him ten days ago, he’d for sure seen an overflight last Monday and had a vague recollection of hearing one when passed out / asleep beside the glacial lake on Wednesday. It appeared there was a pattern of a helicopter patrol over the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border every other day or so. It was, of course, an MI-24, but curiously, it passed directly over his head – he’d hunkered down under his camo tarp so had virtually “disappeared” into the mountain – and over the hunters’ camp without seeming to take any notice of either.

***

Meese’s sat phone vibrated – of course it was Irwin, since he was the only one who called – as he was finishing a “meal” of half an energy bar.

While Irwin found the helicopter patrol intel useful, he quickly got to the point of his call, to outline Plan C. It was an intricate plan, and a risky one, more daring than Meese might have expected from the by-the-book Irwin. But it all rested on Meese monitoring the camp below and alerting the CIA man of any activity suggesting they were packing up to leave; that was the trigger to set the entire op in motion.

Next: Party time

© 2019 Dave Lager

Some catching up to do

There’s been some kind of glitch in accessing my blog for the last week which the good tech folks at Hostgator were able to solve. So, I have some catching up to do. My plan is to publish chapter 16 of “Sniper’s Day” today and chapter 17 on Friday, which shoudl catch me up.

I think this is true in all creative fields

“There are no laws for the novel. There never have been, nor can there ever be.”

Doris Lessing (1919-2013) – Novelist, Nobel Laureate

…because as soon as you think there’s some immutable commandment for what makes a good novel (or painting or musical composition or statue), somebody comes along to thumb their nose at it…and ends up with a best-seller or an award winner, or both.

Sniper’s Day: Chapter 15

15

Bad News

Friday, July 15, 2005

Even sleeping, when in the field Meese was always on semi-alert, so the first cough from one of the Sherps starting up, even though it was two miles away, brought his eyes open. Squirming to the edge of the hide, the sun was just coming up over the Alichur Mountains in his eleven o’clock position, the valley still in shadow.

Using the monocular, he watched the Sherp leave camp with its lights on and start moving in his general direction. There was a twinge of fear he’d been spotted, but after a few moments the boxy vehicle veered off, much to his relief.

When it came to the base of the valley’s upslope, now half-a-mile to the left, it stopped, two men emerged, neither armed; they began surveying the grassy mountainside above with binoculars. Meese swung his monocular up the slope and saw what they were looking at, a small herd of a dozen ibex – two big males, a half-dozen smaller females and several yearling calves – well over a thousand yards from the spotters, grazing on the grass.

One of the spotters spoke into a handheld walkie-talkie and a few moments later the second Sherp growled to life and left camp. When it pulled up alongside the first, an unarmed driver and two hunters with rifles climbed out. The hunters immediately began working their way up the valley wall, clearly trying to shorten the distance between themselves and the ibex.

He could see their rifles were scoped, one a lever action, the other a more conventional bolt, but both looked to be stock hunting rifles, rather than bigger, more powerful sniper guns. Yes, they could take something down at near a thousand yards, but they’d need to be class-A shooters to do that; three-hundred yards, or even under, gave weekend hunters a much better chance for a kill.

As the hunters made their way up the slope, the spotters watched both their progress and the ibex herd beyond with binoculars.

Halfway up the two dropped to a knee – the grass was too high for them to fire from a more advantageous prone position – took their aim and fired, each sending off two rounds in quick succession.

Meese swung the monocular around, but its limited field of vision meant he had to work it back and forth for a few seconds to locate the ibex. One, a male by the size of its horns, was down, although at this distance he could not tell if its rack was trophy class. The others were scattering back up slope toward the safety of the rocks; he couldn’t locate the second male, so didn’t know if it was hit or had escaped.

As the two hunters returned to the Sherps, there were the usual congratulatory handshakes and backslaps. They waited by the vehicles – one pulled out a flask and they exchanged swigs – while the three spotters started up the slope to retrieve the downed ibex.

***

Meese decided the narrow space among the compact car-sized boulders was as good a hide as any. He would be hard to see from the valley below unless you knew exactly where to look; the cluster of rocks shielded him from the path behind as well. His only vulnerability might be from above, as in a helicopter overflight, but that’s what the camo tarp was for, to make him look like any other rock to the casual observer.

Hearing the first Sherp start, he’d used his elbows and knees to squirm from the sleeping bag to the edge of the overlook but had pulled his trap cover along. Now leaving the spotters to their task – even three men would struggle to haul the dead weight of a two-hundred-pound carcass down the mountainside – as he rolled over and planted his right foot to leverage himself away from the ledge a sharp pain shot up his leg.

Unfortunately, he knew immediately what it meant. He’d been off his feet since early yesterday evening; in those twelve hours one or more blisters had formed, not a good sign. Just the act of removing his boots and socks was painful. What he saw caused him to close his eyes and blow out a breath of exasperation; deep frostbite, the worst-case scenario.

Three of the toes on his right foot were already bluish grey and had no feeling when touched; maybe, if there was immediate medical treatment they could be saved, but even that was dicey. A delay of several days, which seemed the more likely case, meant he would probably lose them. Most of the rest of his foot below the ankle was a pale white; if it went bluish grey in the next day or so, saving it was iffy as well.

The pain was from three large blisters, another symptom of severe frostbite; two on the sole, one on the instep.

Even if his left foot was okay – when he checked, he found it wasn’t okay at all, just not quite as far along – for all intents and purposes, Wade Meese was now a semi-cripple, barely able to hobble a few steps, let alone hike several miles to an LZ.

He reached for the sat phone to share the bad news; any extraction plan Irwin was working on needed to take this new reality into account.

Next: Plan C for his ex-fil was intricate and risky

© 2019 Dave Lager

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