Thursday, July 14, 2005, evening
There were four: one, two in quick succession, then one more. But they were not the distinctive sharp crack of an AK, or the deeper thud of a heavy sniper rifle; they sounded more like the cherry-bomb pop of the lighter, medium distance, standard issue M24 sniper rifle he’d originally been trained on back at Camp Robinson. The M24 was based on the civilian Remington 700 bolt action, a highly popular hunting rifle.
But the shots were distant, at least a couple of miles off, and there was no ping of a slug ricocheting from a nearby rock, so they didn’t seem to be shooting at him. He was tempted to draw the Barretta, but while effective at up to fifty yards, it was useless at anything much beyond. Still, he froze in place and listened…for any follow-up gunfire, for any shouts or sounds of someone nearby: Nothing. Good.
Okay, probably hunters, he reasoned, feeling a bit less threatened, but hunting what? Oh, yeah… the Siberian ibex.
While he had not seen any of the horned, mountain goat-like critters along the paths so far – not expecting to, nothing to feed on – it was reasonable they would be drawn to the plentiful forage on the slopes of the lake valley.
In Afghanistani bazaars, tourists can buy “souvenirs” of the ibex’ spectacularly ridged and curved horns, probably taken by poachers, that on average reach four feet in length. But if you were a “real” hunter, you went into the field to personally bag a trophy-size set of horns exceeding five feet. Except, while hiking, bird watching, fishing and nature photography were all encouraged in the Lake Zorkul Nature Preserve, hunting was not.
So, the irony of the fact neither he nor they were supposed to be there was not lost on him.
Meese glanced around, searching both for a place to hide if it came to it, but also for a vantage point from which to look down into the valley, assess what he was up against.
The path he’d been following gradually descended along the mountain’s shoulder; for three-fourths of a mile it passed behind a series of rock outcropping on the right. If he continued beyond the outcroppings, though, he could be easily spotted from valley below.
Now half-limping with twinges of pain from his right foot each time he took a step, he made his way to the first cluster of rocks and squeezed in among them. He found he was perched on the edge of a ridge, looking down from several hundred feet at the nearly fifteen-mile long Lake Zorkul and its wide valley, the Alichur Mountains in Tajikistan on the left, the Nicholas Range over in Afghanistan to his right.
The valley was oriented east to west, like one of those long, narrow baskets used to serve bread in restaurants; its lower half comprised of gentle, grass-covered slopes eventually giving way to the steeper, rocky flanks of the mountains. The Pamir River wandered from the base of lake through the end of the valley, disappearing to his right around the foot of the mountain.
There were no trees, just a sea of waist-high grass.
Using a high-powered monocular to survey the valley – now glad that little item had not been jettisoned a week ago – he found a small tent city alongside the Pamir River two miles from his position and another mile from the west end of the lake. There were three large tents with pipes sticking out of the tops, suggesting heaters, plus a central open-sided pavilion. Numerous boxes and crates were stacked near the tents, along with what looked like an industrial grade generator on wheels.
He could make out a half-dozen figures moving around the camp, a couple with rifles cradled in the crook of their arm, pointed at the ground like a hunter, rather than in the across-the-chest position favored by soldiers.
Parked near the tents were a pair of boxy, Russian all-terrain vehicles known as Sherps, with their incongruously over-sized wheels, while behind the tents stood a giant American Chinook transport helicopter and a Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma passenger helicopter. All the vehicles were painted a bright red and had what looked like a stylized Roman centurion’s plumed helmet in white on their sides. He recognized the logo as that of the Russian oil oligarch Roman Nikolin, as it was ubiquitous in Afghanistan – old enemies can become new friends when potential riches are involved.
Everything about the set-up told him this was anything but a quickie weekend hunting foray into the wilderness; it said they intended to stay awhile and had made sure to bring along lots of the comforts of home.
Of course, the big question for Meese was how long they would be camped out virtually on top of his extraction LZ – landing zone. While waiting and hiding in and of itself was not the problem – he was good at hiding – the crunch was his meager remaining food supply: A pair of energy bars and two ounces of peanut butter.
“Ah shit,” Irwin muttered when his sniper called-in at seven in the evening, the sun already setting behind him, to give his handler a sitrep. “They weren’t there when we did a spy bird overflight day before yesterday,” he said.
Meese described the camp below – strings of lights around the camp were now on, giving it an almost festive look – and updated Irwin on his short supplies, but didn’t mention any possible complications from the frostbite, hoping against hope there wouldn’t be any.
They both knew the original ex-fil plan was now scrubbed; no one had to say it.
Irwin’s instructions were an echo of eight days ago: Meese should hunker down and stay out of sight while they figured out what to do next.
Meese understood it would be well into tomorrow before they could even put together a plan, and at least another twenty-four to forty-eight hours to get it all set up, let alone how many more days he might have to wait for the hunting party to clear out so they could actually execute it.
He leaned back against the rocks, thinking, Okay, in the meantime, what do I do? Eat something – the number one priority, as his head was light from only having had two ounces of peanut butter so far today – then shelter.
Reasoning he needed its extra nutrition for the night, he ate half of one of the energy bars, figuring to ration half an energy bar each over the next three days, saving the few ounces of peanut butter for later.
By the time he’d finished his “meal,” he’d purposefully taken his time with it, there was only the barest hint of twilight in the west; darkness was coming on quickly. Which is why he decided to wait until morning to address two tasks, first, see if there was any better place to hide – he doubted it because it was important to regularly monitor the activity down in the valley below without having to move around too much – and then to check his feet.
Next: Wade Meese was now a semi-cripple, barely able to hobble a few steps
© 2019 Dave Lager