They were killed to the last man despite the ingenious plans of Captain Branson. He had foretold their desperate scramble up the canyon, drawing it out in the sand; how they would make a valiant stand on the flats where they had killed half a dozen Taliban; how they would find refuge in the large rocks above the flats giving them time to regroup and reload; how they would make that heart-thumping scramble up the steep, exposed slope with bullets zinging over their heads, and how, when they reached the small grove of pine trees at the top of the wash there would nothing behind them but high cliffs, and though it would seem they were trapped, they would find cover in the pines and would radio for air support. Then the jets would come in from the north from behind the tall mountains, flying so low they could not be seen until the last second, and the Taliban would be annihilated by their precision-guided missiles.
But they never made it to the pines, and now Sergeant Dax Garner lay alone at the highest outcropping of rocks with a bullet in his thigh, his mouth dry, his leg stiffening, and his gun barrel so hot from all the rounds he had fired that he thought it might jam if he needed to use it again. On a ledge below him, Captain Branson lay next to Corporal Donnelly, the radio not more than a yard away from his outstretched arm—the call for air-support having never been made.
Below Garner could hear the Taliban were shouting back and forth in Pashto. He pulled himself higher against the granite. There was a nice V-shape between two rocks through which he could see clear down to the bottom. Something blue stirred among the white boulders.
Yeah, he’s the one, Garner thought. The one who ruined us. The one with the blue turban who out-flanked us in a place where we could not be out-flanked; who assembled his men against the canyon walls where there was no place to assemble; who made us easy prey for their guns. Garner sighed. That crazy, pack-laden, desperate rush up the slope that ruined us.
He turned and looked skyward, thinking of the jets that would never come. The bright, blue autumn sky was without clouds. He thought it might be the last time he saw such a sky. How was it that they had miscalculated their retreat so badly?
Scattered on the slopes below were several dead Marines. Of the five of them who had made it to this high place in the canyon, four of them now lay in the awkward positions of the dead; some small and crumbled up, others sprawled out with their arms and legs at odd angles.
Retreat was not an option, Captain Branson had said.
The last bravado words of a gung ho leader, Garner thought.
Well, his wish came true.
And now look at him. Of all of the dead, he was the most oddly positioned. His legs seemed to be peddling as if dancing on a roof-top and his head was twisted in the opposite direction, and still, that outstretched arm was reaching for the radio.
In addition to Captain Branson and Private Donnelly, there was Private Toby and Sweeney. Toby had been hit coming up the slope but somehow managed to reach the top, and now he lay sprawled out like a five-pointed star with his arms stretched-out over his head. As Garner looked at him he thought of something he had said just yesterday on the way up the canyon. They had passed some old ruins. There are a lot of old ruins in the mountains of Afghanistan and sometimes they would go inside them and investigate and this time when they did Toby asked the group; “Do you ever think about the ghosts of these ruins? All the people who lived here, loved here, played here over time?”
No one replied but Sweeney.
“The lost and the forsaken,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney now lay some ten yards to the Toby’s right, crumbled-up with knees to and arms tucked to his chest.
So what good was all that religious mumbo jumbo? Garner thought.
Not that Garner had a problem with all Sweeney’s biblical sayings. In a faraway land, being shot at daily, religion was not a bad thing to have. But Sweeney drove it into the earth; quoting this little blue bible he toted around, preaching in a condescending way like the rest of them were nothing but mindless heathens. And when they had begun their climb up this wide valley from Kandahar, he started reciting Ezekiel:
“The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones…. And I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.”
The irony of it made Garner shiver now. It was, and is, a damned dry valley, and now it was to be filled with bones of a dozen Marines and a shit load of Taliban.
“I will make breath enter you,” he recalled Sweeney quoting, “and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin… And as he so prophesied, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them.”
Such volition! Garner thought. He should have been a preacher, not a Marine.
“Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live… and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.”
Garner’s mouth was drier than the driest valley, and as he continued to cerebrally recite Sweeney’s sermon he noticed Sweeney’s canteen lying in the sand next to him, and it made him realize just how damned thirsty he was. It was the wound, he thought, and the heat, and the fear, and that long scramble up the wash, that had dried his mouth out.
The canteen was laying on its side with the cap still on it and Garner thought it had to have water still in it. Sweeney hadn’t the chance to drink from it.
He glanced down the wash. The Taliban with the blue turban hadn’t advanced much. He was keeping his head low, carefully negotiating his way higher through the white boulders.
He was the smart one all right, Garner thought.
Garner began the long arduous journey down toward Sweeney’s canteen. Sweeney was a good ten feet in elevation below him and fifteen yards in distance, and Garner had to slither like a snake along a granite slab and in between two boulders, all the while dragging his rifle behind him. The gravity made it easier, he thought, leaning forward and pulling mightily with his arms. But each time he lurched forward, his leg began to ache again. Blood was oozing from the pant leg where the bullet had ripped it open.
When he reached Sweeney he had to reach over him to grab the canteen. He could not help but look at Sweeney’s dead face.
“Mouthing off all that biblical shit?” Garner said. “A lot of good it did you. A lot of good it did us.”
He grabbed the canteen, uncapped it, and guzzled down a mouthful of water. Then he rolled over and lay on his back, looked skyward, and took another long drink from his canteen.
“Where gone all yeah Christian soldiers?”
He held the canteen above his mouth until the last drop trickled down his throat. Then he tossed it to the side.
“Let the four winds come breathe breath into you now,” he said.
It was not long before he heard the Taliban voices again, louder and more confident. One was shouting in English.
“No need to die Marines!” The voice echoed up the canyon.
Garner took hold of his rifle, checked the clip and, seeing he only had a few rounds left, took the spare clips from Sweeney’s utility belt and stuffed them in the pockets of his cargo pants. He wiggled his way back to ledge of the rocks and peered down. The blue turban was higher, flashing bright in the sunlight between the boulders.
Garner lifted his rifle slowly over the top of the rock, aimed down-canyon, and put a bead directly on the blue turban.
Then it disappeared.
“No need to die Marines!” the voice yelled. “Surrender now and you will live.”
“So you can trade me for a thousand of your friends?” Garner mumbled softly to himself. “No thanks.”
Thirty seconds passed and Garner could see the Taliban standing higher, more boldly.
“Come on Americans, there is no place for you to go. Surrender and live!” he shouted confidently.
“Come on you bastard,” was Garner quiet reply. “…just a little higher.”
Then the blue turban came completely out from behind the rocks, fully exposing his torso. Garner looked on surprised.
He thinks we’re all dead, he thought.
It had been some time since there had been any gunfire. The last follies from the bottom of the wash had gone answered. Garner looked over at Toby, who was sprawled on a down-sloping slab of granite, easily seen by those below. The other Marines who did not make it up the slope lay exposed below, and of the five who had made it to the top, all had been hit and staggered before disappearing beyond the top ledge.
“We have food and water,” the Taliban shouted. “You need water, no?”
Garner watched as the blue turban climbed higher. “Come on, just a little more. And bring some of your friends with you.”
“Are you not warriors? You made a good fight but you lost. Realize that and you will live.”
His English is very good, Garner thought. Too good. Bastard was probably educated in the States or England.
“If you are thirsty?” the Taliban yelled. “We have water.”
Wait for the perfect shot. Wait for the others to come out. Then you can take many.
Now the Taliban leader was a good ten yards beyond the cover of the last boulder.
“Come on you Bastard! Come on!” Garner kept his sight centered on the blue turban. “Not too smart now.” Then another turban showed itself, a white one, and another white one. “Come on you Bastards!”
Garner could feel his trigger finger pulling downward. He had to do all he could to keep from pulling it all the way.
I’d love to finish it now, he thought. I’d love to finish him like he finished us. I’d love to put a bullet through that blue-shrouded cranium so that the pain would go away.
Garner glanced skyward.
But what good would that do?
Then the parades would begin, that’s what. And a public execution, posted on YouTube for the entire world to see. He had seen how the Taliban handled their dead enemies. There was no honor in it. Their fallen foes were slaughtered like lambs. He had seen dead Marines dragged through the streets and Afghan soldiers beheaded. It was a grisly thought, and he did not want it to happen to him now nor to his fallen comrades.
But it was their fate, he thought, because of their miscalculation, and their bravado, and that feeling of invincibility engrained in them by the Marine Corps.
We are done.
He looked skyward again. The blue sky was silent.
And worse yet, the bartering will begin. He knew he was worth more alive than dead. One Marine was worth many imprisoned combatants.
Unless of course there was an airstrike.
On the flat ledge below by Captain Branson and Private Donnelly the radio lay idle and waiting just beyond the Captain’s outstretched arm. A laser-guided missile from the sky would finish it all, Garner knew. Then there would be no American bodies to be put on parade, no moral victories for the Taliban to celebrate, no high-value American soldier to be offered in a ten-fold trade for Taliban leaders who will wreak a thousand-fold in terror.
Down at the bottom of the wash the Taliban leader climbed wantonly up the talus rocks with several turban-shrouded men following up behind him.
“Yes, a laser guided missile would finish it all nicely,” Garner said to himself.
He checked the clip on his rifle; then swung it over his shoulder. Have to remain quiet, he thought. Have to lure them in close. Have to be certain they are close enough to kill them all.
Garner commenced a slow crawl to the ledge below—toward Captain Branson and the radio, sliding along the rocks. The pain in his leg increased with each long pull, but he did his best to shake it off. His newfound plan gave him strength. There is no pain in death, he thought. And there will be no Taliban victories.
But as pleasing a thought it was to destroy the Taliban, the notion of committing suicide was troublesome. He, who had always applauded life and despised suicide bombers, was about to join the ranks of the martyred dead. This sat uneasily in his gut.
And he thought of the sound of jets too—that glorious, thunderous roar that signaled the might of the virtuous imminently overhead. It was the modern-day equivalent of the cavalry horn; one that could even the odds in a desperate battle. He recalled a time when he had witnessed three hundred Taliban coming down on an isolated American outpost near Kamdesh. His team watched the whole spectacle from an observation post on a distant ridge. The Americans were vastly outnumbered. Every man among them was destined to die, until the Observation Post Commander called in an airstrike. From beyond the hills, streaking in low like black hornets, two jets laid a hailstorm of destruction upon the Taliban, and after the jets passed they heard that beautiful roar of the F-A18s overhead. The tide of the battle was turned that quickly.
Recalling it now caused shivers to run through Garner’s body. He wanted so much to hear that beautiful sound of jets again.
‘Let them come,’ he said, ‘like Ezekiel’s four winds to breathe life back into dry bones. We Christian soldiers will rise from the earth to fight again.”
But he knew, this time he would not hear the jets. They would be long past, their ordinances detonated, before the roar of their engines would thunder overhead.
Such a pity, Dax thought.
It’s better that way. Best not to know. Best for it be sudden.
He looked up at the blue sky.
It’s a killer when death becomes the only way to get back home.
He crawled with greater volition toward the bodies of Captain Branson and Private Donnelly, climbing over rocks and dirt, biting his lip each time the pain in his leg became too terrible.
There was a moment he lost track of time. He looked forward and looked back realizing he had blacked-out, but for how long, two seconds or two minutes, he did not know. It was the wound, he thought. The pain of it, and the loss of blood, and the damned heat. This placed a new urgency on his task. He could not loose consciousness again. He had to reach the radio. He tried to swallow, but his mouth had no moisture left in it. He hurried along, favoring his wounded leg and trying to keep focused and conscious.
But again he found himself motionless in the dirt, his cheek pressed against the hot sand. When he awoke this time he heard the sound of Taliban voices, much closer and louder.
Damn it! Stay focused!
By the third time it happened he awoke only a few yards away from Captain Branson. The radio, which was on the opposite side of Captain Branson, laid in the dirt just beyond the reach of the captain’s dead hand. Garner crawled for it, stretching for it as one would stretch for a cup of water after a long desert journey.
But there was blackness again, and that dreadful sense of time-loss—waking and not knowing how many seconds or minutes had passed.
His eyes opened looking up at several gun barrels. Behind the gun barrels were several bearded faces in the center of which stood the Taliban leader with the blue turban.
“Well Marine?” the Taliban leader asked. “You are the only one?”
Garner instinctively grasped for his rifle but it was not by his side. Then he saw it up in the arms of one of the Taliban soldiers. He glanced over to where the radio had been, but it was also gone; already up in the hands of another Taliban who looked at it inquisitively and played with its knobs.
“What is your company?” the Taliban leader asked.
Garner did not reply. His mind was too occupied with thought. He was wondering if he had reached the radio and called in the airstrike? For the life of him, he could not remember. He looked over to where the radio had been. He was still several yards away. If I had made the call, how did I end on the opposite side of Captain Branson? He looked back to the radio, now in the hands of the Taliban. Then the dreaded thought hit him––he never reached the radio; the call for air support was never made.
The blue turban shouted some orders in Pashto to a group of Taliban up by Toby and Sweeney. They promptly gathered the bodies. Having already secured their weapons and gone through their pockets for souvenirs and identifying papers, they dragged their bodies—the real prize, down toward the position of their leader and the other dead Marines. Others did likewise to Captain Branson, dragging him out by his legs, his head racking against the rocks, and Private Donnelly as well, picking his pockets clean, gathering up his rifle and equipment, and dragging him across the granite. They were all heaped into one pile.
Destined for some gruesome cyber display, Garner thought, or some kind of televised mockery.
“What is your company?” the Taliban leader asked again.
Grimacing into the sun, Garner looked up at him. He has the face of a goat, he thought.
When Garner did not answer, the Taliban leader reached down and snapped Garner’s dog tags from his neck.
“Dax Garner?” he said, reading it. “A Sergeant?”
Garner did not reply.
“What’s your company?”
One of the Taliban high up in the canyon began shouting something in Pashto. The Taliban leader acknowledged, shouting something back.
“So you are the only one,” the Taliban leader said. He glanced over at the growing pile of dead Marines. “You will make a great prize nonetheless.”
The blue turban poked at Garner’s wound with the tip of his rifle barrel. Garner felt the pain radiate up from his leg and into his abdomen.
“Don’t worry, you will live,” the Taliban said. “I’ll make sure of that.”
And as he said it, a crackling noise came from the radio held in the one Taliban’s hand. Garner gazed up at it, dazzlingly. The bastards have me, he thought. The bastards have us. The goddamned radio I never reached, into which I never keyed air-support coordinates.
The grisly image of comrades, disfigured and mocked on international television, flashed through his head. Such a pity; such a travesty; how could have I let them have me? How could have I let them win?
His mind began to wonder; the foggy unconsciousness returned. Then he began to see blackness again.
Vaguely he heard the blue turban speaking; “Hey! I asked you a question. Don’t fall asleep on me now.” And, vaguely, he heard the radio cackle again.
Then the radio spoke; “Inbound five sixty.”
And a different voice acknowledged; “That’s a Roger.”
Then the blue turban glanced skyward.
In a fantastic white flash and grey roar of smoke, the entire earth lifted. In the same ten-thousandth of a second Garner heard it and saw it, it took his light away. Boulders and trees shot skyward, broken and splintered apart. What was once stone and wood was now vaporized dust. Shock waves rocked the forest on the northern mountainside as two tapered-winged birds came streaking out from the smoke clouds. Followed belated in their wake was the roar of jet engines—their afterburners thundered off the canyon walls.
As the debris began their arching descent, the two jets dropped low on the distant horizon and became lost in the afternoon haze.