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Authors: J.B. Hadley

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Turner nodded. “All the time, and it stays that way. Worse things get, the harder it is to believe what is going on in front
of your eyes. That’s what gets to a lot of men in the end. They can take it up to a certain point, then one day they wake
up and they’re not able to tie their bootlaces.”

“And if that happens to me?” Baker asked.

Winston put a forefinger to his own head and fired an imaginary shot. “We’ll have to put you out of your pain.”

Turner nodded in agreement in the gray light now leaking through the cloud cover. There was going to be no splendid sunrise
this morning, only gradual daylight in which they could first of all make out the tumbledown houses in the village, then the
fields at the bottom of the valley, then the valley’s far wall, finally the snowcapped peaks to the north and south of them.

“Yesterday I thought all this was beautiful,” Baker observed ruefully. “Amazing how sore feet and a stiff shoulder interfere
with one’s enjoyment of scenery. You think we can trust Aga Akbar? I don’t like the way he keeps harping about his people
not getting any missiles while he knows damn well that his men are carrying missiles and that they are going to a rival rebel

“I think Aga sees the big picture,” Winston disagreed. “He knows these weapons are needed more in the interior, where the
Russians won’t be expecting them, than here,
close to the Pakistan border. I think we can depend on him. We don’t have any other choice now.”

Turner said nothing, but it was clear from the look on his face that he was placing his trust in no one—certainly not in Baker
and Winston. Turner had been overruled back in Washington on this weapons business. He had willingly volunteered to accompany
Baker and Winston on an information-gathering mission into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and knew that he was being sent along
to keep the other two from doing something dumb. It had been Baker who suggested that since they were going in, why go in
empty-handed? Bring in armaments, bring out information. No point in wasting the first leg of the mission when they could
be doing something useful. Turner had pointed out that reconnaissance and delivery of matériel were two different aims and
that if you tried to combine them, one would interfere with the other—the end result being that you would neither deliver
the weapons nor gather much information. For reconnaissance you needed mobility, which you lost if you were loaded down with
a weapons delivery. For delivery of matériel you needed a secured supply route, which they obviously did not have into the
interior of Afghanistan. Turner’s solution was to bring the weapons across the border from Pakistan and leave the distribution
to the Afghans themselves.

This made good sense, except that Turner was not allowing for one thing—the Nanticoke Institute, now that it had decided to
deliver weapons, was not going to deliver the weapons to any old Afghan rebels. The think-tank intellectuals had their own
star rebel, and no one else would do. This was a young tribal leader named Gul Daoud, who had proved himself less a Moslem
fanatic and more a pro-Western anticommunist.

“What we can’t allow ourselves to forget,” a bald-headed professor with rimless spectacles and manicured fingernails said,
“is that the Afghans are Moslems and that some of their leaders are pro-Khomeini and others grow poppies for opium. Those
are not the ones we want to see with our weapons.”

“What the hell does it matter who he is, so long as he
aims the thing at the Russians?” Don Turner wanted to know. “It makes no difference to a missile who fires it up some Russian

Turner was the only one who used impolite words in the sacred precincts of the Nanticoke Institute, a privilege allowed the
battle-hardened veteran. But the thinkers had it all thought out—the weapons had to be delivered to Gul Daoud in person, with
the compliments of the Nanticoke Institute! Turner could go along or he could stay home. Put that way, Don Turner had no choice.
What they were going to do was foolish, but a fifty-four-year-old retired soldier doesn’t get too many offers, so of course
he went. And here he was. With two college twerps who had read all the books but couldn’t hit a barn door with a shotgun at
twenty yards.

At first Baker and die others could see nothing. Aga Akbar pointed at some place invisible to the Americans, at something
he could see near the top of a boulder-strewn hill to the northwest. Aga laughed at their bewilderment. The rest of the Afghans
also seemed highly pleased that the Americans could discern nothing on the scrubby rocky hillside. They climbed the hill slowly,
breathless from the thin mountain air. Patches of old gray snow lay like litter among the stones, even as new grass sprouted
greenly in the valleys only a few hundred feet below. Massive cloud banks lay pressed against distant jagged peaks. The sky
was blue and empty, but all of them knew, as they humped their loads up the steep hill, that in a matter of seconds a gunship
or jet might catch them in the open with only a few boulders for shelter on a barren hillside.

Baker and the other two saw nothing that stood out from anything else until they were almost on top of the perimeter of the
fortifications and armed men emerged out of the ground practically in front of their noses. At first sight the trenches, breastworks,
and bunkers looked carelessly and haphazardly built, but it was all to avoid a pattern easily seen from the air. The men were
unsmiling and watchful, making no effort to welcome Aga’s men. There seemed to be only a barely concealed friction between
them, as if they had no liking for each other but hated the Russians more.

Aga spoke to a tall, heavy man with a bushy beard, dressed in three or four coats of different colors. He reminded Baker of
a middle-aged hippie.

“This one’s a real shifty-looking bastard,” Baker said to Winston. “See the way he keeps taking sneaky looks in our direction.”

“Man’s only sizing us up. Can’t blame him for that.”

Aga parted with two sizable bundles of Pakistan rupees, and the big man handed the money to others, who immediately squatted
down and rapidly counted the notes. Aga came across to the three Americans.

“This is Sayad Jan, headman of this place,” Aga said. “I have bought six asses to carry the weapons—no more back-breaking
work for you. He will send three men with you to the next stage. I am sorry but no one speaks English. But they understand
everything. You will stay here tonight and leave at dawn. Now I and my men must go. From here we can reach a border crossing
by nightfall and reach safe territory in darkness—it’s a shortcut we could not take with the weapons. We must go now. I hope
I will see you again. May Allah watch over your journey.”

Aga watched the Americans shake each of his men’s hands in turn. Allah would need to be very merciful if they were ever to
see freedom again. Aga had done his best to try to make them less conspicuous, but they had not cooperated. Now that Baker
had grown a dark beard, if he had worn the local costume, he might not have attracted immediate attention wherever he went.
But what was he, Aga, to do with a big brawny black man and the other one who kept his head uncovered, his hair clipped short,
and his face shaved clean? Those two might as well carry little American flags on sticks so they could wave them at the Russian

Baker strode back and forth, back and forth. “Fucking asses. Donkeys, no less. What do we do when a Soviet gunship comes?
You know what we’re going to look like standing on some bare hill with six asses loaded down with missiles? What do we do?
Shout at them to sink to their knees?”

“That’s camels,” Winston clarified.

“Right. Asses don’t do anything except move their ears. They’re too stupid.” Baker looked at Turner. “I’m beginning to see
that you were right, Don, when you said the weapons will weigh us down too much and restrict our movements. You might also
have mentioned that they will make clay pigeons out of us.”

Turner ignored him.

Winston said, “Don warned us, all right. Fact is, he was right and we were wrong. What do you want us to do, Don? David is
right about it being crazy for us to drag asses loaded down with shit across these mountains.”

“If we run into trouble,” Turner said in an unconcerned voice, “we can always give the stuff away. We won’t have no trouble
getting them missiles off our hands. Donkeys and weapons is all the style here.”

The three slept that night at the mouth of a bunker with the weapons inside. Like Aga’s men, Sayad Jan’s troops looked greedily
at the mysterious six-foot-long cylinders and square boxes shrouded in camouflage nylon casing. That these weapons were being
given by the Americans to another tribe, rather than their own, was probably an added annoyance. When Baker suggested that
they take turns at keeping watch during the night, Turner told him that he wasn’t going to lose any sleep over the weapons
and that if Sayad Jan tried to take them, he was not going to stop him. Baker and Winston were too tired to really care anymore
at this point, and they, too, sacked out for the night.

Yet it was Turner who slept light enough to hear, over the snores of the other two, the rasp of a footstep in the darkness.
He did not move. Holding his head still, he darted his eyes back and forth to try to see something. He heard another rasp
of a boot on soil—and nearly leapt up when something moved directly above him. But Turner checked himself and didn’t move
a limb. He saw now what was happening. Sayad Jan’s men were quietly stepping over their sleeping bodies, going into the dugout
and sneaking back out again with the missiles. When the Americans woke next morning, everything would be gone, and of course,
no one would have seen anything. Maybe they’d blame the Russians
for it. Turner silently pulled the zipper down inside his sleeping bag and reached for his Marine Corps combat knife….

An Afghan toting a four-foot-long missile in his arms stepped carefully over Turner on his way out of the bunker. Turner shot
his arm up and pressed the point of the blade into the Afghan’s groin—not hard enough to cut flesh but with sufficient enough
force to let him know that the message was urgent. The tribesman froze in midstep over the prone American. The other Afghans
could not see Turner’s extended arm and the threatening knife. Not able to make any sound in case they would wake the sleeping
men, they quietly tried to push their way past their immobilized comrade.

Turner snapped on his flashlight inside his sleeping bag, and keeping the beam covered, he eased out of the bag fast so that
he stood alongside the Afghan holding the missile. He switched the combat knife from the man’s groin to his throat and kicked
back the top of the sleeping bag from over the flashlight. The beam caught the flash of steel across the tribesman’s throat.
Turner knocked the man’s headdress off and yanked back on his long, greasy hair to expose his throat in a sacrificial offering
to the knife. The other Afghans could see everything clearly in the flashlight beam.

“You mountain motherfuckers, you put back all that stuff where you found it, y’hear?”

The Afghans did not need anyone to translate what Turner meant. They hustled back into the bunker with weapons they had been
removing. In his hurry one of them stood on Baker’s hand. All Baker did was moan and roll over. At least it stopped his snoring.

Turner had one of them take the missile from the hostage’s arms and replace it in the bunker. He figured that although everything
seemed to be there, they may have managed to sneak off some of the pieces before he woke up. There was nothing he could do
about that. He could see the Afghans grinning at him in the flashlight beam. No doubt they regarded anything they had gotten
away with as hard-earned and were not about to return it because he said so. He released the blade from the tribesman’s throat
and let go
of his hair. The man scooped up his headdress and slapped it over the top of his head, as if he were covering something indecent
and obscene. Then he smiled politely at Turner and left, along with the other tribesmen.

Baker was snoring again. Winston had never stopped. Turner thought about savagely kicking them but only laughed quietly to
himself instead. Both of the younger men had been patronizing to him on the climb here. “You making out okay, Don?” and, “Need
a hand on this slope, Don?” or, “Watch your footing here.” Now the two young, red-blooded macho men were asleep like babes
in the wood while a battered leather-skinned old soldier like himself had to take care of business.

He’d let that pair of snot-nosed kids hear about this tomorrow. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t.

“Hey, Turner, you look like death warmed over,” Winston said. “You have bad dreams during the night?”

Don Turner was too busy shaving to bother to reply. His shaving soap would not lather properly in the icy mountain water,
and he scraped his straightedge razor along his bristly jawbone.

“You going to be all right, Don?” Baker asked in his patronizing tone, talking as the young jock to the old guy over the hill.

Turner ignored him.

“Shit! We’re missing two missiles and one launcher,” Winston called from inside the bunker.

“Sayad Jan’s men took them,” Turner said, and paused to scrape his upper lip. “Don’t raise a fuss. Let’s just get out of here
as quick as we can with what we’ve still got.”

Winston and Baker exchanged a look. It was dawning on them that things might not be running smoothly and that maybe they had
missed out on something.

“All right,” Winston agreed. “We can skip their Afghan breakfast and open our C rations when we get on the trail. That way
we can get the animals loaded and move out of here within the hour. Where is everybody?”

The sun had risen. Although the valleys and cliffs all around them were still shrouded in mist, they could see the
blue sky seeping through the gray vapor floating over their heads. It was going to be a clear day. Yet there were no men
moving around among the stone-reinforced network of trenches, dugouts, and bunkers on the hillside.

BOOK: Cobra Strike
12.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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