Authors: J.B. Hadley
“Maybe they’ve gone on a sortie against the Russians,” Baker suggested.
“And were too polite to disturb us before they left?” Winston added doubtfully. “Where’s the three men they promised us?”
Turner stared in his stainless-steel mirror and went on shaving.
“We can’t go anywhere without those three men,” Winston went on. “They know the way, they know the language. We can’t go on
“I can,” Turner said.
“How?” Winston challenged.
“Find them six donkeys, tie this shit onto them, and head north-northwest into them hills. Simple as that. Either them three
tribesmen show themselves when they see us go or they don’t. Nothing much we can do about it. This is their turf and they
do what they please on it. Things work a bit different out here in the real world than they do around a long table in the
Nanticoke Institute. You boys are going to see some things out here that the professors back in D.C. never knew existed. That’s
why they sent you. So it’s time you forgot about what you been told and start thinking for yourselves. These people up here
don’t have Pepsi, Kleenex, or TV.”
“They’ve got Adidas running shoes,” Baker said with a grin.
“Yeah, and they got combat boots and fatigues, too, but that don’t make them think like you and me—if ever you two and me
think alike, which can’t be too often.” Turner rinsed off his face before saying, “If both of you scruffy types are done with
your morning wash, let’s move out fast.”
They found a group of asses tethered on the far side of the fortifications. They took six that had bridles and carrying harnesses
on their backs. It took them more than two hours to balance the loads on the animals’ backs and tie
them securely in place so they wouldn’t slip beneath the animals’ bellies or otherwise shift in motion. The three men changed
from hilarious laughter at each other’s efforts to frustrated curses and back again to laughter. During all this time they
never saw an Afghan. Although the trenches appeared deserted, the three Americans did not believe they were and so made no
attempt to explore them. Winston and Baker saw the wisdom of Turner’s advice—get the hell out while they could, without trying
to stir up trouble for themselves or hanging around for it to find them.
As soon as the loads were secured, the three men checked their Kalashnikov assault rifles. These were old AK-47 models that
they had bought in a Pakistan marketplace for the equivalent of fifteen hundred dollars each. Baker and Winston’s pieces were
battered, their mechanisms smooth from use. Turner’s rifle wasn’t any newer, but it hardly had been used. The poor fit of
the gun’s components and the sloppy finish had not been worn easy through use. Turner had to file away burrs from the magazine
well and from some of the magazines to enhance reloading speed. They checked their thirty-round detachable box magazines before
moving out and pushed their 9mm SIG-Sauer P220 pistols in their belts. These pistols were made by a Swiss firm in Germany
because of Switzerland’s strict arms export laws. They carried no American weapons, except for Turner’s Marine Corps combat
knife, and they figured that this hardly constituted direct U.S. arms aid to the rebels.
The animals went easy enough, head to tail, once they got them on the trail. Turner walked alongside the lead ass, Winston
was rear guard, and Baker kept an eye on everything in between. The path zigzagged down the bare, rocky hillside from the
fortifications. Turner periodically paused to check his map and compass, which wasn’t necessary, since there was only one
path in a northwesterly direction, and the six beasts of burden plodded steadily along it as if they, at least, had no doubts
about where they were going.
They came down off the hill and followed the trail along the bottom of a valley where weeds grew high in what once had been
small fields. There was no sign of life, only some crows or ravens that lifted off when they neared them,
cawing loudly. The sun was high now in the blindingly blue sky and gleaming on the snows of the far-off peaks that they could
glimpse occasionally from the valley bottom. When they saw a group of men some distance in front of them, Don Turner tried
to slow the lead ass to a stop. The animal snapped at him with its large, yellow, chisel-shaped teeth and shouldered past
him, followed by the five others.
Don cocked his AK-47, ground his teeth, and yelled at the lead donkey, “If it didn’t take us so long to load you, ya skinful
of shit, I’d drop you in your tracks. And the others are so stupid, they’d probably fall over you rather than stop.” He kicked
a passing donkey in the rump. “This whole fucking mess is unbelievable. We don’t have to worry about no Russians—these jerk-off
tribesman will waste us before any commies do.”
Both Winston and Baker were surprised at Turner’s sudden verbosity. The donkeys plodded relentlessly onward. The other two
men cocked their AK-47 rifles. Hanging by a strap from their right shoulders, the gun could be fired from the hip at split-second
notice. Turner glanced back at the other two, and it was clear that he was as much concerned about being shot in the back
by his less experienced buddies as he was by the unmoving group of Afghans ahead. When they came closer, they saw that Sayad
Jan stood at the front of this group of nine or ten men and that to one side another man lay on the ground, covering them
with a light machine gun. The gun’s barrel was raised on a bipod and was fed from a drum magazine beneath it, which might
contain as much as seventy-five or a hundred rounds. It wasn’t going to be much of a shooting match, but Turner swore quietly
that he would nail the son of a bitch behind the machine gun if it was the last thing he did, which it probably would be.
The line of six loaded donkeys moved past the group of men along the path, but Sayad Jan stepped in the way of the three Americans.
There as an uneasy standoff for a few seconds as the Afghans eyed the Americans and the three outgunned Americans tried to
show that they could not be separated from their property so easily. Then Sayad Jan began speaking to them in an impassioned
voice that rose and fell with his excitement. The Americans recognized the
name Gul Daoud, but those were about the only words spoken by Sayad Jan that they could understand. Every time the headman
mentioned Gul Daoud, the leader to whom the Americans hoped to deliver the weapons, he contorted his face with disgust, sometimes
spitting on the ground, and, soon after, tapped his own chest with an approving smile. It did not take a genius to understand
that Sayad Jan had a low opinion of Gul Daoud and a high opinion of himself and that consequently there was no doubt in his
mind as to which of them could put the weapons to best use. Meanwhile the asses had disappeared around a bend in the mountain
“Looks like we just been relieved of our goods,” Winston summed up. “Only question now is do we want to fight about it, and
I think they’re way ahead of us on that score too.”
“Let’s go quietly,” Baker suggested.
Turner wouldn’t budge. “These fucks ain’t going to walk all over me. If we let them do this to us easy, we’re not going to
last long in these mountains. If we don’t get the weapons back, they have to give us something in payment for them. Maybe
an armed escort to Gul Daoud.”
Baker and Winston agreed, and Turner went into a long harangue with Sayad Jan, pointing repeatedly to armed tribesmen, to
himself and to the other two Americans, then to the mountains in the northwest, shouting, “Gul Daoud, Gul Daoud. We need nine
of your armed men to go with us to Gul Daoud, you mountain moron.” Sayad Jan either did not understand him or pretended not
to, and yelled back at him, scowling or spitting every time he mentioned Gul Daoud’s name and tapping himself on the chest
with his self-congratulatory smile.
“This is probably something he can keep up for three days,” Baker warned Turner.
“He’s going to have to,” Turner said, snarling. “The asses may be a hundred miles away by then, but he’s going to have to
give me satisfaction for having taken them.”
The other two watched in surprise as the usually silent Turner repeated his demands over and over, accompanied by increasingly
vehement obscenities. Sayad Jan showed no
signs of relenting, though it was plain that he had to have understood the American’s demands by now. The two men were still
shouting each other down when something like a huge invisible snake rustled across the rocky ground close to them, its trail
marked by spurts of dust and the sudden whine of bullets ricocheting off stone. One of the tribesmen went down with three
dime-size red holes in a straight line across his chest. Then, in the same instant, they heard the gunship and saw its door
gunner lining them up for another cut. They threw themselves down as the machine gunner sewed another seam of bullets across
the ground, this time curling up two of the Afghans into howling balls of agony, twisting and kicking in the dust.
“Shithead commie,” Turner growled, and loosed off his AK-47, which he had been primed up to use at a half second’s notice,
The door gunner’s head and shoulders flopped down over his weapon. They could see one of his arms hanging loose. By now the
tribesman with the light machine gun had twisted it around. He sprayed the chopper. The pilot jerked his gunship up and down
to evade the fire, maneuvering it from a side-on position to nose-on, in order to line up his rocket pods on them. But in
turning to face them nose-on, the pilot exposed himself more fully to their fire. He desperately lost altitude in sudden drops
and regained altitude in fast jumps to the left or right. The Russian gunship launched one rocket at them, a wild shot that
exploded harmlessly a long way behind them. Then the Afghan’s light machine gun splintered the chopper’s plastic bubble into
pieces on top of the pilot and copilot. This broke the Russian fly-boy’s nerve, and he lifted his machine out of harm’s way
behind a massive shoulder of rock.
Two more gunships appeared out of nowhere. Before they could begin strafing or fire their rockets, the three Americans and
the Afghan tribesmen had time to scramble back into a jumble of big boulders at the lower lip of an old landslide. The two
gunships whapped into them with rockets, a pair from each ship, but all these did was crack open some of the boulders and
send blasts of loose stones hurtling through the air. The men on the ground kept their heads
down and got off with a few scratches and minor burns. Then the gunships swung sideways and raked the rocky landscape with
their flex guns. The Afghan with the light machine gun emptied a couple of drums at the choppers, but they kept changing their
hover levels, and their powerful guns forced him into only occasional short bursts from the cover of rocks.
Sayad Jan ran like a crazy man from rock to rock, the Russian gunners ripping the stone into white powder with a tearing staccato
of bullets. He spoke a few words in each man’s ear and moved on to the next. When he came to Baker, he twisted one hand above
his head like a chopper rotor, pointed to his feet, made a small jump, and waved his Kalashnikov in the American’s face. Baker
nodded urgently that he understood.
He yelled to the other two, not far away. “Russian bastards want to keep us pinned down here while they land troops to take
us on the ground.”
The Afghans were already moving out, under the covering fire of the light machine gunner, who had now abandoned all caution
and was trying to match Turner’s feat of taking out a door gunner on one of the gunships. He didn’t succeed, but he kept the
two choppers from coming in close enough to prevent all ground movement.
Baker and Winston followed Turner. Bullets zinged off the rocks around them as they ran from cover to cover, not wasting time
firing at the gunships but trying to keep solid rock between them and the door gunners. Baker and Winston blindly followed
at first, believing that Turner was leading them to safety. In an instant of horror they realized that they were not running
but attacking! It was too late now to back off—they had to keep going.
Three Russian slicks were unloading personnel. Two were settled on the landing zone, a small, naturally level area on the
rocky, scrubby slope, and the third was hovering to the rear with no room to touch down till one of the others lifted off.
It hovered thirty feet up with armed men in fatigues standing out on its skids, ready to go. Turner blew two of them off with
a burst of fire from his AK-47, and they toppled headlong to the ground below. Baker knocked some
of the men to their knees in the slick’s doorway, and Winston drew zigzag lines across the bubble and either hit the pilot
or took out one of the controls, causing the chopper to nose down. The stricken machine swung wildly sideways, losing altitude
fast. The main rotor hit the ground, each blade snapping on contact, and the chopper’s carcass thumped on the rocks like a
Baker and Winston were kind of surprised that it didn’t explode into flames, like downed choppers always did on TV. The three
Americans cut down the men trying to crawl out of the wreck. They had forgotten all about the other Russians already on the
ground from the other two slicks. Their blood was roused—they no longer thought of themselves as vulnerable; they no longer
thought of themselves at all. They were now instruments of death against the Soviet invaders, fighting as much out of their
own personal rage as for Afghan freedom. Lucky for the Americans, Sayad Jan and his men kept these Soviet troopers occupied.
One of the two slicks on the landing zone lifted off maybe fifteen feet into the air, but then landed again immediately. Maybe
the pilot got radio orders to put down. The other chopper stayed where it was, resting on its skids on the ground, its rotors
turning and whipping up dust. The gunships were nowhere in sight, leaving the firefight to the Soviet troops on the ground.
“The Russians are backing off!” Turner yelled to Winston and Baker. “They’re going to be evacuated-they just want to fight
their way back to the choppers. I say we go look for them goddam burros while the Russkies are keeping Sayad Jan busy.”