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The Disreputable Half-dozen - cont'd

Old Guy

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The other thread is getting somewhat long and cluttered . . . .

The Devil's Playground

"Here's what I suggest, Gunny." Spectre traced a route on a tactical map. "We run patrols down the valley just north of Djinn Peak. You can climb over the mountain and approach Red House from above. The slope is littered with huge boulders, so it's a question of threading a path through the rocks. It's called the Devil's Playground, but it isn't difficult to traverse. There are paths. Goat herders have been taking their animals up to the meadows below the peak for a thousand years -- if not longer."

"The bad guys must keep watch on that side of the mountain, sir. How do we get into the area without being seen?"

"You and your men will join our patrol. As we pass through the lower part of the boulder field you will simply get out and move uphill. Remaining unseen after that is your job." Spectre touched the contour lines indicating the top of the peak. "If there is a watch at all, the guards are normally positioned on the eastern shoulder of the mountain. The shallow pass there is slightly higher than the western shoulder and has a good view of the valleys both north and south of the mountain range."

A Kurdish sergeant drove the lead vehicle, a jeep equipped with a steel-tube framework allowing one man to stand upright watching the road ahead, looking for tell-tale signs of IEDs. A machine gun was mounted at the rear, manned by a soldier whose job was to scan the ridges on either side. Four Toyotas followed the jeep. Spectre drove the first one. Sergeant Barzan drove the last vehicle in the column, another identically equipped jeep. Gunny rode with Spectre and the squad members were spread out in the other three Toyotas.

The only incident marring the approach movement occurred less than a kilometer from the patrol base. The last Toyota slid to a sudden stop as men erupted from within. After a few minutes the column lurched into motion, this time with Donnie sitting on top of the SUV. Apparently the spicy Kurdish cuisine had a savage effect on his emissions.

Gunny intended to keep the squad together as they climbed through the boulder field, then split into a cover team and assault team.

Alpha team, led by himself, would traverse the west shoulder of Djinn Peak and descend to just above the Red House. How they would proceed from there would depend on what the enemy was doing.

Bravo team, with Red leading, would take out the guards on the east shoulder, if any were present, then descend to a cover position above and east of the Red House. After the attack, successful or not, both teams would drop down into the valley below and break contact to the west. Spectre's patrol would be in position two kilometers down the valley to cover the team's escape and to provide support if something bad happened during the assault.

Splitting the team like that made Gunny nervous, but the terrain and physical layout of the target dictated his decision. After the attack, the two teams might not be able to rejoin if the terrorists proved to be either more numerous or better equipped than he and Spectre thought likely.

"If things don't go right," he told Red as they planned the strike, "you might have to E&E to the east. Try to return to Spectre's patrol base."

"No sweat, boss. We've done all this before." Red examined the map. "If that happens, look for us at the base in about two days. Three at the outside."

"Or never," thought Gunny. He shoved his worries aside. You planned for everything you could think of, good or bad, but all too often the fates dealt from the bottom of the deck. Then survival depended on reactions and training. And luck. Simians, he well knew, had a tendency to take training lightly. They also reacted to stress in unpredictable ways.

The only thing going for his squad was luck. So far their luck was good. He crossed his fingers and touched the lucky brass ducky he had hanging on his dog tag chain. He'd found the ducky while lying face down in the sand on some half-remembered battlefield. Shrapnel zipped overhead, courtesy of his own gunners. The radioman was calling for the blind bastards to knock off the goddamn supporting fire. A round exploded no more than four feet away. Though stunned, he didn't seem to be hurt save for a pain in his tightly clenched left fist. No more rounds fell. Medics crawled to help the wounded.

Gunny never forgot how he cradled his rifle across his left forearm and opened his fist, fully expecting to see a piece of steel embedded in his palm. Instead, a few grains of sand and a small metal figure dropped to the ground. He stuffed the crusted object into a pocket and trotted into the night with the rest of the squad.

Only much later did he find the time to clean it with his pocket knife. It was a brass ducky with a small ring affixed to the duck's back. The radioman (he couldn't remember the man's name) saw it. "Looks like some kinda ancient relic. You better turn it in."

Gunny remembered the mortar rounds and the firefight later that night. A lot of metal passed him by, some so close he felt the breath of death on his skin. "No," he said. "No. It's just a trinket. Maybe my girl would like it." But it was a lie. The thing DID look old and he had no girlfriend. He hung it with his dogtags and felt the better for it. He told himself he wasn't the superstitious type, but that was a lie too.

"We're almost to the boulder field," said Spectre. "Better get ready."

"I was born ready," said Gunny. He touched the shape under his shirt and reached for the door handle. "Tell Barzan I'll be looking for a cigar when we get done here."

Moments later, they entered the shadows cast by huge stones. The vehicles slowed to a crawl in order to negotiate the narrow roadway. Gunny and his squad stepped out and gathered in a sandy gap between stones.

"Red, take point. Look for a goat path. We don't want anyone up above to see us."

Red chuckled. "Right. Just like we discussed. Fifty times. Stop worrying, Gunny."

Corporal Dude went next. Gunny followed, with Whizkid and the radio a few meters behind. Joker and Donster fell in behind Whiz. Archie walked drag.

Thousands of hooves and sandal-shod feet had worn a network of paths though the maze. Red was able to pick a course that kept the squad invisible from any possible watchers above. Heat sapped their strength and though the climb wasn't steep, they were heavily laden. Gunny called for a rest break after thirty minutes, then again at 45 minute intervals. The sun reached its zenith and began descending toward the horizon.

Just as Gunny was contemplating halting for the night and letting everyone rest before mounting an assault the following morning, he found Red sitting in the shade of an overhanging boulder. Dude knelt a few meters away, scanning the slope to the west.

"Decision time," said Red. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "The meadows Spectre told us about are just on the other side of this rock. The ground flattens out quite a bit. There are some trees and scattered boulders, but not much else until you reach the cliff. That's about 200 meters from here."

Whizkid squatted down nearby. Joker, Donnie and Archie halted a short distance downslope. Gunny slipped around the sheltering rock and surveyed the ground ahead. He lay in the shadows and examined both routes around Djinn Peak. Hardly more than shallow saddles between Djinn's towering cliffs and lower peaks on either side, the two passes looked empty. He crawled back to where Red waited.

Gunny pulled out his map. "We'll have to split up here. It looks like each team will have decent cover as they approach the passes. Beyond that -- " He shrugged. "I guess we'll find out."

Red nodded. "You want to hit them this evening?" He, too, had obviously been thinking of waiting until the next day."

Gunny made up his mind. There really was no choice. Achmed Achmed was either going to leave the Red House that day or early the next. His flight out of Syria was already scheduled. Of course, that could be nothing but misinformation. "We go today. I don't want that bastard getting away because we delayed our attack. Besides, getting out will be safer in the dark."

"Okay. Let's get the team … " Red stopped speaking as a small white ball bounced out of a nearby gap in the boulder field and rolled to a stop an arm's length away.

Gunny knelt down, rifle trained on the gap. Colors rippled and flowed. Vertigo tugged at his senses. He blinked. Suddenly he was kneeling on a carpet of green. The rock on one side of the gap morphed into a tall windmill with slowly rotating arms.

Whizkid slumped across the green sward, moaning, Red grabbed Gunny's arm and stood blinking. "What the hell is it?"

"Oops," said a voice.

"My God!" exclaimed a second person, this one a woman. "It's Gunny. And Red. And -- hell and damnation! -- there's Donnie."

A jackal-headed creature stepped out of the gap. He wore a white kilt and high-strapped sandals. A golden disc hung from a chain around his neck. Behind him came a familiar brunette in t-shirt, shorts and a broad sun hat. Both carried golf clubs.

"Anubis?" Gunny shook his head, trying to clear it. "Giselle?"

"Damn, this is embarrassing," said Anubis. "We were just playing a round of miniature golf."

Red recovered first. "So you're the devil of the Devil's Playground?"

"Guilty." Anubis bowled slightly. "This should all be invisible to you. Different planes of existence and all that." He touched the disc. "Well, I can fix that."

"Wait a minute!" cried Gunny. "We have a mission to complete. What are you -- ? How can you be -- ? Hell. I don't know what I mean."

"I know what happened," said Anubis. "You all are Simians and I've made myself visible to Old Guy and to most of you in various adventures. I forgot to revoke the ability. No problem. I'll do that and you can get on with your -- whatever."

"Giselle," said Donnie. "What are you doing with Anubis?"

"Well." Anubis moved to one side. "Someone thought to ask the 64 obol question."

"I -- um -- I -- " Giselle's stammering was entirely out of character. "That is … "

"You're giving Old Guy the old heave-ho, aren't you?" Donnie shook his head. He shuffled forward, hands cupped as if already in contact with that famous superstructure. "Gotta touch those boooooobs."

Anubis touched his amulet and uttered a strange word. Donnie stumbled and fell to his knees. "Hey. Hey." He clutched his temples. "Oooooh. My head." With that, he sagged to the ground, like a collapsing hot air balloon.

"He'll be okay," said Anubis. "I removed his ability to see into my reality and put him to sleep."

"Can you make him forget he ever saw me?" asked Giselle.

"I'm not that powerful, my dear."

Gunny stared at Donnie for a long moment, then looked up at Anubis. "Time's a-wasting."

The Egyptian god shook his head. "No. Time is not moving in your reality. Only in mine."

"Well, so whatever you have to do. You can go on with your -- " Gunny eyed Giselle briefly, then shook his head. " -- whatever. And we can get on with our mission."

"I'm just evaluating my options," murmured Giselle.


The visual scene shifted and flowed. The squad, save for a snoring Donnie, staggered. In a fleeting second the vertigo vanished, leaving nothing but rock and sand. Gunny slowly stood erect. The boulders stubbornly maintained their shape. Donnie jerked and woke up.

"What happ -- ?" He scrambled to his feet. "Giselle?"

"Never mind that," snarled Gunny. "If you're finished with your nap, we'll get on with the job."

Donnie picked up his sub-machine gun and stood frowning. "I could have sworn Giselle and Anubis were here." Suddenly his faced relaxed. A thunderous blast rent the air. "Must of been backed up gas." He glanced around. "Hey. Guys. Come on. Where did everyone go?"


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Red House

"Things are going too well," thought Gunny. He didn't say it aloud. That would have been like thumbing his nose at the fates. It was probably bad luck even to think it. He checked the position of his team members, then crawled toward the lip of the quarry. The thin shade cast by a gnarled thorn tree provided a good spot for observation.

Red called. "Scooter has chicks on the perch." The teams were now using intra-squad radios. Gunny keyed his mike twice in response and looked at the opposite ridge. He didn't see anything, which was as it should be. The cover team must not have encountered any guards up above. If they had, Red would have said something about it. Gunny turned his attention back to the quarry.

He wasn't sure the diggings had been a quarry, but it sure looked like it. A natural cleft in the south face of Djinn Peak had been enlarged into a large rectangular opening. Sloping sides gave way to vertical walls at the back of the quarry. The Red House itself had apparently been built right into the rock. Only about ten meters of building extended from the vertical rear wall into the floor of the quarry.

That extended portion was roofed in slate. Heavy columns framed a shallow front portico. Stone-flagged walkways meandered through a formal garden area extending a further twenty meters from the building and around the sides into the narrow spaces between building and quarry walls. Nothing lived in the neglected garden, save for a couple of guards relaxing on low stone walls. Both wore faded green jackets and fatigue trousers. Their head coverings and unkempt beards suggested foreign origins. "Georgians," muttered Gunny. "Or Syrian thugs."

At first, Gunny saw no weapons. Then he saw them, a pair of AK-47s lying on a stone bench in the middle of the garden. Neither man was within ten meters of his rifle. No other people were in view. A round-bodied helicopter sat at the end of the open area, a few steps from the edge of the quarry floor. A cascade of broken rock covered the slope leading to the valley floor, a distance of about 400 meters.

"Scooter," called Gunny. "What kind of chopper is that? Looks familiar."

"Rover, the helo is French, I think. Maybe a Gazelle -- an older one."

One of the guards lay down. The other said something. Receiving no response, he shrugged and lit a cigarette. His companion began to snore softly.

Another guard walked across the portico and took a seat on the steps. He also lit a cigarette.

"Rover, there's a large antenna mounted on the cliff face. See it? Above the building where the rocks have been cut back some."

"I see it, Scooter." A gray electrical box sat on a ledge at the top of the cliff. Gunny figured it had to be bolted to the rocks because the antenna was attached to the top of the box. The antenna was a big one, around ten meters tall. A pair of cables ran down the cliff face and vanished on the far side of Red House.

"Archie will have to take that out, boss."

"Affirmative. Stand by one." Gunny slid back from the rim and crawled to where Archie lay. "You got that, Arch?"

"I heard." He raised up slightly and stared at the antenna. "That's gonna be hard to hit."

"Just try to hit the box it's sitting on. Blow the cables off. That will work just as well."

"Okay. Then what?" From his flank security position, Archie couldn't see the helo.

Gunny described the setup in the quarry. "Take out the antenna, then hit the helo."

"Okay. When do we start?"

"When our target waltzes into view. Listen up while I brief the others."

Gunny told the team what their artilleryman was going to do, then gave them an idea of what he expected to happen and when.

"When Achmed comes out -- let him get off the steps and into the old garden area -- then I will start the music. Joker, your first target is Achmed, then the guards. Start on those closest to the front door. Got that?"

"I got it, Rover."

"Scooter, you and I will hit the guards farthest from the House and work our way towards the bodies Joker will be piling up."

"Roger, Rover."

Gunny glanced upslope. Whizkid lay a few meters away. Dude was bellied down a long rock throw further up the hill. "Dude, I want you to move down below my position. I want you high enough to be firing down on these clowns, but low enough so you can see the door."

"Gotcha, Rover. On my way." Dude slid well back from the quarry and started moving down the slope.

"Whiz," said Gunny. "Get back fifty meters or so and call Booze Hound. Let him know that Rover and Scooter are in position." Booze Hound was Sceptre's call sign.

Whizkid nodded and began crawling.

Nobody said anything for several minutes. The westering sun beat down on the Marines. Even the lizards were not to be seen.

Archie touched Gunny's arm. "I'm gonna move down some. Gotta find me some cover where I can see both targets."

"Knock yourself out. Stay low. Write if you find work."

Archie flashed a grin. He circled out away from the quarry, moving slow.

Several more minutes dragged by on leaden feet. Gunny checked his AKM, then started crawling back to his own firing position.

The guards hadn't moved. It was quiet. The very rocks seemed to be asleep.

A sudden rattle of metal on stone shocked the silence, followed by the dull FOOMP! of an M-79 grenade launcher. "Oooh, shit," moaned Archie.

The round arced across the quarry and exploded in the rocks. All three guards leaped to their feet. Gunny shot the closest one as the man turned to run for his weapon. The guard on the steps whirled and took one step before Joker put him down. Gunny fired at the other guard and missed. Joker nailed him as he slowed to pick up his rifle.

"Jesus, Archie." It was Red. "Whose side are you on?"

Gunny saw Archie scrambling for his grenade launcher. "I tripped."

"Scooter, Rover. Anybody hurt?"

"Negative, Rover. I'll have to change my shorts, but no dings."

Archie flopped down a couple meters below Gunny. "The launcher is okay, boss."

"Well shoot out the goddamn antenna! You started this damn party. Move it!"

"We got company, Rover."

Half a dozen men sprinted into the garden area. Gunny and Red fired. Men crumpled. Two tried to reverse course. Joker dropped them both on the steps. Bullets ripped Gunny's thorn tree. He rolled to one side and moved back into firing position. There were no more targets. Shapes moved at the edge of vision. Men ran out of the gap between Red House and the quarry side wall. He dropped one, but the others hugged the wall.

"Scooter's got 'em." Red and Joker bored into the terrorists crouching below Gunny.

Every few seconds he heard the FOOMP of Archie's grenade launcher. Star-shaped scars marked the rock face a meter below the edge. As Gunny watched, a round struck the gray box and blew it apart. The antenna topped sideways and rolled into the quarry. It ended up hanging by a wire, swinging back and forth over Red House like a skinny pendulum.

Archie grinned at Gunny and pumped his fist.

"Get the goddamn helo!" Gunny backed away from the edge and began moving down slope. He motioned for Whiz to follow. "Scooter, stay where you are. Keep their heads down. We're going down into the quarry."

"Jesus, Gunny. Watch yourself. There ain't much cover. What do you want to do?"

"When I figure that out, Scooter, I'll let you know."

Archie put a round into the helo's windscreen. His next attempt burst alongside, spraying the machine with fragments. Round number three exploded in the rotor assembly. One blade fell off, clattering down the rocky slope. The other dangled, bent and useless.

Gunny grabbed Archie as he went by. "Come on, Deadeye. Save your ammo."

"I only got three rounds left, Gunny."

"That's enough."

"Enough for what?" Archie glanced at Whiz and got a shrug in return.

"I don't know, damn it!" yelled Gunny. "Come on."

Dude started to get up, but Gunny waved him down. "Stay here for now. Cover those doors."

Red called. "Scooter is moving down. We can't see well enough from here."

"Roger. Let me know when you're in position." Gunny turned left and scrambled down the slope and into the quarry. Man size boulders offered good cover. Whiz and Archie joined him. They were all breathing like steam engines on a steep grade.

"We made it!" laughed Whiz.

"Yeah." Archie peered at the distant Red House. From the frying pan right into the fire."

Whizkid's smile faded. "Oh. Yeah. What do we do now?"

"Gunny pulls a John Wayne and buys enough time for the rest of us to escape."

"My name ain't Wayne OR Murphy," grated Gunny. "And don't be taking the Duke's name in vain." He thumped Whiz's arm. "We'll be okay."

"Right," said Archie. "All we need is an air strike and a couple tanks. We'll be fine."


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Bringing Down the House

Gunny focused his binoculars on the portico of the Red House. Two large windows flanked the open door. Broken glass littered the surface. A flicker of motion caught his eye. He tensed, expecting a horde of bearded gunmen. Seconds crawled by. Sweat trickled down his cheek.

"What the hell are they waiting for?" muttered Archie.

Forcing himself to relax, Gunny swept the area above the quarry. The enemy could be preparing a surprise -- like maybe an attack from a hidden exit. The Red House was built for Saddam. He was the kind to provide escape routes.

"Damn." Gunny lowered his glasses. "How many rounds did it take to knock out the antenna?"

"Ah -- ." Archie touched the 40mm ammo pouch. "Four, I think. Yeah. Four."

Gunny slumped down below the lip of the quarry floor. "Four rounds. Maybe a minute, maybe longer. It's time for us to dee-dee on out of here. Dude, get your ass down here!"

Archie stared at Gunny. "What about ole Achmed?"

"We may still be able to get him, but we need to move and right now." Gunny lifted himself slightly and pointed at the Red House. "The antenna was up long enough to call for help. They're not working up the nerve to attack us; they're waiting for the cavalry to arrive."

Red was monitoring. "Scooter is moving down. Where do you want us?"

"Head east along the valley. Find us a good place to hide. No more than half a klick. I'm sending Archie over. Give him all the 40mm ammo and take him with you." Archie got up and started across the rocky slope, scrambling along hunched over. "I'll follow in a few. Whizkid is on the way. I want Joker's C4. All of it."

Whiz was up on one knee, waiting. Gunny pointed at the damaged Gazelle. "Get the C4 and meet me at the helo." The radioman nodded and moved out.

When Dude arrived, Gunny sent him after the others. "Set up on the far side. Someplace where you can cover us. We'll follow Scooter as soon as I rig the helo."

Dude grinned and patted the RPK. "This old dinosaur ain't bad. I wouldn't trade a 240 for it, but it gets the job done."

"That describes all of us. Now, go. Get set up. I'll be right behind you."

By the time Gunny reached the helo, Scooter team, plus Archie, was a good 200 meters down the hill, angling for the dry stream bed. Whizkid arrived, red faced and puffing. He handed the blocks of C4 to Gunny and sank down with his back to the ledge.

"You gonna live?" Gunny began preparing the explosive. "Shall I call the medics?"

"If we get out of this mess, I'm going to move to someplace cold and never walk further than from my sofa to the fridge. In fact, I'll hire me some sweet young thing to fetch beer."

"Glad to hear it. Except you better hire an older woman. A young one would kill you."

Whizkid managed to get to his knees. He peered under the damaged helo. "Those bastards are still lying doggo. You really think they're expecting to be rescued?"

"I do. They think we're sitting out here like a bunch of clucks." Gunny pulled himself up on the ledge. One of the Gazelle's side doors lay beside the wreck blocking the view of any observer located in Red House. He leaned into the troop compartment and stuffed the armed bomb under a seat. Rejoining Whiz, he picked up his AKM and led the way toward Dude's position. "C'mon. It's time for us chickens to vacate the premises."

"When you gonna blow the helo?" asked Whiz.

"When the time is right. Now, come on. It's time to get the hell out of Dodge."

Twenty minutes of scrambling brought them to the spot selected by Red. A heap of broken rock mixed with a dozen or more huge boulders lay on the valley floor. The sun-heated stones would provide shelter from prying eyes and shield them from IR sensors.

Gunny, Archie and Whizkid took up a position under the lip of a boulder the size of an Abrahms tank. It lay on a heap of shattered rock. The others found similar hiding holes.

"Call Booze Hound," said Gunny. "Let him know what we're doing. See if we can get some help in here."

Whiz nodded. "What kind of help do you want?"

"Oh -- an armored cav regiment might be nice. A Predator loaded with smart bombs. I'd even settle for an Air Force jet loaded with dumb bombs. Think we can get any of those, Whiz?"

"Christ, Gunny. I was just asking. I don't think Spectre can send anything but a jeep loaded with body bags."

"Ye of little faith. What's the matter, Whiz? Thinking about beer and doxies again?"

"Lots of beer. One middle-age doxie will do. As you pointed out, I'm not young any more."

"Nothin' wrong with beer," said Archie. "What's a doxie?"

Gunny laughed and shook his head. "Are you serious? Whiz, have Booze Hound send up a dictionary for our young friend."

Their banter was cut short by a terse call on the intra-squad net. "Another helo -- ." The voice, obviously Donnie's, dropped to an unintelligible whisper.

"Donnie," replied Gunny. "No need to whisper. They can't hear us."

"Oh. Yeah. Well, boss, we got another one of them Gazelles, only this one is loaded for bear."

Gunny rolled his eyes. "Give me a position report, Donnie."

"Oh, sure. East. Half a klick. Coming slow. Maybe 200 meters above the valley floor.

They could all hear the helo now. Time slowed to a slither. Gunny lay propped on his elbows, watching sweat droplets hit the sand and vanish.

Red's voice came over the comm net. "Joker and I have a good angle on him, Gunny."

"Negative. Not yet. There has to be another bird coming in."

"Roger. Gotcha."

The armed helicopter slowed as it passed the rock pile. The whine of the turbine engine and pop of rotor blades echoed off cliff walls. Once past the team's hiding place, the Gazelle began to move faster. It passed the rock quarry and slowed again, inspecting the western valley.

"Here comes another one," called Donnie. "This one's bigger. Looks like a Russian job."

"Which Russian?" asked Gunny.

"Beats me. It's ugly as hell. Has to be Russian."

The new arrival roared overhead, flaring and slowing. It hovered over the damaged helo on the quarry floor and quickly touched down.

"That's an MI-8," said Gunny. "NATO calls it a Hip. No markings."

"I told you it was ugly," said Donnie. "Fat, ugly and hippy."

The MI-8 sat in the quarry, rotors turning. The Gazelle was coming back toward the squad's hiding place. Gunny pulled a remote control from a pouch. "Watch that damn Gazelle. He's headed our way again."

Red called. "We're gonna have to take him out, Rover."

"Negative. Not until the other one lifts off. I don't want to spook him. Organize a hit, Scooter, but hold back for now."

"Roger. Holding back. Dude, are you where you can shoot the Gazelle?"

"I can be in five seconds. You call it."

"Roger. Joker and I are set. Archie, you up?"

"I'm flat on my back," replied Archie. "You want me to join the party?"

"Affirmative, Arch. Shoot for the tail rotor."

Archie glanced at Gunny. "He thinks I can hit things with an M-79 -- on purpose."

"Try not to miss. The Gazelle is carrying door gunners. I'd hate to see you miss out on your beer and bimbos due to a Russian bullet with your name on it."

"Bimbos. That's a word I know. I like bimbos."

"Don't we all." Gunny clicked the remote to ARMED. The MI-8's rotor disc changed shape. He couldn't see the Gazelle, but he could hear it, overhead, moving slow. "Get ready, people! The Hip is about to take off."

Even as he said it, the big helo lifted off. It rose straight up, clawing for altitude. Ten meters. Twenty. The nose dipped slightly and the machine crept forward. "Damn. He's loaded heavy." As the Hip slid over the damaged Caravelle, Gunny triggered his C4 bomb.

The Caravelle vanished in an orange flash. Smoke and flame enveloped the MI-8.

"Now!" cried Red. "Get the bastard!"

Gunny heard the gunfire and was aware of Archie scrambling into the open, but he was focused on the MI-8. It staggered out of the flame and smoke, dribbling bits and pieces. The pilot started a left turn, aiming for the dry river bed. As the Hip tilted, a rotor blade darted upwards, spinning wildly. The big helicopter jerked side to side, like a small toy shaken by a large dog. Engines shrieked out of control. Between one blink of the eye and the next, the helo tore itself apart and plunged into the rocks. Explosions battered the ground. Billowing flame and black smoke hid the scene.

The FOOMP of Archie's grenade launcher shocked Gunny back into the present. He rolled into the open, weapon ready. The gunship was already doomed. At least half the tail assembly was gone. He could see a door gunner hanging from his harness, dead or wounded. Nose down, spinning out of control, the Caravelle smashed into a cliff. Fire and smoke mixed with shattered shapes cascaded into the valley.

When the noise died away, Archie tapped him on the shoulder. "One shot. Took the tail right off. I think that qualifies me as a grenadier, don't it?"

"Beats hell outta me, Arch." Gunny patted his pockets. "I'd kill for a cigar." He bashed Archie's shoulder. "Hell, I'd kill YOU for a cigar and a drink."

Whizkid crawled out from under the boulder. "Did we get 'em all?"

A deep-toned thud sounded from the vicinity of the quarry. The three men whirled around -- in time to see the Red House vanish in a belch of flame. Seconds later a second blast removed part of Djinn Peak, just above the old quarry.

Gunny looked up, but saw no planes. "Goddamn Air Corps jocks. Making war from orbit again." He gazed at the hellish scene, shaking his head. "In a couple hours they'll be back in the O-club, complaining because the beer isn't cold enough."

"Hey, Gunny. Look at that." Whizkid pointed flames bursting from a spot above and to the right of the quarry. The fire was yellow-white and produced dirty brown smoke.

"Escape tunnel." Gunny climbed to the top of the boulder. "Yeah. There's another one. On the far side of the quarry."

Red joined them. "Those fools must have had a bunch of explosives hidden inside. Nothing else would burn like that."

"Let's go," said Gunny. He slid to the ground. "Before some of their friends come to see what happened to old Achmed Achmed and his pals."

The squad gathered on the east side of the rock pile and began walking. Donnie started singing. That is, HE called it singing. Gunny winced and began calling cadence, in self defense. The squad joined in, lustily singing the verses. It was kind of fun, marching out of a combat area, singing filthy songs. Besides, it drowned Donnie out.

Donnie ended up tramping along behind, out of step and out of rhythm, but that was okay. He was thinking about the veiled woman he'd seen at Spectre's patrol base. She had nice eyes and hooters the size of cantaloupes. He had no idea what was behind the veil, but -- what the hell -- a woman with big boobs might be ugly, but she was still a woman with big boobs.

He wondered if she had a sister for Grenadier Archie.



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