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The War – Episode 2

December 14, 2:37 PM Mountain
Southeastern Arizona

Alvarez squatted down beside the bush, outlining the footprints in the dust with the tip of her finger. There was one set, about the same size as her own, and two more, much smaller and not as deep.

Shit, she thought, and we were supposed to be heading back, too.

“Sergeant, we’ve got kids out here!” she called out. Peering under the bush, she glimpsed a small rolled-up diaper, its surface coated in red dust. “And babies!” she yelled, standing up.

Sergeant First Class Wilson swore as he hurried up the line of kneeling soldiers. Others had found water bottles and food wrappers, as well as discarded luggage and clothing, but all that required of him was a report to main post about a group of illegals loose on the south ranges. Finding evidence of children, on the other hand, changed everything.

“What you got?” he asked as he walked up to Alvarez. The shorter soldier shrugged her heavy pack as she stood up and pointed to the tracks at her feet.

“At least two kids, Sergeant,” she answered, “and a baby.”

“Damn it,” Wilson replied, “All right, let’s get moving.”

Wilson gestured to Phillips, his radio operator, and squinted at the GPS he wore on the straps of his load bearing suspenders. He took the radio’s handset when the big specialist walked over to him and pressed the transmit key.

“Hotel-two-four, this is Bulldog-tree-seven, over.”

After a moment, range control answered, “Go ahead Bulldog-tree-seven, over.”

“Hotel-two-four, be advised that there is a large group of civilians on the south ranges. We are at one-two-romeo-whiskey-victor-six-four-tree-seven-one-eight. There are tracks from children and used diapers, over,” Wilson said.

“Roger,” range control answered, “Can you follow, over.”

“Roger,” he replied, “we are following the trail that runs to the northwest from here, over.”

“Copy, Bulldog-tree-seven. I see it on the map. We will advise Border Patrol and other units to assist, over.”

“Roger, out,” Wilson said, handing the handset back to Phillips. He signaled to the rest of the squad to move out, and hustled to get to the front of the column as they stood and hiked up the dusty path into the mountains.

The trail was easy to follow. Most of the prints were from work boots, which left deep and sharp impressions in the reddish-orange dirt. Occasionally, one of the soldiers would point out a piece of trash or discarded luggage, which became more and more common as the trail led them into steeper and more rugged terrain.

Several times during the next few hours, a Border Patrol helicopter flew over them. The soldiers waved to the pilot, who seemed to pay them no mind as he flew a search pattern over the ridges and valleys in front of them. Wilson radioed in several times with their status, but they only stopped twice for food and water.

Specialist Alvarez was back on point as they walked over the crest of a ridge and down toward a shallow valley below. She grumbled silently to herself as she went.

Merry Christmas, Sergeant Wilson, she thought, We’re supposed to sign out on leave tonight, and instead of being home packing, I’m out here lugging around a damned antenna on the side of a mountain so you can relive your ‘lightfighter’ days. When I find these illegals, I’m going to make them carry this thing back to post.

She was thinking about what she would like to do with that heavy antenna and Wilson when she looked down at the tinkle of metal and saw that she had kicked a small pile of green-lacquered shell casings.

“Sergeant Wilson! Somebody’s been shooting up here!” she called out as she bent down to pick one up. The metal, warm from sitting in the bright sunlight, felt good on her cold fingers.

Wilson walked up the column and took the casing when she offered it.

“Probably from that exercise last month,” he said, then noticed that the shell’s mouth was smooth, not crimped the way blank training ammunition would have been.

Shit, he thought, this was live, and all we’ve got are empty magazines. If we run into whoever was popping off rounds, we’re screwed.

Other members of the squad started pointing to the ground and holding up shell casings as he thought about what to do.

“There’s some more here!” “Couple of unfired rounds in this pile, Sergeant!”

Wilson looked around at his squad and counted five of them pointing to the ground or holding something up. He motioned to Phillips for the radio.

“They’re from an AK,” Phillips said, handing him another of the expended cases and the handset.

“No shit,” Wilson hissed, looking around for a moment and thinking.

“All right,” he ordered, “Alvarez and Hewitt, go down the trail for about 50 yards to make sure there aren’t any more surprises. The rest of you, mark the piles with a stick or a rock or something.”

As an afterthought, he added “And for God’s sake, don’t touch any of it. If you didn’t drop it, don’t pick it up!”

Alvarez and Hewitt continued down the dusty trail into the shallow valley below, while the rest of the squad started marking the piles of fired shells, which lay at semi-regular intervals alongside the tracks.

“Hotel-two-four this is Bulldog-tree-seven, over.” Sergeant Wilson said into the handset.

The response was almost instantaneous, and he heard the familiar voice of the garrison Command Sergeant Major. “Bulldog-tree-seven, this is Hotel-two-four-actual. Did you find that group of civilians, over?”

Wilson ignored the wince on Phillips’ face and depressed the transmit button on the handset. “Negative, Hotel-two-four-actual, not yet, break.”

He peered at the GPS and started talking again. “I have a sitrep to pass, over.”

There was a pause on the other end, but after a long moment, the handset squawked “Send it, over.”

“Hotel-two-four, we are at one-two-romeo-six-tree-tree-seven-seven-niner. There are at least six piles of spent seven-six-two by tree-niner with some unfired rounds mixed in. Break.”

“We are marking the piles with sticks and rocks and continuing down the trail. We have not found the group of civilians we have been tracking. Over.”

Range control took almost a minute to respond. “Bulldog-tree-seven this is Hotel-two-four-actual, good copy. Are those training rounds, over.”

“Negative, they are not blanks, over.”

“Any idea how old they are, over.”

Wilson raised the spent casing in his hand to his nose and sniffed it. The rotten-eggs scent of burned powder was strong.

“They haven’t been out here very long, over,” he said into the handset.

“Bulldog-tree-niner, give me a count on your sensitive items, including ammunition, over.”

Wilson looked around at his soldiers, then keyed the handset again, “All weapons and sensitive items accounted for. No ammunition, over.”

“Bulldog-tree-niner, wait one, over.”

As Wilson was talking to main post, Specialist Alvarez and Private First Class Hewitt hurried down the hill toward the trees lining the bottom of the valley. Her pack, which she had been wearing for almost fourteen hours with only short breaks, dragged on her shoulders and hips, and the big antenna and extra radio it contained felt heavier with each step down the steep grade.

A few feet above where the trail evened out on the valley floor, Hewitt turned his ankle on a loose stone and tumbled the last few feet. He tucked his rifle tight against his body as he rolled and skidded down the trail, keeping it from banging against the ground, but grunted as his body absorbed the impact of falling. He finally stopped a few feet after getting to the bottom of the hill, just before he would have collided with one of the bushes and its long thorns.

Hewitt swore as he pushed himself up from the muddy ground. As he stood and turned back toward Alvarez, he wiped his hands on his pants.

“You OK?” she called out to Hewitt as he turned toward her.  Dark red mud streaked the front of his uniform and where he was wiping his hands.

“Yeah, just went ass over teakettle there,” he replied.

“Let’s check this out and get back up to the sergeant,” she said, peering at the ground behind Hewitt.

“What’s that?” she said, pointing to a spot of white in the bushes shadow.

Hewitt used the muzzle of his rifle to pull the thorny branches back, revealing a small, white shoe.

Wilson looked up from the notebook he had been using to write down the Sergeant-Major’s instructions when he heard Alvarez scream.



Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

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