****I decided to repost this short story today. I lost the master copy when Frost kicked my arse out the door. My mistake for leaving it on a work computer hard drive and not having enough sense to email it to myself. Lesson learned...but damn! that master copy was tuned just right, and I was ready to rock and roll on the second chapter. There is much work to be done to bring this original back to the way I had it. A whole section is lost, and much of the editing I did is scrapped. When I originally typed this out in 2006, I did it in one four hour session while working a Saturday at the bank. No customers to pester me, and this is the version I got. It took a lot of work to get it to the point of "perfection" for me.
Now, I decided to repost in an effort to jumpstart my writing again. I'd really like to complete this story as a novel. Maybe try to have it published. The story is in my head, but I have a long way to go before it all falls out onto the paper.
I have to admit, I was re-inspired by Larry's book, Monster Hunter International, and his efforts to get published. If he, and others like us, can do it, then so can (and will) I.
No need to pull punches. If you don't like what you read, post a comment. Be honest. You really won't hurt my feelings. Reminder: I haven't made changes to this version. It is still in it's rough stage.
AMBUSH - A short story by "Shooter"
"Let's go!" she called out to the others. The evening walk was about to be delayed by a couple of stragglers and the family has not left the house, yet.
"Keep your shirt on," I called out from the basement. "There's plenty of light out. We could take this walk at midnight and still not need a flashlight." The midsummer sun was high in the sky. Sunset in this part of Sweden came around 2:30 in the morning now. That would change in about a week, though, as the summer solstice would start making the days shorter.
"Well, I still want to stretch my legs before bedtime. And I want to get to bed at a decent hour for once," Sara said, "All the running around we've been doing lately has thrown off my sleep schedule."
Sara was right. Rest was a luxury we rarely had enough of these past several months. If the reports on the radio were true, then everyone should be getting plenty of rest now.
Sara and her parents waited patiently by the door as I grabbed my walking kit and finished lacing my boots. Our evening walk has been a family tradition ever since the wedding three years ago. Back then, Sara and I would explore some facet of her childhood lush with memories. Each walk uncovered something new for me. Sara would take me through the woods behind her parents' home where we would spy on moose grazing in the open fields. We would often walk to the different lakes surrounding Sara's hometown that offered cool respite from the strong summer sun. We would play in the water like two otters, or just spend the afternoon lazing on the beach.
The later summer season would also find us bent down in a national pastime. We spent hours picking lingonberries and blueberries for her mother to can. We would race to fill our buckets with fresh berries, and further count coup over who picked the most chanterelle mushrooms that day. When we tired of walking and picking, Sara and I rode our bikes to the top of her hometown's tallest hill. Surrounded by trees and offering a commanding view of the valley below, Sara and I dined as newlyweds on fresh pickled herring and homemade bread. We cleansed our palates with sparkling water and cider.
Those memories are gone now. Replaced with the hate and anger that tore this country apart. Gone are the childhood memories replaced by the grim vagaries that war brings. It has been almost a year, and I returned to Sweden to rescue my in-laws. Little did I know they needed no rescuing.
The familiar rack of a slide broke me from my reverie. Gustav, Sara's father, was making similar preparations as I was. A flurry of Swedish shot from my wife's mouth. I could only catch every second or third word, but the message was clear. She heard the radio, too, and took it for its word. Gustav and I were a little more pragmatic. In other words, we'd believe it when we saw it. This was the third cease-fire in six months. The last two were threadbare ruses at best to weed out crown loyalists. Forces opposed to Sweden's royal family worked feverishly to dismantle any form of loyalty and protection for the crown. There's was a singular task to bring about a total New World socialist order.
Inger Helen, my mother-in-law, was quick to gang up on Gustav. At first, I thought they were after him for only wearing his Glock, but then I saw Inger's efforts to disarm him. I am all too happy to hear about the cease-fire, but now was not the time to let our guard down. As I topped the stairs, I grabbed my rifle off the banister and cycled the action. A round chambered in the AK-47 with a resounding THWACK and the room fell silent. "If Gustav wants to carry his pistol," I said, "then let him do so."
Sara regarded me with a cold stare. Glancing at my walking attire did little to placate her. Here I stood loaded for bear in the front hall of her childhood home. What she often refers to as my 'Tommy Tactical' attire has kept me alive through two wars and several quieter forays into enemy territory. I wear this gear like some men wear leisure suits to the dog track. It is just second nature to me.
I did not take up arms against the Crown Opposition to satisfy a lust for war. I came into this uprising with the intent to defend my wife and her family. I went to great lengths to bring my gear in country. I went to even greater lengths to help defend Sara's hometown. So, here I stood, ready for my evening walk. I was praying for the best, but somehow expected the worst.
"Do you have to wear the body armor and chest harness today?" my wife asked. "Of all days, why now? We finally get a lasting cease-fire and you want to run around all tactical and ninja-fied. We're only going for a walk. The roads have been cleared of mines for some time and we'll be passing by checkpoints that you helped set up. We're protected."
She had a point. I helped defend Katrineholm from violent attacks by the enemy. The townsfolk were fiercely loyal to the crown and refused all advances by the Crown Opposition. My experience with the Army during the Global War on Terror helped bring together the ragged defenses of this small community. With help from the police department, an infantry platoon from a nearby garrison, and the local populace, we were able to ward off any attack by the Opposition.
Sara always said I was shy about my military record. It's not that I am shy, but I just don't like to elaborate on it. I spent the better part of three years on the ground in Iraq with a special operations unit. Our job was to hunt down insurgents and dismantle the terror network operating in our area of operations. We had the additional task of training the fledgling Iraqi military and police forces, too. Our job was not always easy. We worked at night acting on intel from various sources. Usually, my team would bust down the door on one house and drag out a suspect who would then flip on his buddies. If the information was credible enough, we would then race to another house and do it all over again. Most often, our boys would catch a low-level insurgent. Just about every other raid we carried out was against someone our intel source had a grudge with.
Part of our training mission took us out in the field with Iraqi units. This was known as 'trial by fire.' The Iraqi forces were reluctant to go out if at all. Strikes by terrorists and insurgents were a daily problem. One day would have us cowering from the blast of an IED, and another day would be quiet. The recruits soon learned how to spot the signs of ambush and what actions needed to be taken. Their training accelerated to a level where the units assigned to us for training were leading their own raids on insurgents. The intelligence they gathered helped stem the flow of insurgent attacks on the citizenry.
Special operations units in the Army have a mission that often requires working and training with indigenous personnel. Coming to the defense of my family required that I come to the defense of the entire community. With my help, Katrineholm was able to prepare defensive positions and train up a group of young men and women to patrol and man defensive stations around the city.
With a huff, the two women walked outside to wait for us. Gustav and I went through our routine of checking each other's equipment for shape, shine and sound. He grabbed my chest rig and gave a vigorous shake. Turning around, he adjusted my straps and gave me a slap on the back of my armor plate carrier. Gus was trying to please the girls by leaving his rifle at home. I only had to insure his duty belt was on right and that he had a full load of spare magazines and his knife was securely fastened to the drop down leg holster. I made him bring the bug-out bag as added insurance. There was a spare G17 with four magazines, a battlefield medic kit with field dressings and other essentials, and extra water and two MREs. The bag also held a spare radio, map and compass in case we were separated or needed to call in some assistance.
We joined the women on the front porch. Gustav locked the door as I basked in the warm June sun. After spending time in hotter climes, the time spent in Sweden felt like a cool fall paradise. Sara and her mother regarded us with cool stares and headed towards the street. I ignored the reproachful glance and looked around the neighborhood. A mortar attack recently destroyed three homes a block over. One wall and the shredded trunk of an alder tree were the only reminders of the families that once lived nearby. The other remaining houses in this section were boarded up tight. Layers of sandbags lined the basement windows of still occupied domiciles.
"Roughneck 6, this is Overwatch, how copy?" the radio crackled into my earpiece. Overwatch was an observation post on the nearby water tower. The four people standing watch on the tower had a commanding view of the northern portion of town. From their position, they watched as we headed up the street to the hiking path.
"Overwatch, Roughneck 6. Just going out for a walk this evening," I responded into my mic. "We'll be moving on Blue Trail through the Red Sector. Over."
"Understood Roughneck. No activity to report in your sector. Be advised that we have a rolling checkpoint in the area. Standard visual and verbal challenges apply." The Swedes were anything if not thorough. One of the city councilmen was a student of poetry, and happened to have a fondness for Kipling. After a checkpoint was overrun, he implemented verbal as well as visual challenges to thwart any further surprise attacks.
The codes changed daily. Each person was able to verify the new codes by listening to the radio each morning. Those without a radio were encouraged to visit the nearest church for the daily sermon and scripture reading assignments. "Roughneck 6 copies, have a nice evening guys!"
We approached the trailhead in silence. Through the playground at the end of Sara's street, we turned left and put the neighborhood behind us. Almost 100 meters in from the trailhead we came to the intersection. The trail split in three different directions. I took the lead from Inger and started down the blue trail. These trails cut through the entire countryside. Sweden's infrastructure is such that you could literally walk from one end to the other using this trail system and marked hike n' bike paths. This trail was smoother than most. Often, when there was a lull in Opposition activity, citizens would use this trail to get some exercise. It was not unusual to see joggers run past an armed patrol or fixed defensive position. Inger Helen walked right next to me. Her small frame hid a boundless energy. She urged me to pick up the pace. I knew if the pace quickened, I might miss something on the trail that could harm us. I kept the pace brisk, but refrained from moving any faster. Sara and her father brought up the rear. They were talking amongst themselves and laughing at a private joke. The rhythmic slapping of Sara's sandals helped me keep an accurate pace count. Part of my obsessive-compulsive nature, I could not walk anywhere since leaving the military without counting how many paces it took.
We strolled through the woods to a clearing known as the Bald Spot. This was a huge boulder that created a giant clearing in the woods. It butted up against the dirt logging road that connected several farms to the nearest highway. Sara stopped to stretch her legs. I sat down on a fallen log next to the road. Inger and Gustav drank from their water bottles. Through the trees across the road, I saw several stag deer grazing in a farmer's field. The hay field was a brilliant green pool where the stag grazed. Their heads bobbed up and down like fishing corks on the water.
"How you holding up?" I asked Sara. She leaned against my perch and bent down to touch her toes. I scratched her back gently as she stretched.
She looked up and smiled at me. "I'm doing alright. I am just upset that you have to carry around all that gear every time you step outside the door."
"You know why I wear this gear," I replied. "I am not trying to be all 'Tommy Tactical' as you like to call me. I'd rather be prepared for the worst possible situation than be caught with my pants around my ankles. Would you rather have me throw rocks at the bad guys?"
"I know you're trying to protect us now. And you have been doing a great job keeping the Crown Opposition at bay," she said. "But we are in a cease-fire now. The Opposition, I believe, is serious about ending the fight."
"I am not going to rest until they crawl back into whatever hole the came out of. I first swore that I would protect you and your family until we could get away from here. Since your parents refused to leave without Marcus and Cristina, I have stuck by your side and helped defend your home. Ever since you first brought me here, Sara, I have developed a fondness for this country. Everyone I've met has a great sense of national pride. That is one of the reasons I am fighting here today. The other reason is you and your family. I will not stand idly by and let them fall victim to some retard with an agenda."
"Matt, I told you that it wasn't necessary for us to stay and fight," Sara said. "We could have done our part from the States. Mom and Dad would have been fine without us here."
"Do you know that for sure?" I asked.
"No, not really," she said in a hushed tone.
"Well, I took a vow to protect you," I said, taking her in my arms and kissing her cheek. "That vow includes your family, too. Besides, if your mom and dad aren't around, who's going to teach me the 'Tiny Frog' song?"
Sara smiled and pecked me on the cheek. Her parents seemed eager to push on with the walk, and I was too. We had about 5 kilometers left to go, so I adjusted my rifle and tucked my nalgene bottle back into its pouch. "Let's push on. Your mom seems anxious to get moving."
Inger grabbed my hand and started pushing me to the front of the group. A couple of engineers came down this road every couple of days to sweep for mines. Although no mines have been found recently, I was the only one with enough experience to spot them in the ground. I joked with Inger that she was trying to get rid of me so Sara could marry some strapping Swede soccer star.
"You get to stop metal from hitting me!" she laughed. Her diminutive frame was easily hidden behind all the battle gear and my broad shoulders. "Sara can hide back here, too."
We set off down the road again. Inger Helen was dogging my heels as we walked on the dusty road. I would stop short and laugh, as her body would crash into my back. Gustav and Sara were pretending to be bumper cars on the other side of the track. She would giggle as he elbowed her into a tree or bush. Sunlight filtered through the trees and our laughter and conversation was carried on the soft breeze.
Shots rang out in the distance. Three successive blasts broke the peace and scattered the stag from the adjoining field. I dropped to a knee behind a tall pine and scanned for targets. Peering over the sights of my AK, I could see no sign of trouble ahead. Two more shots rang out. Smaller this time, indicating a handgun. The two shots were firecrackers compared to the previous rounds.
I looked behind to see Gustav covering the rear with his pistol drawn. Inger was behind him and covered. Sara moved to my left and took a position across the road. She had managed to get the spare pistol from the bug out bag and was scanning for targets.
"Roughneck 6, this is Overwatch," the radio crackled to life, "We heard shots fired in your area. Can you confirm?"
I depressed the mic switch and responded, "Overwatch, Roughneck 6. We heard them, too. I don't know where they came from, over."
"Copy, six. What's your position?" the radio operator asked.
"Overwatch, we are at Red Three getting ready to traverse through Red Five and Red Nine on
Blue Trail." The Blue Trail went through three different operating areas around Katrineholm. There were nine operating areas by color and a numbered grid, one through nine, divided each. Much the same way as we coded our passwords and visual challenges, the operating areas changed, too. Since our communications were not that secure, we had to take extra care to change things up as often as possible.
The people on top of the water tower knew where we were. At this minute, they were relaying the information back to the central command post. From there, my radio communication would set off a chain of events that would bring extra help into the area.
"Overwatch, advise Kommun that we have possible contact near Red Five. Have the mobile unit stand ready," I advised. The mobile unit was a group of volunteers in two pick up trucks able to respond to a trouble spot when called. One truck carried a heavy machine gun pilfered from a nearby military unit and the other truck carried a mortar crew with equipment taken from the same base.
"Roughneck 6, Kommun advises that the mobile unit is delayed. ETA is thirty minutes. No other units except for the mobile checkpoint in your sector," the observation post called.
I stood up and brushed off my jeans. Being a cease-fire, I thought maybe it was one of the neighborhood irregular forces taking target practice. Further up the road, there was an abandoned firing range. More than likely, this was the reason for the shots. Thinking it was nothing to really worry about, I informed the observation post. "Disregard, Overwatch, it's probably nothing to get all worked up over."
Overwatch received the call and I turned to inform Sara and her parents. "I don't think it is much to worry about. Since we don't have any reports of enemy activity in the area, I suspect it is one of the irregular forces plinking cans or something. I will have a talk with the neighborhood watch commander when we get back."
Gustav asked, "What if it is the enemy? Shouldn't we turn back, or go another way?"
"We'll move off the main road here and take the dirt track through the alder thicket." I traced the path we would take through the trees on the ground between us. "Once we come to the edge, I will move forward and try and make contact. If it is one of the neighborhood watch volunteers, I will give him a good tongue lashing and we can enjoy the rest of our walk," I said.
Inger grabbed my arm and commented in Swedish that she thought it was a bad idea. Sara translated and I agreed.
"There is no other way around it, though. We are the only people around who are able to check it out. We should go down there to make sure it is nothing," Gustav said pointing to the Sara and her mom. "You women can wait for us at a safe place while we check the range out." Gus stood and brushed the dirt from his pants. We moved off the road and into the treeline heading for the alder thicket.
Moving through the thicket reminded me of the entry to a beer garden I once visited in Germany. The front of the beerhouse had this intricate latticework tunnel that opened up into the patio section. The light of the early evening sun filtered through the leaves much like the tiny Christmas lights that hung from the tunnel. Our steps sounded quieter as we made our way down the trail. The pace was slower and tension filled. I was on point and Gustav brought up the rear with the girls in the middle. The distant squawk of magpies drowned the sound of my beating heart from my ears.
I called a halt about ten meters inside the thicket. We could just make out the shooting range from here. Through my binoculars it appeared deserted and that worried me some. All outside appearances looked normal, but that didn't mean someone was lying in wait nearby. A modest three-room house used for storage shielded our view of the shooting stations. This range had been abandoned long ago in favor of a place farther from town. Progress caught up to this popular place before the war and the close proximity to new houses forced shooters to find a new range.
The decrepit building showed no signs of recent use. Several windows were broken out and boarded over. The side door hung loose on a single hinge and the front porch looked in danger of collapsing at any moment. Gustav and I shared the same feeling this place has not been used in a while. Without a word, I motioned my plan to the other three. Gustav and I would make our way around the back of the range and examine the house from a different perspective. Sara and Inger would stay hidden in the trees and watch for anyone, or anything, moving around. They would contact us with the spare radio if they saw something suspicious.
I handed my wife the small binoculars from my chest harness and set her radio to a preset frequency. Gus and I crept off with a smile and a wink to the ladies. Sara had every right to worry about me. Working for the newspaper with her mom kept her from seeing any of the actual fighting that went on. Their combined background in journalism and marketing helped to combat the flow of false propaganda coming over the Internet and influencing the various news reports released by the Crown Opposition. Reading reports of our combat operations was one thing, but I was concerned how Sara and Inger Helen would hold up if this quick recon turned ugly. Stuffing those thoughts in the back of my mind, I focused on the task at hand.
We crossed the road and took cover behind a couple of fallen pine trees. A quick scan showed nothing out of the ordinary. Sara looked on from their hidden position. I moved twenty more meters to the right and slid down a shallow slope. From here, I was able to move more quickly towards the range house and our target. I started moving forward when a deafening crash erupted behind me. Gustav tripped and fell head over heels on an exposed root. His stifled curses could be heard through my muffled giggles. He poked his head up from the ground and I almost died from a laughing fit. He looked like a deranged Easter Bunny with pine needles coming out of various places on his body. The perturbed expression on his face did nothing to calm the case of giggles that washed over me.
He gave me a thumbs up and resumed his position behind me. I looked to make sure we were not spotted.
I stopped at a spot below the shooting benches and low crawled to a point where the house could be observed. The door appeared to have been moved recently, but there was no way of telling for sure. Scattered bits of debris littered the area and neglected weeds were growing in different cracks and crevices throughout the area.
The signs around me clearly indicated that vandals were the most recent visitors to this place. Gustav and I low crawled to a covered position behind an overturned shooting bench. I could see from my spot where graffiti was splattered all over the interior walls of the house. The signs of youth were visible through a crack in one of the windows. Harmless graffiti adorned the walls. No other sign of life could be detected.
Gustav covered my advance to the front of the house. I crept to the front porch and took up a position next to the door. If there was a trap waiting, this is where I would put it. Figuring I was not going to get any younger waiting for Christmas, I pushed the door down with my foot and entered the first room. Clearing the room from left to right; I advanced to the second room and cleared it. The second room led straight to the back room, converted into nothing more than a closet. Dust covered all the paint cans and scraps of lumber that cluttered this room. Seeing no obvious signs of life, I waved at Gustav through the window and gave the all clear to Sara on the radio.
Inger walked up about five minutes later with Sara in tow. She immediately began fussing with Gustav's hair. Several pine needles were still pointing out from various directions. He did not seem to mind the attention as he sat there drinking from his water bottle. I radioed a situation report to the operations center. They were relieved to hear that we came up dry on our reconnaissance. After resting on the porch for another few minutes, we pushed on with our family walk.
"So who do you think it was?" asked Inger. We started walking on the logging trail and she took her place beside me, trying to speed up the pace as usual.
"Honestly, I don't know," I responded. I did not reveal the lack of human presence at the range. That is not to say it did not happen there, but the lack of shell casings or people bothered me. "I'd like to think it was one of our guys just test firing a weapon. I'll know more at the next security briefing."
The road twisted through the forest and out into a large hay field. Several farmers were still trying to earn a living with their crops. Off in the distance, several deer could be seen against the backdrop of the forest grazing on the lush grass. As hard as the economic crush of the war has been, there was a small market for some of the agricultural products. A minimal amount was being exported to neighboring countries, and still more was being sold on the black market to the highest bidder. The black market being the only true market to survive this war, it was beneficial for both sides to have as much control over it as possible.
A small cottage industry of smuggling formed around Katrineholm. An underground network of trails and homes were used to move goods and people along back roads and trails. Almost anything could be moved for a price. The most adventurous smugglers were the young boys and girls not yet old enough to fight. They were able to move swiftly on their mountain bikes passing vital intelligence and message traffic between Loyalist forces. Several older men, not caring to fight, set up a larger distribution network through the area. They were responsible for moving needed supplies around the countryside. Rumors allude to the size and content of their hauls. As one source close to the smugglers claims, they were able to move a bulldozer from LykØ pping to SjØ dertaljÁ without being detected.
We were safe travelling this road. Smugglers did not use this area as part of their operations, so we had nothing to fear. The road started to rise and bend off to the right. As we walked the incline past the fields, the forest quickly enveloped the road. One farmhouse stood silent sentry over the land. There was no sign of the farmer or his family today. Walking by here most days, we would find the farmer working the fields and his two little girls doing what most little girls the world over did on a farm, play with horses. I suspected he might be in town with the family while the fighting was halted.
Half a kilometer later we reached the military crest of the hill. The actual crest of the hill played tricks on the eyes as it merely bottomed out into a shallow depression before rising up in elevation again. Nearing this feature, I heard the faint crackle of a radio playing music. A cold wave of fear washed over me as we suddenly came into view of a pickup truck blocking the road. A roadblock, guarded by four men, blocked our path. They didn't seem too surprised by our appearance. One of the men was sitting in the back of the tiny Toyota truck with his feet up on the side of the bed. He looked to be napping under his baseball cap. Two others were standing by the driver's side window talking with the driver. Cigarettes dangled from their mouths in a comical attempt to resemble the back pages of their favorite rock n' roll magazines. They were laughing at the news broadcast playing from the car speakers. A belt-fed machine gun sat on the hood of the truck. Linked ammunition was draped across the feed tray and an extra can of ammo was lying near the front tire.
Napping boy came awake now at our presence and stood up in the bed of the truck. He waved and then removed his baseball cap with his left hand while keeping his right hand on his belt buckle. Today's challenge was properly presented, and I responded with the same gesture. I then placed my baseball cap on my head backwards. Time seemed to stretch on forever as the group of men guarding this stretch of road stared at us.
My mind scrambled to remember the response to my challenge. Today's code was similar to yesterday's, remove the hat with your left and hold your belt buckle in the right. The response to that was to mimic the first challenge and place your hat on backwards. Whoever started the challenge was supposed to wipe their thigh with their left hand as the all clear signal. If any different signal was given, all bets were off. The code was to be considered compromised and evasive action taken.
Seconds slowly ticked off the clock as I waited for him to respond. One smoker put out his cigarette and shifted his body towards the machine gun. His partner walked behind him and around the front of the truck. Sleepy guy slowly. Put. His. Hat. On. Backwards.
"AMBUSH!" I yelled. Grabbing Inger by her arm, I shifted three feet to my left and dropped down on a knee. I shoved my mother-in-law towards the trees and ordered everyone to run. A flurry of shots rang out over my head as Gustav emptied his Glock towards the threat.
I brought the AK-47 into play and flicked the safety off. Peering over the iron sights and into the EOTech sight on the forward handguard, I took aim at the machine gunner. Three shots found their way into the hood of the truck as I jerked the trigger in panic.
Gustav's bullets found their mark against the windshield. The driver lay slumped over in his seat. The machine gunner was furiously racking the bolt to charge his weapon and appeared oblivious to the rounds flying at him. The two other gunmen were nowhere to be seen.
I emptied the magazine on my AK into the bed of the pickup thinking that the one gunman had sought cover there. I was rewarded with a body flying over the back of the bed and scrambling for cover in the ditch. The machine gunner overcame his problems and finally chambered a round. The barrel of that weapon swung in my direction as he turned attention towards me. Reaching for another magazine, I punched the mag release and fed a fresh mag into the gun. I turned to run as the first burst of automatic weapon fire landed at my feet. Bullets whizzed harmlessly past as Gustav and I ran after our wives.
Slowed by fallen logs and thick underbrush, we finally made our way to the ambush rally point. If there was anything I was good at, I was able to train most everyone in town how to break contact and move to a predetermined spot if they ever were ambushed. One hundred meters inside the trees to our left of the road, we gathered together for a quick head shed. "Is everyone alright?" I gasped, out of breath.
"What happened back there?" Sara cried. Tears streamed down her face and her breath came in ragged gasps. The shock of the moment caught everyone off guard.
"That was the wrong challenge," asked Inger, "Wasn't it?"
"Yes, they must've thought they got the right one from whomever," I responded. I had turned my attention back towards the road. My thoughts briefly drifted back to the checkpoint and its original occupants.
Sara sensed what I was thinking and spoke, "What happened to our people on that checkpoint? Where's our help?"
"We're on our own it seems," I replied. I wanted to break contact right then and there, but we needed to come up with a plan to get away from the remaining threat.
Bullets smacked into the trees from our right side. Several automatic weapons opened up on us from a concealed position. Inger fell back in a torrent of bullets, collapsing on Sara and Gustav. I saw about six more people running through the woods towards our position. Sitting with our backs to the road, we did not see the squad of Opposition soldiers dart out of the woodline on the other side of the road. They did not expect us to run into the thicker woods to the left and were now trying to out flank us. I fired a couple of three round bursts in their direction to slow their advance.
"I've bought you some time. Get moving," I shouted. Pointing in the direction I wanted Sara and Gustav to take. Inger was bleeding from gunshots to the chest and abdomen. It was difficult to tell if she would live, but all that mattered now was to get her out of here and to a doctor.
Sara grabbed the spare Glock and said, "I'm not leaving here without you!"
"Too bad," I shot back, "You need to be with your dad and mom right now. Help your dad get her to safety. Start heading back towards the shooting range and I will catch up." Sara kissed me on the cheek. "I will be right behind you. I promise." More automatic weapons fire rang out overhead. The Opposition squad leader was yelling at his men and barking orders left and right. If Sara and Gustav waited any longer, we would all be in jeopardy of capture.
"MOVE NOW!" I yelled. I sent three more bursts downrange before breaking contact with the enemy.
"Matt, I'm too scared!" cried Sara, "Come with us, please."
Sara was tugging on my arm, urging me to move. "Get going now," I shouted, pushing her towards Gus.
I started running away from the shooting and on a tangent course away from Sara and Gustav. I caught a glimpse of Gus running with his wife in his arms. Her limp body looked like a tiny doll cradled against his chest. I had to put some distance between them and the fighting, and to do that I had to draw the enemy out.
I turned and emptied the magazine back down my line of travel. Hopefully, these guys are foolish enough to follow me instead of my wife's family. I want to get them in a confined spot and bring some reinforcements to bear. I grabbed the radio and started to transmit when a sledgehammer smacked me in the chest.
The force of the impact threw me back. My mind was racing as I fell over. I clawed at my chest trying to draw a breath. The world was spinning around me. All was chaos as the realization that I was shot entered my mind. Stars clouded my vision and pain wracked my chest. The aspect of light and sound changed. My surroundings grew dark. A rushing wind drowned the sounds of approaching soldiers. The miserable ache in my chest felt like failure. The others were in jeopardy as I lay here dying.
"Dumb fucking luck!" I yelled. Oxygen filled my lungs with an imperceptible pop. Drawing deep breaths, my back arched trying to draw every atom out of the sky. The movies obviously have it wrong. Being shot hurts like hell.
My brain tried to grasp the fact that a bullet struck my chest plate. The ceramic armor over my chest stopped the big .30 caliber round from turning my chest into a canoe. Relief swept over me as I reached under the body armor and found no blood. I could only imagine what the bruise would look like tomorrow as I tried to regain my feet.
Shouting and breaking branches brought me from my dazed state as the enemy closed on my position. Time to move on.
Three soldiers were running headlong towards me with their weapons drawn. I rolled back on my other side and put a single bullet into the first man's chest. As he dropped like the proverbial hot potato, his buddies scrambled for the safety of the trees. I rose and continued to send hot lead downrange. Two more rounds found their way into the exposed leg of another soldier. Under the cover of the wounded soldier's screams, I made my escape.
My chest was pounding as I scrambled through the brush and fallen logs that littered the forest floor. The pursuers did not have a hard time following me crashing through the brush and snapping branches. A small plan was formulating in my brain. I needed to double back on my pursuers and get across the logging trail. I almost forgot about my radio when the lightbulb went off in my skull. "Overwatch, this is Roughneck 6," I called.
"Roughneck 6, this is Overwatch," the controller responded, "say your position, over."
"I am at Red Five plus alpha." Plus alpha let the observers know I was ambushed and near my selected ambush rally point. "I've been separated from my group, Overwatch, and they are headed towards Red Three with one injured."
"Copy, Roughneck, both mobile units are going to you with a wagon." The wagon was an ambulance on a stretched Mercedes frame. A V-12 growled under the hood bringing two well-trained paramedics to an emergency call. Socialized medicine be damned, the Swedes could cart a sick person around in style.
"Overwatch, have the mobile teams stand by at Red 6 and contact me on this channel when they get there." I was hurting from the blow to my chest and had to stop for air. The terrain favored the Opposition right now, and I was worried that another group was waiting by the road above. "Tell the wagon to go to the old shooting range. There's one critical patient with multiple gunshot wounds."
I said a silent prayer for my family. Hopefully, they heard the chatter on the spare radio and knew where to go. Sara was quick on her feet, and like her father, she would find a safe place to hole up until help arrived.
Getting back to the task at hand, I crept closer to the roadway. Peering around the base of a giant pine tree, I saw the checkpoint about 75 meters to my right. Three Opposition soldiers milled around the front of the white pickup. Their rifles hung loose on shoulder straps or leaned up against the front fender. These guys were not worried about a counter-attack. This might be one of those intimidation squads we heard about. These yahoos worked around Stockholm to disrupt Loyalist movements. Working independently of regular Opposition forces, they caused havoc by raiding supply lines, ambushing checkpoints, and creating general mayhem wherever they went. Sometimes they masqueraded as Loyalist checkpoints to mark Loyalist sympathizers and high value targets for later attacks.
These guys did not look so tough. I wasn't about to take any chances though. Keeping my head down in the roadside ditch, I crawled to a small dip in the road where I caught a nasty surprise. Clutching his rifle with a look of shock on his face was the man who earlier challenged me. Those lifeless eyes stared back at me as I crawled over the corpse.
The words of a fellow special ops teammate crept into my head as I moved past the body, "You can never have enough ammo unless you are swimming, or on fire." The dead man's ammo belt was easy to remove. I was surprised to find the butt pack on the belt filled with grenades favored by the Swedish military. These boys really did get around, I thought.
The remaining troops by the truck failed to see my body crawling through the bar ditch. The ammo belt was clipped to my side as I peered over the edge of the ditch. The tops of the soldiers' heads were barely visible from my vantage point. Now was as good a time as ever to cross the road. Pretending to have squirrel-like reflexes, I scampered across the road as quiet as possible. The soldiers standing guard did not see me as I moved into the brush at the far side of the road. It was becoming more and more uncomfortable laying on my chest so I moved back from the roadside ditch and into the treeline. Thick shrubs blocked the view.
The radio came to life in my ear with welcome news. "Roughneck 6, this is Viking 3 and 4," called the mobile teams. "We are standing by at the rally point and await further instructions."
Music to my ears. The mobile teams were deployed along a ridge overlooking more fields. Even better, the mortar crew was close enough to create some havoc for the Crown Opposition.
"Viking 4, set up where you are. I'll give you a target reference in three minutes. Break. Viking 3, come down Blue and hold at the start of Red Five. As soon as the mortars cease, come in and pick me up." It was shaky at best, but this was the best plan of action I could think of. As long as the mortars came in on target, I should not have to worry about much resistance. There was probably a dozen more Opposition soldiers moving around the forest and it was time I brought them together for a little reunion.
"Viking copies," came the voice in my ear, "We'll move on your signal."
I slowly crept through the trees towards the roadblock. It took a minute to fumble with the straps on the pack containing the grenades. I managed to pull two of them out to prepare for the counter-attack. Time dragged on as I waited for the three minutes to expire. The three remaining sentries turned their attention to the far side of the road and I was rewarded with four more soldiers emerging from the brush. I quickly pulled the pin on the first grenade and whispered a silent prayer. The lobbed grenade arced gracefully through the trees and landed in the back of the pickup truck. A couple of heads turned at the sound and cried out in alarm. The heat and concussion from the ensuing blast roared past my concealed position. I tossed the other grenade into the remaining bodies and picked up my rifle, scanning for targets.
The far treeline erupted in a wall of bullets as the remaining forces attempted to find my position. I could not hear the calls on the radio over the deafening gunfire. Viking was calling for instructions and I could not respond. Just then, a soldier made a break for my side of the treeline attempting to out flank me. I leveled a short burst from my AK-47 in his direction and he crumpled in a heap. I broke contact and ran deeper into the forest calling for Viking on the handheld.
"Viking, target is marked with black smoke," I shouted, "fire high explosive for effect." A large rock outcropping loomed nearby. I inserted myself between two car-sized boulders for cover. I thought I could hear the faint thump of mortars being launched in the distance.
"Rounds incoming, Roughneck," called the mortar crew, "Get your head down now!" A familiar ripping sound tore the air above me apart as the first mortar salvo landed short of the target.
"Your rounds fell short, Viking," I called back. Through the flames, I saw disoriented bodies running for cover. "Add fifty and fire for effect."
Seconds ticked by as the next salvo was sent downrange. The ground shook with the report of successive impacts on target. Trees splintered, sending added shrapnel into the existing conflagration. Dirt and rocks flew skyward obliterating the evening sun. The thunderous explosions rolled down into the valley below. A debris cluttered road was all that remained of the ambushing forces.
I crawled out from behind cover. Clothes and equipment were covered in dirt and debris. I shook off the loose dirt the way a dog sheds water. A month of Sundays could not remove the rest of this dirt. The dirt and ash on exposed skin gave me the appearance of a West Virginia coal miner.
The high explosive blasts shook my body into a nauseous state. Blinking hard against the queasiness, I fought the urge to vomit. Glancing about, the world appeared decidedly tilted. Moving toward the roadway, it took a moment to connect in my brain. Whole dump truck loads of rock, dirt and vegetation were displaced by the mortar attack. What took Mother Earth eons to create was simply destroyed by six men lobbing explosives from a metal tube.
The smoldering hulk of the pickup truck lay crumpled in the road like a crushed tin can. This was hardly definable as a vehicle now. The engine block somehow separated from its mounts and lodged at the base of a tree. What looked like pale rocks turned out to be hunks of flesh torn from the bodies of the attackers. Large branches and splinters of various sizes added to the mess of metal and debris. Off in the distance, the sounds of wounded men could be heard.
"Viking 4, hold your fire," I said over the radio. There was no need to press the attack. The remains of the Opposition forces were unrecognizable in the rubble.
I approached the wreckage with caution. Men lay dying on the other side of the roadway. Their painful cries faded as they succumbed to their wounds. The mortars found their mark and eliminated the danger. With the threat gone, it was time to retrieve my family.
"Roughneck 6, Viking 3 is coming to you," the radio sputtered. "We'll be there in one minute."
As I waited for the gun crew to arrive, I attempted to make contact with Sara and Gustav.
"Sara, Gus, can you read me? Over," I said.
"Gus, how's Inger doing? Over." Static answered my call. "C'mon, someone answer me!"
I checked the frequency settings and called again, "Family Larrson, can you hear me? This is Roughneck 6…Sara, your husband is trying to reach you. Over."
The loneliest feeling a person can have is when they think the worst has happened to their family. Thoughts raced through my brain. Evil thoughts that I tried hard to force back into my subconscious. Each successive radio call only made them worse. I needed to find my family now.
I somehow found the will to move my legs. Winding my way through the debris, I started to run back down the road towards the range. That was the only place I could think of that they would run to. I could only urge my feet to go faster. Whether or not they accelerated, I did not know. I know I had to hurry.
The Nissan 4x4 truck came tearing around the bend behind me. Passing to the left of me, it skidded to a halt blocking my way. Five heavily armed men stared out from behind their weapons. One man trained the heavy machine gun towards the bodies laying behind me, scanning for movement. Viking 3 had finally arrived. I recognized a couple of the men in back, but was surprised to see my close friend behind the wheel. Relief was temporary as I climbed up in the passenger seat. A dear woman lay dying somewhere and no one was answering my radio calls.
"You really know how to ruin a guy's evening, Matt," Thomas said. His nasally accent made my name sound like 'met'. "Jenny and I were just sitting down to dinner when I got the call. You are going to have some explaining to do when she gets her hands on you."
I first met Thomas several years ago in Houston. He was working for a petrochemical company when we met. He was my wingman the night I met Sara. He knew right away I was starting to freak out with worry.
"Well, that can wait," I said, "just get this thing moving. I can't raise Sara and her dad on the radio." Thomas put the truck in gear and lurched down the road.
"What happened, anyway?" he asked.
"We were ambushed and Sara's mom was hit pretty bad." I was too choked up with concern to talk now. "Just drive faster," I urged him.
Thomas sped down the trail. A rooster tail of dust marked his passing across the hay fields and through the woods. Forest creatures watched our passing as silent spectators. Although the distance was short, it did not seem close enough. Fading light of the evening sun cast longer shadows through the trees. Familiar features were distorted and unclear. Blue lights flashing through the trees marked our destination. The ambulance was on scene. My heart lifted with relief.
Through a crack in one window, I could see a small light. The paramedics must be inside working on Inger Helen. We pulled up behind the ambulance. The gun crew climbed out of the truck and established a perimeter. I left Thomas to lead his squad and headed inside. The door lay on the porch, knocked over in all the confusion. A streak of blood marred the finish. The light from inside washed over the small interior. Blood painted the floor leading to the back room. Footprints tracked through the gore. The mess in the outer room did not prepare me for what came next.
I cried out in alarm entering the next room. Inger's body lay on a stretcher, needles and tubes poked from various extremities. Gustav lay slumped over in the corner. A large welt was forming on the back of his skull. The entire floor was awash with more blood coming from wounds on the dead paramedics. One medic was shot through the back and the other had a pair of EMT shears shoved through his neck.
Thomas came into the house as I stood unmoving in the doorway. We looked on at the carnage in disbelief. Sara was nowhere to be found. Thomas pushed past me into the room. Kneeling over Inger's body, he felt her pulse. Weak and thready, it was there. The medics were able to get her stabilized before they were killed. I was still too shocked to move. Thomas was checking over Inger when we heard a soft moan from Gustav. Shaken out of my trance, I made my way to him and bent down. Gus was alive. He was going to have a nasty bump in the morning, but he was alive.
"Thomas," I said, "Gustav's alive."
"She is, too," Thomas said, "but where is Sara?"
"Don't know," I said, "if I can get Gustav awake, maybe he can tell us." I gently shook Gustav.
Calling his name, I tried to make him come around. "Check that bag, Thomas, and see if there are any smelling salts or something," I said pointing to the bag by the stretcher.
Thomas dug through the bag examining all the pockets. He tossed me an ice pack to put on Gus's head and continued to search. The knot on his head was very tender, and the slightest touch of the ice pack brought Gustav wide awake. He looked up at the two of us.
"Where's my daughter?" he asked.
Thomas and I looked at each other, worried. "I thought you could tell us that," I said.
Thomas chimed in, "Do you know what happened here?"
"The medics were working on Inger when I went unconscious," said Gus. Someone must have gotten the drop on them. That still didn't explain Sara's whereabouts.
Thomas called out to one of his teammates through the window. He had the men move their perimeter out to start a search for Sara. They moved about searching for any sign of her. The forest seemed to double in size as the team scoured the area. I waited on the porch while Thomas cared for my injured in-laws. Word came down that another neighborhood patrol was joining in the search. The extra eyes were beneficial in this fading light.
Thomas and Gustav walked through the door carrying Inger on the stretcher. She was still critically wounded and needed to get to the hospital. I grabbed the end from Gustav and made him sit and rest. The medic in Thomas' crew came over to care for our patient.
"We need to get her out of here," Thomas said. Too much time had lapsed from when she was wounded, and the 'golden hour' was running out.
"You're right," I said, "can you get a couple of men to drive her and Gustav to the hospital?"
"Yeah, good idea. Erik, Krister, komma har!" called Thomas. He spoke briefly with his subordinates and gave strict instructions. The two soldiers placed Gustav in the back of the ambulance and prepared to leave.
Gustav motioned me over. "Please find my daughter," he pleaded, "Find her before something bad happens." I held his hand in cold silence. The evil thoughts were starting to cloud my better judgement.
"Don't worry, Gus," I said. "I will find Sara and bring her home safe. You just take care of your wife for me. And take care of that bump on your head." I was not going to stop until Sara was found. The look in my eyes told him that. I patted his hand and closed the door. Doctors were waiting for Inger and Gustav at the hospital. I slapped the back door shut and the ambulance sped off.
Thomas put his arm around my shoulders. "Try not to worry, pal, we'll keep going until we find her."
"Yeah, I know," I said, "but it is hard not knowing what happened. I can't help but feel I screwed the pooch on this one and got her killed."
"Shut up," Thomas almost shouted. "You did everything you could to protect them. From what Gustav told me in there, you drew the enemy out and were able to help them escape."
"Yeah, but into another ambush?" I asked. "Fat fucking lot of good that did me. Now I have two busted up in-laws, and my wife is missing. Nobody knows where she is, and the search teams have found no trace of her."
"We're gonna find her," Thomas said, "Try not to get worked up about it.""How can I not get worked up?" I shot back, "My wife is out there with God knows who doing God knows what to her. I'll quit being worked up when she is safe in my arms."
Shouting in the distance interrupted our conversation.
"Hej Alihoopa! Komma over har!" one of the searchers shouted. I broke from the porch at a dead run. He was shouting frantically and waving his arms all over the place. My heart was getting a workout from the emotional toll being placed on it. The rest of the squad raced to our position eager for news of Sara. I was right on Thomas's heels as we sprinted from the house.
Thomas asked the excited soldier what he found. This was one of the neighborhood team members helping us search. In his excited state he forgot himself and was having trouble forming words in English. I motioned Thomas to translate, anxious myself for news.
"L¯ ngsam ned," said Thomas, "BÁ ratta oss vad er det materia." Slow down, tell us what's the matter.
"Jag grunda den h¬ r p¯ se Ø ver d¬ r vid s¯ pass liten stigning," the volunteer replied. I found this bag over there by that small rise.
"Talk to me, Thomas," I said, anxious to know, "What's he saying?"
"Hold on, Matt," he said, "Let me get the whole story from him."
Thomas turned to the man and motioned him to continue. "V¯ r grupp kom fr¯ n Laggarhult och sØ kte fr¯ n bryta till var vi er nu." Our group came from Laggarhult and searched from the quarry to where we are now.
"We saw no sign of Opposition forces, or his wife," he said pointing at me, "But over there, by the edge of the quarry, I saw this." The man held up Sara's red and white windbreaker. It was a gift from her cross-country coach at the University of Houston. The tattered rags resembled nothing of the jacket Sara so favored. She wore the jacket whenever we stepped out for a walk, or when she was going to the gym. Now on the run, I fear she is more vulnerable for not having the garment. Superman has his cape, Apollo his winged shoes, but my wife was out there alone, without any means of comfort. I could not imagine the fear she was dealing with.
There is no doubt that Sara can outrun her captors. She has the strength and stamina to run for days. Watching her run a race was magical. Her feet never touched the ground, they glided over the surface. Her lean body moved effortlessly against the wind. The deer in this forest would be hard pressed to keep up with her. Chances were good that she got away from whoever was after her, and I prayed that was the case. I just could not face the very real fear that she was a prisoner of the Crown Opposition. People tell stories all the time about their atrocities. A young woman was guaranteed no chances at surviving capture.
"Is there any other sign of her?" Thomas asked.
"No," said another soldier, joining the group, "but there are prints that lead off that way." He pointed down the trail he came from. Several footprints were visible in the light soil heading away from us.
"Does anyone know where this trail leads?" I asked. Several people stared back not knowing the answer. "Well, I guess we're gonna find out."
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