Vick Harwood's mission was to kill the Chechen, but complications arose quickly as two Taliban riflemen appeared on the ridge above their hide position.
It was a tough enough shot without the Taliban factor. Harwood and his spotter were in a dusty hide position. The tan-and-black Kandahar Mountains leaned over them like a pissed-off drill sergeant, hot, smelly, and overbearing. The Chechen was holed up eight hundred meters away. Below Harwood, poppy farmers scraped resin into burlap sacks. Red and white poppy flowers framed the brown waters of the Helmand River and its valley until the horizon met the setting sun. Harwood and his spotter smelled like unwashed week-old gym socks.
But Harwood could make the shot. He'd done it before. Thirty-three times in the last three months, to be exact. Harwood was a sniper. Not just any sniper, but the deadliest sniper in the U.S. Army. He seemed to always be there. Providing cover. Knocking down the guy that was about to kill friendlies. Picking off the mujahedin about to shoot the rocket-propelled grenade. Always there. His buddies had nicknamed him the Reaper. A nom de guerre was a badge of honor among warriors. "Reaper" left no doubt about Harwood's specialty: killing the enemy.
With harvesting the next kill on their mind, Harwood and Corporal Sammie Samuelson — too new to have a Ranger nickname — homed in on the Chechen's domain.
"We've still got movement on the ridge," Samuelson whispered. "Two hundred meters. Muj. Still heading our way. AK-47s. And we've got a convoy closing in on Sangin village a mile in the other direction." Sangin was a small hamlet of adobe huts on the Helmand River and was the nexus of Afghanistan's poppy trade.
"No way the muj knows about us. We're solid," Harwood said under his breath. It was a judgment call. Over the past two days since their insertion, shepherds and wanderers had drifted within fifty meters of their nearly invisible position. They looked like rocks in their tattered ghillie suits.
"You're the boss," Samuelson grunted.
"What's up with the convoy?"
"Three Hilux pickup trucks. Prob Taliban poppy dudes coming in to check the stash."
Clumsy footsteps on the far ridge echoed. Boots scraped on shale. Rocks broke free and rolled hundreds of feet down the sheer cliffs. The Taliban were getting close, but only one kill mattered now — the Chechen — not two Taliban riflemen and not the convoy of small pickup trucks. The sun had the Chechen's hide site — a U-shaped rock formation — spotlighted perfectly.
"Muj closing in, boss. On the ridge."
"Roger," Harwood said.
The Chechen's lightly bearded face briefly filled the crosshairs of Harwood's Leupold scope, which was mounted on his SR-25 sniper rifle, then disappeared.
Harwood had nicknamed his rifle "Lindsay" after a foster sister. Lindsay had been older and kind to him. Cooked for him. Gave him advice. Took care of him and the others. Told him to run as far as he could when the time was right — when things turned bad on the farm. But he hadn't run. He had stayed to fight. To protect Lindsay. To make sure she made it out, too. But he had failed her.
He carried Lindsay with him everywhere he went now. For Harwood, it was all about keeping the memory alive. He didn't have much to treasure from his childhood, but Lindsay was someone, a sister of sorts, he would honor his entire life. Lindsay — the rifle — still took care of him, in her own way. She was outfitted with a ballistic sound suppressor on the muzzle. The suppressor wasn't perfectly quiet, wasn't meant to be, but it was better than the alternative. Most importantly, Lindsay was effective.
Thirty-three kills in ninety days.
The setting sun dialed back the heat incrementally, like turning down the flame of a gas stove. In a matter of minutes, the temperature would swing to cold. The sweat would transition from useful and cooling to damp and irritating. But they were Rangers. Conditions didn't matter. Only the mission.
"Confirm friendlies clear," Harwood said. "Sun is spotlighting his shadow. Might help us predict when he comes out."
"Roger, boss. No friendlies in the AO, but those two muj are sniffing now about a hundred meters away," Samuelson muttered. "AO" was army acronym parlance for area of operations.
"Chechen's moving a lot. Shadow looks like he's on his radio," Harwood said.
"Roger, watching," Samuelson replied. Samuelson was less than five feet from Harwood, observing through his spotter's scope. The standard was to always be within arm's reach of your Ranger buddy. Three weeks ago Harwood's former spotter, Joe LaBoeuf, had been that close when the Chechen's sniper shot found LaBoeuf's forehead. The bulk of LaBoeuf's brains had splattered onto Harwood's face.
"Roger. Ignore the muj for now. Focus on Basayev," Harwood directed.
After LaBoeuf's death, the Ranger intelligence officer had provided Harwood with a full dossier on the Chechen. His name was Khasan Basayev. Considered the number-one threat to U.S. soldiers other than roadside bombs, Basayev was a mercenary. The report indicated that the Taliban and Pakistani intelligence paid nicely to kill American soldiers in Helmand Province. Basayev was mainly protecting supply trains moving between Iran and Pakistan. The Ranger operations officer had briefed Harwood and Samuelson, telling them that their mission was to kill the Chechen so that the Rangers could raid the convoys and interdict the weapons and drugs.
And now, the duel between the Reaper and the Chechen.
Harwood shifted his scope to the town of Sangin, a short half mile beyond the Chechen's position. The three-vehicle convoy Samuelson mentioned consisted of identical tan Hilux pickup trucks with toppers. They skidded to a stop in front of some adobe homes — qalats. Switching back to Basayev's hide, Harwood noticed Basayev's shadow. The Chechen was gesturing with his arms in an agitated manner.
"Check out what has him so freaked, Sammie," Harwood directed his spotter.
Samuelson was nineteen years old and relatively new to the Rangers. He had passed Ranger training and was an apprentice sniper. The corporal had to have some mettle to get through Ranger School. Even more, Ranger Command Sergeant Major Murdoch must have thought something of him to put him on the path to sniper.
"Roger. Three guys out of the trucks now and ... holy shit."
"They're dragging two women wearing burqas from one of the compounds. They're handcuffed. Now I see a third woman. She's fighting like a banshee."
"Maybe the Chechen knows them," Harwood said, remaining focused. The Chechen's outline danced against the khaki-colored rock formation like a shadow performance.
With no shot on Basayev, he shifted his scope again to the action Samuelson was describing. He twisted the focus dial with his fingers protruding from cut olive-and-black gloves. The silky sheen of long, raven hair caught his eye. No burqa.
The men were dressed in traditional Afghan outer garments that loosely covered the torso and leg, and the Peshawari turban, a sweat-stained white sheet wrapped around the head a few times with the remainder left to hang like a ponytail. The captors had dark beards dyed with henna. Two men lifted one woman into each truck. A third man pulled the long black hair of the lady without the burqa. They scrambled. The man slapped her hard. Her face turned toward Harwood, as if she were looking at the scope from a mile away, perhaps wishing for him to shoot her, knowing what torturous fate lay ahead.
The sun cast an orange glow that made the small village of adobe huts look like center stage in a spaghetti Western. Harwood switched back to Basayev, whose shadow showed he was shouting into a mobile radio or phone as he stared at the village.
Having no loyalties was the mercenary's maxim. Fight for money, not country or anything else. A pure cash transaction, devoid of emotion. The thin gruel of intelligence on Basayev identified that he had married a French woman. There had been just one picture in the Ranger intelligence officer's target folder, showing the Chechen with an attractive, black-haired woman with ropy muscles. The photo showed her wearing a black sleeveless dress, him a gray pinstriped suit with white shirt open at the collar. The background appeared to be a hotel casino.
Was that Basayev's wife in the village? Harwood wondered.
Briefly, the Chechen's head popped out and his ice-blue eyes flashed at their position. It appeared to be a random, unknowing glance.
Samuelson noticed it, too. "Think he saw us?"
"No chance," Harwood said. "We look like rocks. What do you have up on the ridge?"
"They're scanning. Still in the open. I think we're good."
"They connected to what's happening in the village?"
"Don't know. Be weird if they were."
From their perch, the poppy fields were no different from the farms Harwood worked as a foster child in rural Maryland. A reputation as a hardworking kid had stopped a series of pass-arounds for young Vick Harwood when a cattle rancher had seen him carrying a bale of hay in each hand as if they were briefcases on a morning commute to work.
"What's holding you up, bro?" Samuelson asked. "Thinking about that USO babe?"
"Watch it, Sammie," Harwood replied. His lips were dry and dusty as he spoke. The truth was that the "USO babe" made him feel good. Most of the men had swooned over the blond hair and freckles of Jackie Colt, the Olympic air rifle gold medalist they had met a few weeks ago.
"Just remember, bros before hos," Samuelson said. "That's our code."
Harwood smiled. The informal code of placing your battle buddy first was ingrained in every Ranger's mind. It always came down to that in the end. Ranger buddies first and forever. Harwood sniffed and could smell himself, or maybe it was Samuelson. By now it didn't matter. They both stank, sweat stains dried into their combat uniforms, leaving the white salt residue that was a badge of honor when returning to the forward operating base.
"Trucks packing up. Like a kidnap team or something. I'll call it in after we cap the Chechen," Samuelson reported. "Muj on the ridge at fifty meters. Looking this way. Moving this way." His whispered words tumbled over each other as the adrenaline surged.
Harwood shifted his scope and rifle. Three trucks were snaking out of the village.
"What'd they get? Three women?"
"Roger that. Back on the Chechen. Check it out," Samuelson said. Before Harwood moved his scope, one of the men in a passenger seat pulled out his binoculars and scanned in their general direction.
He shifted back to the Chechen. "I've got him. He's looking right at us. It's not possible for them to know where we are unless someone's talking to him," Harwood said. "What's on the ridge?"
"They're looking right at us," Samuelson said. The men in the village, the Chechen, and the Taliban on the ridge were all looking in their direction. Not good.
Basayev carried an SV-98 rifle known for its accuracy and enhanced penetration rounds, but not its distance. Similarly, Harwood's SR-25 was known for its versatility and accuracy at shorter distances. While the advertised maximum effective range of the weapon was something less than a mile, Harwood knew it all came down to the sniper. His Ranger Regiment command sergeant major had always told him, "It's the archer, not the arrow."
"Here he comes," Samuelson said.
"I've got him," Harwood replied. He tightened his finger on the trigger, ready to do to Basayev as the Chechen had done to LaBoeuf. Harwood stayed in the zone, ready to fire. His sight picture was good. A few wisps of dust shot across his scope lens but nothing serious enough to obscure the shot.
The Chechen was shouting into a personal handheld radio and had completely diverted his attention from taking cover behind his hide position to standing and beginning to run toward the village. The trucks pivoted and kicked up clouds of dust as Basayev stopped and stared.
He was perfectly still.
Harwood steadied his rifle, had the man's head in the crosshairs, saw the emotion on his face. Something terrible had happened to him. Not his concern. The shot was there.
He took it.
Basayev dove back behind his rock pile. The bullet missed, smacking harmlessly into the shale, a dust cloud in its wake. It was now nothing more than a warning to Basayev. Perhaps he had known all along that he was under surveillance.
"Shit," Harwood said.
"What's he doing now?" Samuelson asked.
A piece of cardboard the size of a combat ration box, two feet by two feet, emerged from behind the rock.
It's a damn message! Harwood thought. Written in black camo stick!
Bring her back! Trade?
"Oh, man," Harwood said. "We're burned. Bring her back? Trade? WTF?"
The high-pitched whine of mortar or artillery rounds whistled overhead. Oddly, the distinctive noises were not coming from the direction of the Chechen, the men on the ridge, or the Taliban hideout of Sangin. Basayev must have offset the indirect fire team. Based upon the whistling sound, the rounds were coming from behind and only a few seconds away.
Explosions rocked their position. Shrapnel and rocks flew everywhere. Debris whipped past them like a hive of angry hornets. Harwood tried to move, but the deafening thunder of mortar rounds bursting around their position immobilized him.
"Sammie!" he shouted. Harwood reached out with his hand only to have it raked by supersonic shrapnel and rocks. Samuelson wasn't there. Lindsay, the sniper rifle, jumped in front of him, bucked with the ground as the shale beneath him buckled and gave way like a California mud slide in heavy rains. The sensation of plunging into a rock pile was worsened by every sniper's worst fear: losing his spotter.
Harwood landed somewhere, he wasn't quite certain. His mind was reeling. Rocks pounded relentlessly into his body, like Mike Tyson body punches.
Bring her back! Trade? spiraled through his mind before blackness consumed him. Pinging in the darkness, like sonar, was the final echoing thought: Bring who back? And what did he have to offer in trade?
Khasan Basayev stood in his sniper hide as the two men approached. They placed a wounded man and a rifle on the ground in front of him. A quick glance confirmed this was not Harwood. He looked up, shaking his head.
"Go back and get me the Reaper," he said to his two Taliban spotters. "This is not him."
After a pause, the leader asked, "How much?" They knew the risk of American helicopters arriving soon. It was only their proximity to the mortar fire that had allowed them to secure the one injured American and a rifle.
"One thousand dollars for each of you," Basayev promised. It was a hollow gesture. The men would die tonight.
They nodded and began running the half mile along a mountain-ridge goat trail to the American hide position. Prior to executing any mission, Basayev spent two days scouting potential enemy reconnaissance locations, pencil-sketching them at the angle from which he expected to be observing. Having studied Vick Harwood, the black Ranger sniper, Basayev admired the man's tradecraft. It was just one rock angled slightly askew that had tipped him off. Even with his preparation, though, he never had a shot at Harwood or his spotter.
Now as his two pawns closed on the position again, the search-and-rescue helicopters — a UH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation aircraft and an AH-64 Apache gunship — arrived and struggled with the high winds that had predictably appeared with the change of temperature as darkness arrived. The two men found cover and fired on the helicopters. Rifle shots echoed down the Helmand Valley. The Apache gunship spit Hughes M230 chain-gun rounds at his two men, most likely dead now. Better that than captured.
The Black Hawk medevac hovered over a deep ravine next to the Reaper's hide position. A pararescue medic sat atop a T-bar connected to a wire cable as the crew lowered him into the crevice using a hoist. After a minute, he reappeared with a body strapped to his chest, presumably Harwood. For thirty minutes the search-and-rescue team continued the fruitless hunt for Harwood's spotter. More rifle shots echoed in the Helmand Valley, pushing away the vulnerable helicopters.
As the helicopters fled the random gunfire, Basayev looked at the American and the rifle the two men had delivered. The man was barely alive, having suffered a severe head injury either from shrapnel or falling debris.
He created a makeshift litter to drag his newly acquired captive, shouldered his rucksack, and then pulled behind him the heavy weight of his bounty. Stepping onto the treacherous trail, he moved quickly to his vehicle, which was parked a mile away.