by Leslie Jones
I’ve been asked a number of times why Night Hush, the 1st book in my Duty & Honor series, did not include the pivotal scene in which Heather Langstrom’s convoy was attacked. Deleting the scene actually made the book stronger and tighter, but because my readers want to experience it, I’m making it available for the 1st time via the Desert Muses blog. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, even though it never made it into the published book.
In the haze of her dream, Heather’s boss coordinated the last details of their trip home. Convoy commander Connors, a big, beefy infantry sergeant, ran a last set of checks, briefing the drivers, getting them settled to move out. The convoy was small – two deuce-and-a-half cargo-slash-personnel transport trucks and an empty flatbed. And them, she thought. Fifteen people. The back of her neck prickled.
They climbed into one of the two-and-a-half ton trucks. Two wooden benches ran the length of the truck bed, one on either side, butting up against the heavy canvas canopy. A modern-day covered wagon. The canopy at least shut out the searing sunlight. Heather positioned herself midway down the left bench. The requisite armored Humvees and their contingent of infantrymen joined the three-vehicle convoy, fore and aft. Armor plating reinforced the trucks, and all the occupants, except the single doctor retuning to Baghdad, wore flak jackets, Kevlar helmets, and weapons. Heather herself, as an officer, carried both a 9mm sidearm and an M16 semiautomatic rifle, the butt of which currently rested between her feet.
The driver banged shut the tailgate and pushed home the locking bolt. The convoy commander gave the signal. The line of vehicles pulled out with gears grinding and the heavy engines roaring.
The members of the convoy stayed alert, but calm. Heather traveled often. Multiple units needed her language skills, even though she was not an interpreter. Many of the soldiers in the interrogation units were hardly conversant with the language, after a bare four months at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. It wasn’t really their fault, or the fault of the language training school. They just needed so many people on the ground that they rushed students out the door and onto planes too soon. She often sat with interrogators, translating for captured insurgents, line crossers, and deserters from the many military forces in this area of the world.
It was a bright day, dusty and dry. The coarse scent of goats and unwashed bodies as they passed a small flock wafted over the trucks, briefly penetrating the acrid smell of diesel fuel. Heather watched Eshma fade into the dust as the convoy ground its way up the road. No window above the tailgate meant the jouncing of the armored two-and-a-half ton truck spewed swirls of dust that had her lifting her T-shirt up over her nose.
The trip to Momardhi would take roughly four hours along the bumpy, winding road. They had been bouncing along for forty minutes when the convoy slowed. The turret gunner in the trail vehicle tensed, eyes riveted on something Heather could not see. The road here curved around to the right, around an outcropping of rocks. The left shoulder of the road dropped abruptly for ten feet. Heather glanced uneasily at the other passengers, gripping her weapon more firmly.
She heard a shout from the front vehicle. Her driver swore, standing on his brakes and jerking the wheel hard to the right. What had to be a roadside bomb detonated, heaving the ponderous truck into the air. The young private wrestled for control as the pressure of the explosion caused it to slew; then a second blast from their right jacked up the front of the vehicle. And, just like that, they became airborne. Even as she heard a whining noise, and another – even as she heard the shouted warning, “Incoming!” – she grabbed hold of the edge of her seat and the metal wall behind her, bracing herself as best she could as the truck groaned, tipped, and fell like an elephant. It hit the drop at the left shoulder virtually on its roof, shuddering to a shrieking, jarring stop. Heather slammed against the side of the truck, her helmet smacking against the metal hard enough to make her see stars. She slid helplessly down the side of the truck to its canvas roof. A heavy body smashed against her, forcing the air from her lungs with a whoosh, and slumped, crushing, on top of her. Around her, cries of surprise and fear turned to groans of pain.
Outside, two rocket-propelled grenades exploded in and around the convoy. She heard gunfire, and struggled to lift the dead weight off of her. The she saw the face of the young corpsman on her, and her stomach churned alarmingly. His face was a bloody mess, his eyes open and staring.
Shoving and wriggling and grunting with effort, trying not to vomit, she rolled the dead body off and dragged herself to her knees, half on the metal side of the truck, and half on its canvas roof. Off balance, she whacked her shoulder against jagged wooden remnants of the benches. Pain exploded through her. For a moment, she forgot where she was, why she should not be hunched over, lost in the haze of pain.
“Lieutenant. Lieutenant!” Someone shook her shoulder.
“We’ve gotta move!” Sharp fear laced the voice.
“Stand fast, private. We got nowhere to go.”
Gunfire ripped the air outside. The tough canvas top of the truck had torn, leaving the ribs of the truck exposed. Heather reached for her rifle, couldn’t find it, and gave up, struggling with the others to get out of the damaged truck. She crawled through a hole in the fabric, lost her balance, and rolled out like a damp lump. Her head swam, nausea roiling through her stomach. Forcing her feet under her, she lurched, turning her head aside barely in time to avoid puking on herself. Concussion. Too bad. She forced her body to scoot around to the side away from the insurgents, riding another wave of dizziness.
She took quick stock – her helmet was gone and blood seeped into her eyes, obscuring her vision. Wiping at the viscous liquid only smeared it. She had a nasty cut on her shoulder, the blood soaking through a tear in her uniform top, just above her flak vest. Scrapes and cuts and bruises.
Two infantrymen near her returned fire, aiming back up to the hill, where she could now see figures descending rapidly. A dozen or so men slid down the incline, shouting at one another, careful to keep behind rocks and outcroppings. Additional adrenaline pumped through her. Fear and disbelief.
This couldn’t be happening.
She broke into a cold sweat. Choking on the bile at the back of her throat, she yanked her sidearm from its holster, racking the slide on her M9 pistol.
“Radio,” she gasped. “Call for help.”
“Done it, ma’am,” Sergeant Connors told her crisply. “Won’t matter.”
Help would not arrive in time, he meant. No cavalry riding over the horizon. She took her eyes off the enemy long enough to look inside the cab of the truck, and nearly lost her lunch then and there. Blood spattered the console and seats. The driver lay halfway out the door, blood covering his chest and face. And Private Pierce sagged back, one arm flung above his head, a bullet hole in his forehead.
Sergeant Connors fired a short burst with his M16, and Heather pulled herself up far enough to peer over the side of the truck. Sighting down the barrel, she squeezed off a round, and watched as one of their attackers pitched backward, dropping his rifle. She ducked back, found another target. There were too many of them. She had to make every shot count.
Beside her, she could hear the other two doing the same. Short bursts. Wait for a target to pop up, fire, duck back down. Calm. Disciplined. These were experienced soldiers. The insurgents sprayed the deuce-and-a-half with rifle fire. They seemed to know sheer numbers would eventually overwhelm the soldiers.
Nevertheless, the soldiers settled in for a long, hard fight.
Sergeant Connors peered around the ruined front bumper and fired. More shouts, and return fire. The racket was staggering. Another explosion sent dust and rocks in a plume, which rained down on them. Heather covered her head with her hands, ducking close to the truck. When the rumbling stopped, she spat dirt from her mouth and sent another round downrange. She ducked back as rounds pinged off of the belly of the truck. Just as she raised herself to fire again, Private Andrews spun around and crashed to the ground. His rifle went flying.
“Shit!” Heather started to crawl to him, but Connors grabbed hold of her.
“We need all weapons firing, Lieutenant,” he yelled.
Andrews writhed in pain, red blossoming from his upper arm, guttural noises coming from his throat. Heather’s heart stuttered. This, then, was what was in store for them. For her.
The doctor ran, bent almost double, over to Andrews and knelt beside him, applying pressure to his wound. Fueled by a desperate determination, she crawled to the dropped M16. Using the rear bumper as a shield, she fired several bursts, and had the satisfaction of seeing two insurgents hit. Then the freedom fighters swarmed over the truck. Heather picked herself up, raising her rifle, prepared to feel the slam of a bullet snuffing out her own life.
Funny, she’d always been told one’s life flashed before one’s eyes at a time like this. Instead, her senses sharpened. She inhaled dust and the funk of blood and fear. Saw each button thread on the gray woolen tunic of the terrorist who popped up in front of her like some duck in a shooting gallery. Felt the hot press of air on her face. The grit of sand between her teeth. Defeat coated her tongue, acrid and metallic. Heather froze, staring at her impending death, so focused on now there was no room for anything else.
From behind, a guerrilla brought the butt of his rifle down onto Connor’s head. The sergeant collapsed. Insurgents shouted, screaming for the soldiers to surrender. Around her, soldiers set their weapons on the ground and laced their fingers on top of their heads.
There was a shout from beside her. Something hit her arm so hard it went numb, and she lost her grip on the weapon. This was it, then. She braced herself. Rough hands grabbed her from behind. She lashed out with her feet and elbows. She connected solidly with the man behind her. He growled and hit her alongside her head with a meaty fist. Stars burst behind her eyes. She sagged without volition. The man twisted her arms up behind her. A cry ripped from her throat.
One of the men came right up to her, pushing through the others with clear authority. He slung his rifle across his back and grabbed her chin, turning her head from side to side. Even with her vision blurry, she recognized the thickset, swarthy man she’d overheard at the marketplace. He said something to the other men, who laughed, their crudeness clear even through her ringing ears. The leader grabbed her flak jacket and wrestled it from her body. The man behind her had to release her arms to get it off her body, and she took full advantage, twisting her hips and putting her whole body behind the punch.
She hit the leader squarely in the nose. The cartilage gave beneath her fist, and blood spurted over her hand and arm.
The insurgents roared and bellowed with outrage. Someone took her legs out from under her. She fell heavily. Someone else kicked her. Fire flared in the region of her ribs.
The leader, blood dripping down his face, fell on her, crushing the breath from her lungs. His fingers wrapped around her throat and squeezed. And as her vision tunneled and grayed, her last coherent thought was that she should have hit his windpipe.
Leslie Jones is an award-winning and RITA® nominated author who writes military romantic suspense because she loves alpha heroes and strong heroines. She is truly grateful to the men and women of our Armed Forces for their dedication and sacrifice. She draws on her 11 years of Army service as she writes. Her books can be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and HarperCollins Publishers.