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Ears ringing from the explosion, Nathan Wyatt struggled to retain consciousness, one hand instinctively closing on his weapon, while he flung the other forward to find a brace as the Humvee spun one hundred and eighty degrees. His nose hurt like a bastard.
The vehicle ground to a halt on its destroyed front tires with a slamming jolt, facing the second of the four-vehicle convoy they'd been leading.
From the backseat, Nate blinked, trying to process what he was seeing.
The road mine had blown in the hood, twisting their custom-fitted bull bars into a kids' climbing frame and sending shrapnel tearing into the interior. Groaning, Ross slumped over the steering wheel, blood soaking his lower body. Beside him, Steve raised shaky hands to a head wound.
The roar of an accelerator dragged his attention through the shattered windscreen. The second convoy vehicle was reversing at high speed, its occupantslocal alliesfiring wildly. Bullets whizzed past the mangled Humvee. C'mon, guys, we taught you better than
The truck imploded in a blinding flash of light and the Humvee shuddered under a percussion shock. Gravel, rock and flaming debris showered the roof. Nate's brain engaged. Fast. The first improvised explosive device had been weight triggered. The second, timer detonated. Someone had waited to set it off when the truck backed up to find cover.
He jerked upright, wiped a hand over his rapidly swelling nose. "Ambush!" he hollered at Lee. No response. For the first time he realized the gunner's legs weren't dangling from the turret. Seizing a link of ammo for the .50 machine gun bolted to the Humvee's roof, he yelled at Steve, "We've lost Lee!"
The jerry cans of fuel exploded in the burning truck, spewing flaming material in every direction and belching clouds of black smoke. It swirled through their doorless vehicle, making him cough.
"Need help!" Steve shouted. Grabbing the comms unit with one hand, he used the other to press down on an arterial wound in Ross's thigh that was pumping blood like an oil well, thick and viscous.
Nate dropped the ammo link and scrambled for the medic kit.
"Contact, contact!" Steve shouted, giving the coordinates for backup as Nate ripped the packaging on an elastic latex band and jerked it tight a couple inches above the wound. A third explosion from the burning truck rocked their vehicle, and Nate cursed as one of the two steel S-hooks caught Ross's flesh. Good thing he was unconscious.
Steve dropped the mic and took over with Ross. "Got it. Recon!"
Reshouldering the link of ammo and his weapon, Nate swung up through the hole in the Humvee's roof, emerging into fierce heat and choking clouds of noxious black smoke. Even through a broken nose he could distinguish the obscene note of barbecuing flesh.
The blazing truck was providing temporary cover. But it only needed a shift in the hot desert wind to expose them. To show the enemy their job wasn't done. It took one glance to ascertain the machine gun was inoperable. As he armed his M4A1 with a grenade launcher, he strained to see through the stinging smoke. Trying to locate the enemy, sight Lee, discover an LUPlaying-up position. The fumes coated his throat, already tight with emotion he couldn't afford. Stay alive, mate. We'll come for you.
But first they had to save themselves.
The ringing in his ears gone, he could hear exploding rocket-propelled grenades, bursts of 40mm grenade fire and the steady stream of small arms and machine guns. Through the billowing smoke he caught glimpses of tracer rounds, and could see that the convoy's two remaining vehicles were under attack and returning fire. Nate ducked back into the Humvee.
His body twisted at an awkward angle, Steve was applying a QuikClot sponge to Ross's wound. "Our guys engaging." Nate handed him a pressure bandage and started collecting extra weapons and ammo. "No sign of Lee, but visibility's shit, which is buying us time. Can't see an LUP. We'll have to take our chances with the ditch alongside the road. Now let's get the hell out of here before the insurgents discover we're not dead yet."
"My foot's trapped." Steve tied off a bandage. "Leave me a crowbar and a GPMG. I'll catch up to you two."
Nate dropped his armful on the ground outside the Humvee, fetched the crowbar and set to work, cutting off Steve's protest. "You can waste time arguing or you can plug Ross into a saline/morphine drip."
Steve bent over Ross. Blood from his head wound dripped onto the unconscious man and he paused to wipe it with his sleeve. It was shredded and bloody with shrapnel, but the Kevlar vest had protected his chest. "Smoke starts thinning, you go," he barked.
Nate began levering the jagged metal away from Steve's calf. "Don't distract a one-eyed man." The left was swelling shut and his nose had clotted, forcing him to breathe through his mouth, which drew the acrid smoke farther into his lungs. Every cough made him feel as if his face was being hit by a two-by-four.
In the midst of the chaos, both men worked with glacial calm. Steve stuck a needle in Ross's arm. "Stay alive, Ice."
Ross stirred. "Hey, we're the Indestructibles," he muttered. He opened his eyes. "Where's Lee?"
His hands slippery with blood and sweat and a fear he wouldn't give in to, Nate redoubled his efforts. "Expecting him any minute, leading the U.S. frickin' cavalry."
Ross lapsed back into unconsciousness.
"Smoke's thinning," warned Steve.
"Got it." With a grunt, Nate levered the last of the tangled metal away from Steve's calf, then swore. The ankle was securely clamped in place by the twisted bull bars.
For a moment Steve stilled, then calmly finished taping the IV to Ross's body. "Pass me some hardware and get outta here."
Nate dropped the crowbar. "I'll get a hacksaw. Cut off your foot if I have to."
"There's no time, mate." Steve's voice was shaky but determined.
As if substantiating his argument, they heard the whine of an RPG. Twenty meters in front of them the road exploded. They'd been spotted.
Steve picked up Ross's weapon. "Take Ice and find cover. I'll keep them busy."
"No man left behind." Scrambling to his feet, Nate hauled out a machine gun and lay on the ground beside the Humvee. Wiping the sweat from his battered face, he took aim and fired. A burst of rounds kicked up the hill.
"I said go. We're not all dying today."
Ignoring Steve, Nate lined up another shot.
A second RPG imploded, fifteen meters to the left of the vehicle, igniting a small pool of fuel. "Get Ross the hell out of here and save his life." Viciously, Steve kicked Nate in the ribs with his free foot. "That's an order, soldier!"
With a roar of frustration, Nate scrambled to his feet and hoisted Ross onto his shoulder. Steve loaded him up with munitions. "Tell my family I love them. And tell my wife" His voice broke. "Tell Claire I'm sorry."
Nate set his jaw. "I'll drop Ross and come back."
His best friend's gaze met his. "Goodbye, mate."
"I'm coming back, goddamn it!"
Steadying Ross, Nate ran. Lungs pumping, stomach sour, heart breaking. He ran.
The blast flung him forward on a surge of heat and power. He landed winded, staring into a blue Sunday sky with Ross on top of him. Rolling them both into the ditch, he elbowed up the shallow bank with desperate speed. The Humvee was burning, Steve, a silhouette amidst the flames. Half a dozen insurgents descended from the wadi, opening fire.
On a sob, Nate raised his weapon to his good eye, aimed and pulled the trigger.
And then the fighting started.