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Madison Duncan couldn't still her excitement. She wanted to see the Afghan horses near the house where she was staying. She slipped away from the U.S. agricultural mission in the Shinwari leader's home.
Earlier, when she and the six men on her mission had been driven in with their Marine Corps escort, she'd spotted a corral of Afghan horses out behind the three-story mud-and-rock house. She was the horse breeding expert on the humanitarian mission to help the Shinwari tribe improve their horses. And now, Madison simply couldn't wait any longer to take a look at the animals.
Taking a side door, she quietly slipped outside. It was dusk, the sky a cobalt dome above the valley ringed by the high Hindu Kush mountains. Already, she could see stars so close that it took her breath away.
They were ten miles from the Pakistan border, and the Marine captain, whose duty it was to keep this group of U.S. civilians safe, had told her they were in the badlands. The area was heavy with Taliban and Al-Qaeda activity and skirmishes. The captain warned her no one was safe without military escort, even inside the five-foot mud wall that surrounded Lar Sholten, a large village of two hundred people.
She could barely see through the semidarkness of the June evening, the dust fine and rising around her knee-high black leather riding boots as she headed toward a corral of rock and mud. Inside were about ten Afghan horses.
Her heart quickened with anticipation as she pulled her denim jacket a little tighter around her. At six thousand feet, the night air turned cold, and she wished she'd brought more than summer clothes. At least her jeans helped shield her from the dropping temperature. She just needed a good, bulky winter sweater.
Some of the horses nickered as she walked up to the wooden gate. Smiling, Madison put her hand over the chest-high wall, calling to them. "Hey," she cooed softly. "Come on over
" These were small horses, maybe fourteen hands tall, sturdy with thick necks. Their heads still bore some resemblance to their Arabian ancestors with small muzzles and short, fine ears. A gray horse with a thick, scruffy black mane walked over. Madison had been told that the Afghans always rode geldings. Tribal leaders were the only ones who could ride a stallion. The mares were kept solely for breeding purposes.
She smiled and saw how large the brown eyes were on the gray gelding. Scratching his ears, which he loved, she tried to look at the animal's overall conformation.
The Shinwari tribe had signed papers with the U.S., asking them for help. Her father, John Duncan, owned a Trakehner stud farm in College Station, Texas, and had been invited to go along. He'd broken his ankle and couldn't make it, and Madison pleaded successfully to be allowed to go in his stead. She'd been raised with the Prussian warm-blooded horses that had a global reputation for refining and improving any other breed of horse.
At last, she was here with these beautiful animals. She focused on the gray horse and stood on tiptoes to look over at his legs. He had a short back and fine-looking head, all reminiscent of earlier Arabian breeding. Afghanistan, at least in the eastern portion, was nothing but rocky mountains and desert, and the Arabian influence on these horses was telling.
She moved to the wood-slatted gate and knelt down, running her hand down the animal's front leg. He had a short, thick cannon bone, which was good for mountainous areas. Surprised at how nice his front legs were, her mind automatically went to the next step. Her job was to assess the horses and determine what breed could improve them. The leader of the village had said he wanted a taller horse because not all Afghans were short, although she'd seen many who were.
It was getting too dark to see, but Madison stood there, her arms wrapped around her body, listening to the soft snort of the horses inside the corral. Soon, she'd need to return since she was alone and it was dark. The U.S. mission was staying at the home of Timor Kahn, the Shinwari chieftain. There, the Marine detachment would guard them twenty-four hours a day.
She looked up. The stars were now huge and hung so close that she thought she might reach out and touch them. Madison heard the wind gusting down off the mighty Hindu Kush. The valley was long and wide with a river running through it. Everything seemed so peaceful. She noticed some of the horses lift their heads, ears forward, hearing something she could not.
Madison thought it might be one of the Marine guards who had discovered her missing and come looking for her. She'd probably get chewed out. The Marines were jumpy and wary. Yet, as she absorbed the night sky and the snort of horses, the place seemed so placid.
Suddenly, her world erupted. A strong male hand clapped over her mouth. Madison was jerked backward off her feet. Her nostrils flared and a scream lodged in her throat. She was slammed to the ground. Her head struck the dirt with force, almost knocking her unconscious. She heard a hiss and an order in a foreign language. Struggling, she felt a rag shoved into her mouth and then tightened around her head so she couldn't scream. Terror flooded her as she tried to kick out at her unseen attackers.
Oh, God! Her mind shorted out as she felt her arms jerked behind her back and rough ropes being looped around her wrists. The bindings bit savagely into her skin and she cried out, the sound dying behind her gag. Breathing hard, she barely saw faces. Men's faces. They wore turbans. Their eyes were filled with hatred. She was jerked roughly to her feet.
Madison tried to struggle. Someone threw a black wool hood over her head, and she tried to yank free. The hands of the men propelled her swiftly forward. She tried to fight, until one of her attackers slapped her. Hard. Her knees almost buckled from the blow. Madison was half dragged and half carried away from the house.
Nose bleeding, her cheek smarting and throbbing, Madison was put up on a horse. She heard the mutterings of men around her. What was going on? What was happening to her? A rope was looped around her left ankle and then passed beneath the belly of her horse. Her right ankle was also tied.
Raw terror compelled her to try to cry out. She fought the bonds holding her hands behind her back. Her legs were tied such that she couldn't lift them to kick the horse she was on. She was trapped.
In moments, she heard a flurry of action around her, and then her horse lurched forward into a gallop. She nearly fell off, but yanked herself forward, gripping the fleeing horse with her long thighs. She'd been captured!
As they rode hard, the pounding of hooves thundered in her ears. She heard a whip strike the rump of her horse. The animal grunted and leaped forward, galloping faster. Tears jammed into her eyes. Oh, God, she shouldn't have left the house! She should have listened to the Marines! What was going to happen to her? How could she get loose?
"Raven Actual, this is Raven Main. Over."
Frowning, Petty Officer, 2nd Class Travis Cooper answered his radio. He was in his hide, his .300 Win-Mag sniper rifle on a bipod searching for an HVT, high value target, that was to come across the border. It was his job as a SEAL to take the target out.
"Raven Actual," he answered, wondering what was going down. He didn't get a call unless something went seriously wrong. He was in his hide five hundred feet above the desert floor on the rocky slope of scree, waiting for his HVT. Above, the stars glimmered and danced in the night sky.
"Be apprised an American woman, Madison Duncan, has been kidnapped by the Taliban. We've got a drone watching the group's progress toward the border."
Surprised, Travis scowled. An American woman? Out here? His mind spun with a hundred questions. "Roger, Raven Main." So how was he involved in this?
"She has been kidnapped from the Shinwari village of Lar Sholten, ten miles west of your position."
He sat back from his position of looking through his Nightforce scope. "Roger that, Raven Main." And just exactly what did Lieutenant Brad Scofield, his LT and head of Delta Platoon back at Camp Bravo, want him to do about it?
"Raven Actual, you are the closest to where it appears the Taliban is headed. They're pushing though the night to make the border, so they must have night vision capability."
"Roger that." Travis knew the U.S. military couldn't throw lead at the kidnappers. The bullets or bomb could kill the American woman, too. He was beginning to see the handwriting on the wall. He'd been in his sniper hide for two weeks, watching and patiently waiting for this HVT to leave Pakistan and sneak across the border into Afghanistan. And it was his job to identify him and take him out.
"Raven Actual, we need you to interdict this group of five horsemen and take them out. It's imperative Ms. Duncan be kept alive and rescued. Over."
Grimacing, Travis said in his West Texas drawl, "Roger that, Raven Main. You got an ETA when they're gonna come by my area?" Hell, that group of Taliban could split off or ride elsewhere other than where he was. However, Travis's hide was probably one of the most perfectly placed for watching the traffic across the border.
"Raven Actual, Master Chief Braden will be in touch with you as this goes down."
"Raven Main, what about dropping a couple of SEALs to apprehend them?"
"Negative, Raven Actual. The minute they hear a helicopter coming toward them, they're going to scatter and hide in those caves. Right now, we have drone eyes on them and they are moving toward the border."
Well, hell's bells. Travis scrubbed his face. "Roger, Raven Main. Do you have an ID on this kidnapped American?"
"Roger, am transmitting to your laptop right now."
This was not what Travis wanted. He couldn't give away his hide position. He'd been out in the mountains for weeks, hunting and waiting. "Hold, Raven Main," he muttered, leaving his sniper rifle where it sat and moving into his hide. He grabbed his laptop, opened it up and then connected it via satellite phone. It was the only way to receive or transmit pictures and other intel. The screen was in low light mode so it couldn't be seen by the enemy, who were always in the caves around his hidden position.
The color photograph, a passport photo, of Madison Duncan opened up. His heart jumped for a moment. She was young. He quickly scanned the passport and other provided information. Blond hair, blue eyes, twenty-six years old and from College Station, Texas. Hell, she was a Texas gal. That made this more important to him because he was from Texas. And it didn't hurt a thing that she was damned good-looking. And single, according to the intel. Madison's shoulder-length blond hair had been streaked several shades and colors by the sun. Her face was oval with a broad brow, high cheekbones and a beautiful mouth. Yeah, that mouth could get him into a lot of trouble, and he smiled to himself.
"Raven Main, you got anything else on the package?" Like, what the hell was she doing out here in the badlands?
"Roger, Raven Actual. She's part of a U.S. agricultural mission to help the Shinwari tribe. Her father owns a Trakehner stud farm and she's over here to look at Afghan horses and suggest better breeding methods to the tribe."
Trakehners? Travis had heard about the breed but his familiarity was with the quarter horses on his father's ranch. "Roger that. How did she get kidnapped?"
"According to the U.S. Marine Captain who was in charge of protecting this group, she slipped out of the house at dusk. They found evidence of a struggle at the horse corral."
So, the Texas gal disregarded the Marine's orders to stay with the group and remain guarded. Travis shook his head. Sounded like a Texas gal to him, all right. Strong minded, stubborn and, as a result, kidnapped. "Roger that. You said five horsemen?"
"Roger. All carrying AKs. They've got her bound and hooded. She's riding in the center of the group and can't possibly escape on her own."
No, Travis imagined, she sure as hell couldn't. He felt sorry for her, but he also felt anger. If the woman had trusted her Marine contingent she wouldn't be in this fix.
"Any idea of what they're going to do with her?"
"No. Our best guess is they're going to move her into Pakistan and, most likely, demand a ransom."
Travis sighed and quirked his mouth. "Either that or sell her as a sex slave."
"That, too," Lieutenant Scofield said.
Which was why she had to be rescued, Travis thought.
"Any idea who's got her?"
"Roger. Hill tribe members, from what we can ascertain."
Great, the hill tribe with Khogani leading it was constantly making war against the Shinwari. Both claimed the Khyber Pass area. And that was the only route between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"Roger that." Travis sighed. "That means I'm probably going to give away my hide, LT."
"Yes, it does."
"If I can spring her loose from those bastards, I'm on my own. There's Taliban crawling all over this area. You won't be able to get a Night Stalker helo down here to pick us up. I'm going to have to gun and run with her until I can get out of this immediate area."
"Keep me updated on their progress and location." To Travis, this was looking like a FUBAR of the finest kind. There were thousands of Taliban and Al-Qaeda crisscrossing this border area. It was a hotbed of activity and one couldn't just drop a helo into it because the enemy would see it, fire on it and, most likely, destroy it. No, ifhe could rescue this damned bull-headed Texas brat, it meant being on the run for days, possibly, before an extrication mission could be called to get them out of this area.
"Roger that, Raven Actual. Out."
Travis put the sat phone down on his rucksack, scowling into the total darkness. There were thousands of caves all around this area. The Taliban used them regularly to hide from drone eyes and from the deadly Apache helicopters that stalked them.
He pulled the cover off his watch and saw that it was midnight. Rubbing his bearded jaw, he thought about the possibilities. He had to act fast. Once again, he examined the live video feed of the Taliban fleeing with the kidnapped woman. They were moving at a steady trot and it was clear to him someone had night vision goggles or they wouldn't be able to ride through the darkness.
His thoughts turned to his buddies from back home. He and five others from Rush Springs, Texas, had been on the football team that captured the state championship. They called themselves the Sidewinders, striking like a rattler and beating more powerful teams. All six of them had a sidewinder tattooed around their right biceps. And during those four years, they were like football gods to their small Texas town in the panhandle.