"I'll be home for Christmas...if only in my dreams."
"Of all the places I never wanted to see again, this has to be number one on the list!" C.J. Yates spat out angrily.
"It ain't no picnic for the rest of us, amigo!" Benny Ray Riddle yelled back over the noise of the Huey's engine and rotors.
The angry voices snapped Matt Shepherd out of
his reverie...he was no
"I thought Libya was your favorite place not to be!" he shouted banteringly to the Brit.
"Libya's on the other side of the world right now, so this place takes first prize at the moment!"
"I can see the logic in that!" Rico remarked.
"Look," Matt began patiently, "no one wants to be here...least of all, those relief workers who've got snipers taking pot shots at them and ambushing their supply convoys. The sooner we get this mess cleaned up, the sooner we all go home. All right, people?"
"Works for me," Margo agreed.
Matt looked sharply in her direction. There was a haunted expression that had been lurking at the back of Margo's eyes ever since they'd drawn this assignment. Matt knew that something had happened to her the last time they'd been here, but she'd never volunteered the information, and he'd never pressed the issue...now he wondered uneasily if he should have.
A moment later, he heard her laugh in response
to some teasing remark
"Major!" Chance shouted. "Three o'clock a relief convoy, taking gunfire!"
Matt moved forward to peer over the pilot's shoulder. Below, he could see a small group of battered trucks, clearly marked with the traditional Red Cross of relief workers, taking heavy fire. "Take us in," he ordered.
Chance nodded grimly and began maneuvering the
chopper down as the
"Just like the last time," C.J. noted.
"Not that I'm complainin,' but I'm surprised we haven't encountered any heavier armament," Benny Ray observed.
"I'm not," Rico told him, disgust evident in his voice. "They're purposely using light weaponry to minimize damage to the contents of the trucks. Medical supplies and food draw big bucks on the black market in this part of the world."
"Not of if I have anythin' to say about it," Benny Ray promised.
"No argument from me," Matt assented.
He glanced around once more
"Roger that, Major," Chance replied as he set the chopper down in front of the convoy just long enough to spill his passengers out onto the road.
The marauders never knew what hit them as the vehicles careened wildly out of the way of the chopper and five grim-faced operatives erupted out of the billowing clouds of dust raised by the rotors. Benny Ray took out the tail-gunner in the lead jeep and C.J. tossed a grenade that blew it off the road. Margo disposed of an enterprising individual who had climbed up over the roof of one of the trucks.
Matt dove for cover behind a tree to escape a volley of gunfire from the second jeep. Rico saw his predicament and pivoted to shoot out the tires, causing the vehicle to tumble into a ditch. Right about then the remaining three tangos decided that a strategic withdrawal was in order, but they hadn't counted on Benny Ray's deadly accuracy.
The sudden silence was broken by Benny Ray's
call of "Clear," rapidly
The relief workers slowly emerged from their trucks to check for damage.
"You folks all right?" Rico asked.
"I think so," one of the drivers replied shakily. "Who are you people?" he asked in an awe-tinged voice.
"Friends," Matt replied, grinning. "Chance, we're ready for exfil," he muttered into his comm.
"On my way, sir," Chance replied immediately.
A moment later, the Huey set down in the middle of the road once more, and the team vanished as quickly as they'd appeared.
"You did good today, people," Matt
said, looking around at the tired
"I know, Major," Benny Ray broke in,
"somebody's gotta fight the good
"Well, Trout's got a little reward planned for us. As soon as Chance gets us to the rally point, we're being airlifted to Italy for a couple days R&R."
"A couple of days?" C.J. exclaimed.
"To make up for the last bloody
"Hey," Rico said quietly, "those guys down there don't get no Christmas vacation at all. Just be grateful for a few days off."
"And I can think of lots worse places then Italy to spend a few days," Margo added playfully, trying to lighten the mood.
Matt shot her a grateful look.
"Uh, Major?" Chance broke in.
"I'm getting some funny instrument readings. I'd like to set down in that field over there to check things out."
"What does that do to our timetable?" Matt asked.
Chance heaved a sigh that sounded right through the comms. "Well, all I can say for sure is that if I set us down in that field, it might put us a little behind, but if there's something really wrong and we have to ditch..."
"Roger that," Matt replied with an
inward shudder. "Do what you have
Matt went forward to speak with Chance as soon
as the pilot set down
"That's a negative, sir," Chance replied promptly. "Let me get a handle on the problem, and if I need anything, I'll ask. Believe me, I don't want to stay in this place a minute longer than necessary."
"I hear you," Matt responded, clapping
his friend on the shoulder
Gratefully, everyone piled outside, stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers to warm up. Matt moved among them, checking once again for any incidental injuries picked up in their last skirmish.
"Major!" Benny Ray called, his voice low, yet urgent.
"What is it?" Matt asked as he joined the sniper.
"Over there, sir," Benny Ray answered, pointing. "Welcoming committee."
"And they don't look very hospitable, either," C.J. observed, noting the assortment of pitchforks and other farming implements that the villagers carried.
Matt immediately plastered a grin on his face and spread his empty hands in front of him, palms up. "Benny Ray, lose the rifle collect everyone else's while you're at it. Stow 'em in the bird," he instructed out of the corner of his mouth, never allowing the smile to falter. "The rest of you try to look harmless."
"Matt?" Margo asked.
"Try and talk to them. Tell them we mean them no harm we're fixing the chopper and we'll be on our way."
Smiling, Margo stepped forward, empty hands extended.
She spoke to
"Margo," Matt said warningly.
Nodding, she began to back up, still speaking. Snarling something that was surely an epithet, a burly man at the front of the crowd let fly with a jagged stone. Margo dropped and rolled, coming to her feet and running back to the shelter of the chopper.
"Inside!" Matt bellowed, raising an arm to shield his face from the hail of debris. He grabbed Margo's arm and boosted her into the chopper, then hauled himself aboard. C.J. slammed the hatch shut behind them.
Rico moved to Margo's side, examining a small
graze on her temple.
"I'm fine," Margo assured him, gasping as she tried to catch her breath.
"You're sure?" Matt asked, concerned.
"Positive," she nodded. "They're just scared. They have no reason to love soldiers. Around here, seeing armed men drop into their backyard means that their fields are going to be destroyed, or their houses looted, or their sons conscripted into the army. Or worse," she added darkly. "They just want to protect their families."
"Can't much blame 'em for that," Benny Ray observed sagely, thinking of how he would react if a chopper full of soldiers turned up on his doorstep.
"Chance, how're you coming with that instrumentation
Chance grimaced from his position, wedged tightly
under an instrument
C.J. darted forward to join his friend. A low whistle escaped his lips as he took in the unpromising sight. Major incoming!"
The pounding of stone against metal broke off abruptly as the villagers caught sight of the trucks speeding towards their homes.
"Come on, people," Matt ordered, grabbing his rifle. "Chance!"
"On my way, Major!"
"C.J., grab the extra ammo!" Matt yelled to the former SAS man.
"Got it!" the Brit replied.
"Toss me that bag of grenades," Benny
Ray added, catching the bag by
The team double-timed it towards the village, frantically increasing their pace as the first sounds of gunfire and screams reached their ears.
"Pick your targets," Matt warned, "Remember,
we've got civilians out
"Matt! Three o'clock!" Margo screamed.
Matt instantly dropped as Margo fired over his
head. Her shot caught
"Thanks," Matt grunted as he scrambled to his feet.
The intruders were now aware of the team's presence
and more and more
"Take cover!" Matt instructed, diving into a ditch alongside the single road that led into the village. C.J. ended up beside him, Margo and Benny Ray across the road, and he didn't see where Chance and Rico ended up. "Chance, Rico sound off," he ordered through the comm.
"Major, see the big tree, right next to
one of those trucks that our
Matt popped up and fired a few rounds in the
general direction of the
"I'm with Rico," Chance added.
"Good." Matt thought rapidly as Benny Ray and Margo took turns firing at the village's assailants. "Think you could steal that truck? Or maybe blow it up?"
"Or maybe create enough diversion for me to blow it up?" C.J. put in.
"What if we steal it, and then blow it up?" Margo suggested, reloading her rifle as Benny Ray continued to pick off tangos.
"I like that," Matt decided. "Chance, Rico, can you get it moving away from the village?"
"Can do, Major," Chance assured him.
"Tell me when, an' I'll cover you," Benny Ray promised.
"Make sure they see you go," Matt reminded
them, "We want to pull
"We're on it, sir," Chance promised. "Benny Ray...now would be a good time!"
"Go, go, go!" the sniper barked, rising up from his place of concealment and laying down a field of fire to cover his teammates.
Chance and Rico dashed to the truck. Chance dove
inside while Rico
"Don't suppose they left the keys?" Rico quipped.
"Yeah, right," Chance grunted, concentrating on hot-wiring the truck. "OK... got it."
Rico continued to fire.
"Get. In," Chance grated.
Rico clambered into the passenger side, hanging out to return fire. Chance started the truck rolling back down the road, out of the village.
"Keep going...we've got your six!" Matt instructed.
"OK, fellas...I think we've drawn them all away from the village," Benny Ray confirmed a few moments later as the field where they'd left the Huey came into view.
Chance responded by braking hard, swinging the truck across the road.
"C.J.?" Matt inquired.
"I'm on it, Major," the Brit replied, demo bag in hand.
"Get going...I'll cover you," Matt told him, bringing up his rifle and laying down cover fire as C.J. ran to the truck to set his charges.
"Get outta here, mates," C.J. ground out as he raced to do his job.
"Not happenin,'" Chance grated.
"Me neither," Rico grunted.
"I'm surrounded by bloody heroes," C.J. muttered. He fiddled with his equipment for a few more seconds. "All right, then...I don't know about you gents, but this is my stop."
"Matt! We're coming out!" Rico yelled.
"Hurry it up! They're almost on top of you!"
The three scrambled out of the truck and dove for cover.
"Fire in the hole!" C.J. bellowed as he pressed the button on his detonator.
The truck exploded, flame and debris catching several of their pursuers. A few more shots rang out, and then silence.
Matt cautiously raised his head and looked around. "Looks clear," he said into his comm. "Anyone hit?"
Benny Ray touched Margo's shoulder gently and
she nodded. "OK, over
Chance and Rico were closer to the blast area and slower to sit up. C.J. lay groaning, his arms flung up over his head.
"C'mon, amigo, up an' at 'em," Rico said, tapping C.J. on the shoulder.
"Come on, C.J.," Chance added.
Concerned, Rico bent down to check out his teammate.
"C.J., are you
"I will never, ever set foot in this miserable country again," the Brit muttered.
Rico grabbed a handful of C.J.'s sleeve and yanked him to a sitting position. "C.J., talk to me!" He eyed the other man critically, seeing nothing worse that assorted scratches and bruises.
"C.J.?" Chance demanded.
"He's fine," Rico responded. "Help me get him up."
"You guys all right?" Mat asked, quickly striding over.
"We're fine, Major," Chance assured him, as he helped Rico hold up C.J. He cracked a smile. "Just like always."
"I hate this place!" C.J. declared emphatically.
"Just like always," Rico added.
"Well, since we're all in agreement on that point, Chance, why don't you see of you can get our bird in the air."
"I'm on it, sir," the pilot promised.
"What's the story on the chopper?" Matt asked.
"Not good, sir," Chance replied. They hit the tail rotor and the fuel tank... we're grounded."
Matt swore sulfurously, pounding his fist against the side of the chopper. "Communications?" he asked, looking from Chance to Margo.
"I think I can get a message to Trout," Margo answered.
Matt walked over to where Benny Ray and C.J.
were collecting the
"Gentlemen," Matt said, by way of greeting.
"What's the sitrep, sir?" Benny Ray inquired.
Matt sighed heavily. "Well, we might want
to give some thought to
It was C.J. who finally broke the heavy silence. "Well, can't say as I blame 'em. I certainly wouldn't want to be the one responsible for breaking the first peace they've had here in God knows how long."
Matt gripped Benny Ray's arm. "Look," he began, "I know there's no way I can make this up to you..."
Benny Ray waved off the apology. "It ain't your fault, sir. I know that. And...well, Mary Ellen wasn't real big on havin' me around for the holidays anyhow." The sniper mustered a weak half smile then bent to begin the task of moving the bodies.
Night had fallen with a vengeance and it was
very cold inside the Huey. Chance and Rico had broken out the chopper's
sparse supply of
Matt felt Margo shiver beside him. "You holding up all right?" he asked, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.
"I'm fine," Margo nodded, mustering
a tired smile. "Nothing a down
Matt settled her against his chest, slipping his other arm around her. "I'll buy you one when we get home," he laughed.
"Just get me home," Margo murmured, then immediately wished she hadn't, knowing she'd just given voice to his worst fear. Matt didn't reply, but she felt his arms stiffen and heard the sharp intake of breath. Hoping to take the sting out of her words, Margo cuddled a little closer. "Of course, there is something to be said for not having a down comforter," she added slyly. She felt Matt's answering chuckle as a dull rumble under her ear.
"There is indeed," he agreed, resting his chin on top of her head.
Matt stumbled from the Huey, blinking in the
early morning light as
"Why didn't you wake me?" he asked
Benny Ray, who'd been walking the
The former Marine grinned. "Well, sir, Margo had made herself right at home...I couldn't wake you without wakin' her and I just didn't have the heart to do that. Call it an early Christmas present."
"Thanks, Buddy," Matt laughed, clapping his friend on the shoulder.
Benny Ray's eyes narrowed as he caught sight of something beyond Matt.
Matt caught the change of expression and turned. "Looks like we've got ourselves a wake-up call," he sighed.
As they watched, a small group of villagers approached the chopper. They were carrying things, but unlike the day before, there were no heavy or sharp objects in view.
Benny Ray tightened his grip on his rifle, but Matt laid a hand on his arm.
"No...wait," he ordered.
"What's' going on?" Margo asked as she emerged from the Huey.
"I'm not sure," Matt said quietly.
As they watched, the villagers stopped several yards away. A tall man stepped out to the front. He made an exaggerated gesture of shivering, followed by miming eating and drinking. Then he motioned his companions forward. They set down a stack of firewood, a bucket of water, some large covered baskets, and a kettle that exuded fragrant steam into the cold morning air.
"I think they want to help us," Margo said uncertainly.
The village's spokesman gestured to the supplies, then to the team, as he and his companions backed away.
"That was right kind o' them folks," Benny Ray observed as he finished his second cup of soup.
"It's not like they can spare the supplies," Rico added.
"Wish there was something we could do for them," C.J. said.
Chance nudged his friend. "Aren't you the one who was griping because we were over here in the first place?" he said with a grin.
C.J. hung his head, shamefaced. "Well...that was before..."
"Before what, compadre?" Benny Ray asked curiously.
"Before you realized that this country was full of real people just trying to hold onto their lives?" Margo asked gently.
"Something like that," C.J. answered slowly.
"I think that maybe the best thing we can do for these people is to keep on doin' our job," Benny Ray offered.
"Maybe there is something else we can do,"
Matt said thoughtfully.
Chance and Rico waved flares to guide the chopper through the gathering dusk. The Huey settled down and Darryl Drummer jumped out.
"Let's get a move on people, we wanna get well clear of this place while everyone is in a such a nice, truceful sort of mood."
"Glad to see you, too, Drummer," Margo drawled.
"Well, Babe, what say you help me with all these crates? I'm sure I can find one light enough for ya," Drummer replied with an evil grin.
"Anything you can manage, I can manage," Margo retorted.
Drummer roared with laughter. "I'll just bet you can!"
"What is all this stuff, anyway?" Benny Ray asked as he came forward to help unload the chopper.
"Food, medicine, clothes, and blankets," Rico answered, looking over the labels on the cartons.
"And it looks like a special delivery from Santa, too," C.J. added, hefting a box filled with various toys.
"How do you want to do this, Matt?" Chance asked, seeing a small group of villagers gathering warily.
"Drummer, you have anything we could use as a white flag?"
"Lemme see," he replied, turning to rummage in the chopper. "Here," he said, handing Matt a more-or-less white rag.
"Thanks." Matt raised his 'flag' and led the way to a spot halfway between the Huey and the villagers.
The team set down their burdens, then backed away.
Smiling, Matt gestured to the pile of cartons, then to the waiting crowd. "For you," he said as distinctly as he could. He didn't think they understood his words, but their apprehension seemed to lessen. He backed away slowly to join the others.
"If we're about done here, we really need
to get goin,'" Drummer
"I thought Trout couldn't find anyone willing to fly during the truce?" Matt asked.
"I don't know where he dug this guy up,"
Drummer confessed. "He says
"Can he fly the bird?" Chance wanted to know.
"Hell, yes! Got us in under their radar," Drummer assured him.
"Then that's all that really matters, isn't it?" Matt responded. He had his doubts a moment later, as he caught a fleeting glimpse of the overly tall black man seated at the controls of the Huey. Matt shook his head in disbelief. Where did Trout find that guy?
Margo was already seated in the chopper and she
offered him a hand
"Trout's real sorry he couldn't get y'all home for the holidays," Drummer said as he passed around a thermos of coffee. "He's arranged for you to have first-class accommodations in Italy, all at his expense," he added with a wolfish grin.
C.J. looked thoughtful. "I know everyone
always wants to be home for
"I hear you, friend," Chance said quietly.
The others, even Drummer, nodded, recognizing the truth of C.J.'s words.
"At least we managed to bring a little joy to this place," Benny Ray observed, feeling the quick sting of tears as he looked out the window to see the villagers joyfully examining the supplies they'd left.
"That's what Christmas is all about,"
Margo observed, laying her head
The pilot's deep voice rumbled through their
comms. "The time is now
"Merry Christmas," Matt echoed.
Surprisingly, it was Drummer's rough voice that spoke next. "God bless us, everyone."
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