By D. Lockwood
Somewhere in Afghanistan December 2012
Six Marines have been separated from their unit during a firefight with the Taliban.
“We’re sittin’ ducks out here. We need to get to the mountains for cover.”
“Why don’t we try to get back to our unit, Sarge?”
“We’re cut off, we’d never make it through. Our only chance of survival is to go deeper into Taliban territory and try to hide until we can be rescued. We need to move fast. Drop all your body armor, only take ammo, water, and rations. Walker and Romero, take the point. Let’s move out.”
The six men set out toward the Hindu Kush mountain range, a Taliban stronghold.
“Hey Romero, do you think the Sarge knows what the hell he’s doin’?”
“I dunno. Does anybody in this country know what the hell they’re doin’? I was safer with the 18th Street boys in L.A.”
“Well, I do know one thing.”
“What’s that, Walker?”
“If we don’t make to those mountains by daybreak, we’re all dead.”
As dawn approached six weary soldiers stood at the base of the mountains.
“Hey Walker, you hear that?”
“I hear horses. They’re comin’ down the trail. Signal the others to take cover.”
The Marines scattered and took cover in the rocks just off the trail as a string of 30 men on horseback came down the trail out of the mountains. Rifles slung over their shoulders and ammo belts tied to their saddles, they were no doubt headed to battle the Marines and reinforce their brothers.
One of the horsemen toward the end of the column stopped, got off his horse and bent over to pick something up. He yelled at the others to stop as he looked out over the rocks and hills.
Sarge could barely see him through the rocks but he signaled for his men to get ready to open fire. Just then, the leader rode up and looked down at what the man was holding in his hand: a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. He yelled something out, made a motion with his hand and turned his horse to gallop away. The others followed immediately.
“So, O’Brian, you picked a hell of a time to quit smoking.”
“Sorry, Sarge, they must have fallen out of my pocket when we ran for cover.”
“Let’s move out!” Sarge bellowed once the horses were out of sight. “O’Brian, make damn sure that signal is going out. If base doesn’t pick it up we’re going to have a long walk.”
The snow began to fall as they made their way further into the mountains. Weary from no sleep, cold from the lack of mountain gear, Sarge knew he needed to find shelter and fast. The temperature would reach zero when the sun went down.
“Walker and Romero, go scout that ridge for caves. If you find something signal us from the ridge.”
The two men trudged up the ridge, eyes peeled for openings.
“Romero, over here, take a look, I think it’ll work. Wave ’em up here while I look for firewood.”
The men entered the cave and looked it over.
“An Osama apartment, hey?”
“Shit man, this be as cold inside as it is outside.”
“It may seem cold now, Joneszee, but it’ll stay this temperature, which is a hell of a lot warmer than it will be outside tonight. Let’s settle in. O’Brian, you take first watch. Guthrie, help Walker gather firewood. Hopefully some fog’ll move in when the sun goes down to hide the smoke.”
Night came quickly and the temperature plummeted. The six men gathered closely in a circle to use body heat to keep warm.
“Sarge, we gotta have the fire now or we gonna freeze to death.”
“Alright. Guess we don’t have much choice. Go ahead, light it up.”
Within minutes the mood began to lighten as the warmth of the fire brought life to the cave.
“If I remember correctly, said the Sarge, tomorrow is Christmas Eve.”
“Is that right? I damn near forgot all about Christmas.”
“Gonna be my son’s first Christmas this year. Wish I could be there.” said Joneszee.
“Hell, we all wish we were anywhere but here.”
“Where would you want to be, Sarge?”
“Back in my home-town with my brothers and sisters over at my parents’ house. Christmas was always the best time of year growin’ up. We always had a big tree with lots of lights and ornaments, and presents scattered half way across the living room. I did that with my own family until my son died of cancer when he was 5. The joy went out of life then. After a few years my wife and I divorced and that’s when I re-upped.”
“How about you, Joneszee?”
“I’d be with family. Have a big Christmas dinner with ham and baked beans with bacon. Then we’d all go to church and sing the night away. Ain’t nothin’ better than some good ole gospel songs on Christmas Eve.”
“What about you Romero?”
“We’d celebrate Las Posadas for nine days. Every night there’s a piñata party and all the children take turns trying to break the piñata, blindfolded. It doesn’t end till February on Candlemas, when we have a big tamale party. We do know how to party.”
“What about you O’Brian?”
“I don’t have a home to go back to so it doesn’t mean much to me one way or another. I never knew my parents. I was raised in a children’s home so I’ve never really had a Christmas. Oh, I got sent to a few foster care homes but they all sent me back. When I got old enough, I enlisted.”
“How about you Guthrie?”
“I’m goin’ outside to take a piss is what I think. You boys go on and have your kumbaya moment. I’ll just concentrate on stayin’ alive and getting the fuck outta here.”
The fire burned down to hot coals as the men slept. As the light of day returned, so did their thoughts and fears.
“Shit, I think they spotted me. I was taking a piss when I saw a man on horseback on the trail below us. I’m not sure, but……”
“Fuck, O’Brian! Are you trying to get us killed? Fan out on the ridge but stay low. No shooting unless you get the go from me. Walker, O’Brian and Guthrie, take the south. We’ll take the north.”
Hours went by with no sign of the Taliban. Then, suddenly, men on horseback came up the trail, dismounted and began ascending toward them.
“Don’t let them get to the ridge, if you’ve got a shot take it.”
The fight had begun. The Marines were badly outnumbered but managed to hold their position for hours. Bullets flew everywhere, ricocheting off rocks like stones skipping across water. Then they began to get outflanked by the larger numbers of the Taliban. O’Brian screamed and fell backwards toward open ground. He was hit and struggled to get back behind the rocks.
“Sarge, O’Brian’s hit, we need back-up. They’re comin’ in hot over here.”
Romero made it to O’Brian and pulled him to safety. O’Brian was hit in the shoulder and bleeding badly.
“O’Brian, listen to me. Hold this compress on your shoulder. It’ll stop the bleeding. You’ll be alright, hell, this is your ticket home.”
“Joneszee, you hear that?”
“What you mean Sarge? The bullets flyin’ round?”
“No, music. Sounds like….., like Jingle Bells.”
The music grew louder, then rotors roared as two Blackhawks came over the mountain.
“Shoot a flare Joneszee, so they see us.”
The helicopters circled, then opened fire on the Taliban. The 50-caliber machine guns made short work of any fight left in them. They scattered and disappeared back into the mountains. It was all over by the time Jingle Bells stopped playing from the speaker on one of the Blackhawks. Sarge stood as everybody checked in, including O’Brian.
“OK boys, looks like a Merry Christmas to me.”
D. Lockwood grew up in Southern Illinois in a small fish-fry sort of town called Collinsville, just a speeding ticket across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Over the years he has reinvented himself several times. In this life, he is a singer-songwriter and an aspiring author. He lives with his wife in Laguna Beach.