Lt. Rand Jones lay in a puddle of his own blood on a flat, rocky shelf. He was separated from his squad during a firefight and barely escaped with what was left of his life. He knew if he didn't get medical treatment soon he would be just another corpse in the Iraqi desert.
Taking his utility knife, he cut the leg of his camouflage pants open and examined his wound. Luckily, the shrapnel missed his femoral artery, but had still done enough damage to cause constant bleeding. The sun would rise within the hour, and when it did he would be a sitting duck for local Insurgents fighters. All he could do was keep up hope, and let his mind travel back to when he was a civilian.
He remembered sitting in the small, private room of St. Augustine's Hospital, where his son, Jake, was in the final stages of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was holding the boy's hand when the youth took his final breaths.
"I'm sorry, Daddy. I know you'll be all right. I'm gonna see Mommy now," whispered Jake, putting his free hand over his heart and struggling to maintain consciousness, as his internal organs shut down from massive infections throughout his body.
Rand leaned forward and kissed his son's forehead right before the youth expired and left the world of the living.
I wish I could have saved him. Was too damned busy mourning my wife to notice the symptoms.
He joined the Marine Corps shortly thereafter. His wife had died in a car accident three years earlier, and now that his son was gone he had nothing else to live for. That alone made him the perfect soldier. Then OCS put him in the command structure.
Jones was considered a hands-on officer – a bit reckless, but effective. He was more than willing to jump into the line of fire in order to achieve objectives, and the memories of his wife and son drove him like nothing else could.
But now he was going to die unless a miracle happened.
And it did.
Rand saw an Iraqi boy approaching. The youth had an inquisitive grin, and gave the lieutenant little cause to be alarmed.
"American! You American soldier?"
"Huh?" he murmured, thinking he might be hallucinating.
"Yeah. Over here."
The kid, covered in dust, as were most children in that region, approached cautiously.
"What’s your name, son?"
"I am Achmed, American. What your name?"
"Jones. Rand Jones. Lieutenant, United States Marine Corps. I need help, son. Need to get to my unit. Are you hungry?"
"Yes, Jones Rand. Very hungry."
Rand groaned as he reached down and pulled a protein bar out of his pant leg pocket and handed it to the boy, who appeared to be about twelve years old.
"I need to find shelter before the sun comes up. Do you know anywhere I can go?"
"There hole in mountain, Jones Rand. Not far. You come?"
Rand could only hope the child wasn't going to lead him right to the enemy.
"Sure. Gimme a sec. It's hard to stand."
"I help. I save you," said the boy, as he pulled on Rand's arm.
Getting up with difficulty, Rand followed the boy as he tried to find the easiest path down from the rock ledge where he had been lying for the past few hours.
"Hey kid, why are you out here?"
"Run from Insurgents. They bad. Kill my mother. Take sister and make wife."
"Oh… God. How old is your sister, son?"
The two moved down a small path, with Rand limping along as the boy attempted to assist.
These poor kids. They deserve better. Maybe I can get Achmed to a safe place – if he doesn't kill me first.
Rand had very little trust in humanity anymore, so he couldn't be blamed for his lack of confidence in the boy. Still, his paternal instincts overrode any sense of self-preservation as they stayed in the shadows provided by the rising sun to the east.
It wasn't more than an hour later that the two heard voices – men speaking in Arabic, and quite loudly.
"Achmed," he whispered, "we need to hide. Where's this hole you were talking about?"
"It here, Jones Rand. You hide. I take men away from you."
"No, Achmed. You need to hide with me," he said, the thought of the boy's potential betrayal in mind, but coupled with a sincere desire to get the child out of that hellhole.
Climbing into a small opening, which led to a larger space inside, they sat toward the edge of the dirt wall so that anyone peering inside wouldn't see them. Rand unholstered his standard issue Berretta M9 and quietly moved the safety into the off position, and then made sure the chamber was charged with a round. As the voices became louder he put his index finger up to his pursed lips, saying, "Shhhhhh," as quietly as he could, while motioning with his other hand for the lad to stay put.
It didn’t work. Achmed went running out of the cave.
Aw damn. I'm dead.
Rand heard a lot of chatter; nothing that he understood. His heart was pounding so hard he was having a hard time determining the distance of the voices. After a few minutes he had determined they were moving away and he started to calm down.
Wow. Maybe the kid led them away?
He had no idea how long it was that he slept, but he guessed it was the entire day, because the sun was setting in the west when he woke up. But for all he knew it could have been a day and a half. The shrapnel wound in his thigh seemed to be healing, but he knew any brusque movements would quickly change that.
Waiting until the sun had completely set, he crawled out, taking care to not disturb his wounds. As he stood up he gazed across the flat horizon. He was hoping he could see where young Achmed had gone, but the boy was nowhere to be found. Rand was completely alone in the desert, with a day's worth of water rations and one protein bar left. He needed to find his unit, or some Allied forces in the least.
He knew there was a small base southwest of where he had engaged in the firefight, so he logically went off in that direction.
I'm a sitting duck out here.
The lieutenant trudged across the acrid plain, moving slowly, until he saw a helicopter on the horizon. Watching intently to see the direction in which it was moving, he visually tracked the craft to the south and kept following it.
Wish I could walk faster.
After some hours he noticed the sun was going to peek up over the eastern horizon, so he moved toward some small hills, hoping to find shelter from the intense heat that was soon to come. He was still out of radio range, and dared not try to contact friendly forces quite yet, preferring to save the battery until he had a visual.
Damned budget cuts. You think they'd at least give me a satellite phone.
Rand found a space in between some boulders where believed he could get shelter from the sun, as well as stay out of sight. Luckily, there were some shrubs he could use as camouflage, covering the entrance to his hideaway. As the sun rose, he wedged himself back into the rocks, intent on waiting the day out in the shade. He hadn't been sleeping but two hours when awoke with a start.
Achmed was sitting in front of him, chewing on some dates.
"I back now, Jones Rand."
"Hey, kid. How'd you find me?"
"Americans very noisy."
"Then how come those insurgents didn't hear me?"
"Who? Insurgents? They more noisy," he said with a chuckle.
"Well, I'm making one last push, when the sun goes down."
"Why push? We go now, Jones Rand. Come. I know. Americans soon."
"No, man. We have to wait 'till the sun goes down."
"We go now. Sun good. Enemy sleep now."
"Heh heh – okay, let's go. You lead the way."
The two moved out in a southerly direction, avoiding a couple of small, abandoned villages. Rand was certain there would be some way to contact allied forces in them, as every village had a hardline. Still, Achmed seemed to detect danger and kept the soldier moving along. It was nearly the end of the day when they saw a dust cloud to the north. As they watched, it was apparent that it was manmade and moving in their direction.
"Jones Rand, that is Insurgents."
"Shit. We have to hide, kid. Where do we go?"
"Down. We go there," said Achmed, pointing at a ditch along the side of the road.
Lying down flat in the rut, which was approximately three feet deep, Rand made sure the chamber of his M4 rifle was charged. Achmed appeared to have absolutely no fear at all, as he laid low and waited for danger to pass. The approaching vehicles, obviously more than one, were noisy to say the least. Rand guessed they were beat-up Toyota pickups – a popular choice out in the Iraqi desert.
"Achmed, take this. Point it and pull the trigger if you intend to shoot," said Rand, while handing his 9mm pistol to the youth.
"Keep your finger off the trigger like this if not shooting."
"No. No gun for me, Jones Rand. It okay. You shoot," said the boy, as he pushed Rand's hand away.
The lieutenant shook his head and holstered his pistol. "Okay, Achmed. I'll protect you."
Like I was unable to do for my family.
Rand kept his head down, squinting his eyes as the shoddy vehicles rumbled by. He watched Achmed's small, dust-covered face, framed by bushy, black hair, as it broke out into a grin.
"You think this is fun? Exciting?" he hissed at the boy.
"American, you are brave," whispered Achmed, snickering as the insurgent vehicles rumbled by.
The two waited for about fifteen minutes before they popped their heads up, watching as the caravan rumbled off in the distance. Getting up, still with some difficulty, they started moving again to the south.
It was dark out, and the center of the Milky Way displayed as a streak through the sky. Rand thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, aside from his wife's face - something he would never see again.
Walking until daybreak, Rand felt they were close. That was a good thing, as he had just emptied his canteen, and needed more water as soon as possible. Then, he saw an encampment in the distance. Hoping it wasn't a mirage, he pulled out his radio and sent a distress call. To his good fortune he contacted the distant base, which was about four clicks away.
"Achmed, we're gonna be okay. A helicopter is on its way," said Rand, obviously relived.
"Yes, Jones Rand. You shall be fine."
"No kiddo, you'll be fine too. How'd you like to go live in the USA?"
The boy just shook his head. "My home here."
"Okay, whatever floats your boat. Still, we should stay here and…"
Oh shit. They're back.
"No place for hide, Jones Rand. Insurgents coming now again."
"I know. Well, it was good while it lasted."
Rand had no choice but to remain in place, his trusty M4 in hand, while waiting for the insurgents to find him. He knew he would be killed, but what pissed him off was that they would probably kill Achmed too.
"Can you run? Is there someplace you can hide?"
"No, sir. No place."
Dropping to the ground, Rand dialed his scope and waited to see the whites of the enemies' eyes. His rifle had a short barrel, so he could get an accurate shot on anything in less than 300 yards – the closer the better.
Hit the drivers first. Then the tires. Keep them distant.
He was about to pull off his first round when five AGM-114 Hellfire missiles struck the caravan, destroying the trucks like they were made of matchsticks.
The cavalry had arrived. Rand would live another day, and he had one young boy to thank. Closing his eyes, he welcomed the brain-rattling noise of the approaching Sea Stallion and accompanying Cobras, which had launched the missiles that saved his life.
"Sir! Lieutenant Jones! Relax! We're putting you on a stretcher."
Rand opened his eyes, looking at the Navy medic who was applying bandages to his wounded leg.
"The kid. Bring the kid along. He needs food and water. He helped me," groaned the lieutenant.
"Kid? Sir, there's no one here but you."
"No, there's a local kid with me. Achmed. About twelve years old."
"Sir, we're out in the desert, and there's no one as far as the eye can see."
"That's… not possible."
As he was being loaded into the helicopter Rand saw a flash of color out of the corner of his eye. Slowly lapsing into unconsciousness thanks to the painkillers the corpsman had administered, he turned his head to see Achmed standing next to some Marines, shuffling his feet in the dust while eating a red apple. The boy looked over at Rand, put his hand over his heart and waved, a bright grin encompassing his small face as everything faded to black.