Line in the Valley, chapter 4


Hope you like this, guys. Links to all other chapters and excerpts are below:


Corporal Marc D’Angelo crouched below the edge of the low steel wall encircling the five-ton truck’s bed, keeping as still as possible. His breath was ragged and his heart pounded so hard it hurt. Of the seven soldiers in the bed with him, two were still making noise. One was gurgling, the other doing something that sounded like a hiccup every few seconds. One more had fallen out of the truck when he was hit. The others were silent and ripped to shreds.     

The enemy had stopped shooting into the truck bed, but D’Angelo knew any movement could draw more fire. He stayed still, hoping whoever had ambushed them wouldn’t advance on the convoy and shoot into the vehicles. If the ambushers’ plan was to hit them and leave, D’Angelo could stay where he was, get on the radio and wait for help. If the ambushers went into the vehicles, he was fucked.     

D’Angelo knew what was going to happen as soon as that fucking moron Olivares talked on the radio about the burning vehicle blocking their path. A blind and deaf tribesman from the Amazon rain forest could have seen it. DeLeon should have ordered Olivares to punch it and get past the spot they should have recognized as an ambush kill zone. But Olivares had the tactical awareness of an Alzheimer’s patient and DeLeon the leadership ability of a preteen girl. Those flaming dipshits hadn’t done anything but sit still and let the company get butchered.

The entire mission had been fucked from the start. The company had less than seventy soldiers to begin with, and when DeLeon told them they had the recon into Arriago a dozen suddenly developed severe medical issues. The remaining soldiers in the company had gone nuts trying to get the company’s piece of shit vehicles and rusty old M16 rifles ready.    

D’Angelo had been in the unit eight months, and he still couldn’t believe how shitty their vehicles were. He and the other mechanics kept them running well, but they had no turrets, no gun shields, no bulletproof glass, no armored doors, nothing. A blind insurgent with a .22 rifle could put a round right through them. In Iraq that type of vehicle hadn’t been allowed off the bases. And their weapons were almost worse. Ancient, poorly maintained M16A2 rifles with no optics that rattled like tin cans full of rocks when you shook them. They were practically muskets. The Army might as well issue ramrods and powder horns with them.

The order to carry only one magazine was bullshit. So was the order to leave the Squad Automatic Weapons. D’Angelo knew he couldn’t sneak a SAW out of the armory, but he could sure as hell steal enough ammo to fill a few more magazines. A combat load was seven mags and D’Angelo had rolled into Arriago with only four, but he had four times the amount of ammo as everyone else.

When they mounted up in the trucks to move out, Top Olivares’ brown-nosing little buddy Lerma reminded everyone they couldn’t insert magazines into their rifles without permission. D’Angelo hadn’t said a word. He looked Lerma in the eye, slapped a magazine into his rifle and loaded a round into the chamber. Lerma hadn’t even tried to assert any of his supposed authority. He just sort of folded up, got into the front passenger seat and didn’t look at D’Angelo anymore.

D’Angelo knew the company leadership was going to fuck this up. Their plan for the mission would work great, as long as nothing went wrong. Olivares assumed they’d make it to the school with no problems, Lieutenant DeLeon didn’t argue. Nobody made contingency plans. Nobody went over actions on contact. Nobody rehearsed what to do in case of an ambush, or if a vehicle was disabled. There was no casualty evacuation plan. D’Angelo got yelled at by Olivares every time he brought up the possibility of a firefight.  

When they climbed into the vehicles D’Angelo asked the soldiers in his truck for a mission brief-back. He wasn’t surprised to learn that some of them didn’t even know where in Arriago they were supposed to go, or what the communication plan was. When D’Angelo asked Lerma for the company and command post call signs, Lerma gave him a blank look and stammered in Spanish that he hadn’t asked. Lerma probably hadn’t expected him to understand, but D’Angelo had grown up in Cuidad Irigoyen, married a Mexican girl he met in high school and spoke fluent Spanish.

D’Angelo wrote down the radio frequency and stayed near the cab of the truck so he could listen to the radio. He figured out their company was Wrench and the command post was Thunderbolt. He knew he had better remember their call signs, because when the shit hit the fan Lerma sure as hell wouldn’t know what to say on the radio.

All the way into town D’Angelo talked the guys in the back of the truck through possible scenarios. He set up a casualty evacuation team, made sure everyone knew where everyone else’s first aid gear was, did everything he could to prepare his vehicle for combat. He positioned himself at the front of the truck bed, at the space between the bed and cab, where he could look out the windshield and listen to the radio. He made the soldiers lock and load their rifles. His planning wasn’t perfect, but he figured he had done all he could to prepare for an ambush. It almost worked.

When the ambush started, their truck and the one in front of it hadn’t been hit. All the fire came from the shop windows up ahead, on the left side of the road. D’Angelo saw windows explode and rounds tear through vehicles in front of them. The convoy didn’t move at all when the gunfire started, there was no attempt to push through the kill zone.

His truck’s driver, an eighteen year old just-out-of-basic-training private named Kallinen, shouted to Lerma in terror, “What do we do?” Lerma didn’t say shit to Kallinen, didn’t say anything on the radio, nothing.

“God damn it Lerma, tell them to push through!” D’Angelo screamed. “Do something!”

Lerma froze. D’Angelo shouted at his men to stay low and cover 360 degrees, and made sure the rear guard was in place. In front of them, gunners made short but valiant last stands before being shot to pieces. M16 rifles jutting from windows recoiled from three round bursts as soldiers fought back. They and their one magazine of ammunition didn’t last long. The volume of fire from the convoy died, humvee doors opened and soldiers struggled out. D’Angelo watched most of them pour dead onto the street.

D’Angelo’s friend Specialist Vicente Marroquin was the gunner on the humvee in front of D’Angelo’s truck. Marroquin wasn’t fired on at first. He milled around in confusion, yelled down into his humvee and then looked back to D’Angelo for guidance. They locked eyes through the windshield, and D’Angelo screamed, “Shoot, Vicente! Shoot!”

Marroquin’s face tensed, he nodded to D’Angelo. Then he turned and opened fired into the shop windows ahead. Disciplined, aimed shots, one every two seconds.

D’Angelo watched a stream of bullets smash through the humvee’s windshield. A round punched through Marroquin’s abdomen, just under his armor plate. Marroquin screamed, clutched his stomach and wavered like he was about to fall. Then he put both hands back on his weapon and emptied the rest of the magazine. More rounds hit the humvee, Marroquin’s head snapped back and he dropped into his vehicle.

D’Angelo screamed at Kallinen, “Back up, god damn it! Back the fuck up!” When Kallinen threw the truck into reverse D’Angelo turned and yelled, “Get ready to dismount!”

That pulled Lerma out of his trance. He looked back and yelled, “Top said you’re not allowed to get out!”

D’Angelo was about to tell Lerma to shut the fuck up when the rounds hit, from a roof on the right side of the street. The canvas sides on the truck bed were rolled up, the gunner on the roof had a perfect view into the truck and a perfect downward shot. D’Angelo recognized the sound of the RPK machine gun as the soldiers behind him shrieked and returned fire. He turned to see one man trying to hold the blood inside his throat and others rising to their feet, climbing over each other to get away.

“Get the fuck down!” he screamed. “Get below the walls!”

Bullets knocked the soldiers around the bed of the truck like bowling pins. The rear guard tried to go over the tailgate and got hung up on the nylon “troop strap” stretched sideways above it. D’Angelo saw his head jerk from a round’s impact before he dropped out of sight. D’Angelo rolled to the metal wall around the bed, threw his muzzle over it and laid down a magazine on burst. The truck started to back up. Lerma’s window exploded. D’Angelo jerked his head up to see Lerma flop forward until his helmet hit the dash.

Kallinen screamed, “Oh God! Oh fuck!” and spun the wheel. D’Angelo changed magazines as bullets punched through the front right door and windshield. Kallinen shrieked like his nuts were on fire. 

D’Angelo dumped a second mag, pulled his rifle back into the truck bed to reload and slid up to the cab. Another burst of RPK fire smashed into the truck bed. D’Angelo heard rounds impact the bodies around him. The radio squawked a frenzied message, DeLeon begging Olivares for orders.

The command post cut in, a voice yelling, “Wrench this is Thunderbolt, give me a god damn situation report! What’s going on?”

The truck jerked to a stop. D’Angelo flattened his body on the floor of the truck bed, found a dead torso with his foot and used it to push himself until his head stuck into the truck’s cab. He was about to slide all the way into the cab when the RPK fire from across the street stopped, and the gunfire from the left side of the street dropped to almost nothing. The ambush had lasted all of about a minute.

He looked up. Lerma was still folded over with the top of his helmet resting against the dash. He didn’t look like he was breathing, and D’Angelo didn’t have time to check. He turned left to talk to Kallinen.

Kallinen slumped in the seat with his back resting against the driver’s door. His eyes were open, and he cradled what looked like a small pile of grey sausage in his lap. The area around his midsection was soaked with dark red blood. D’Angelo wasn’t sure if he was alive at first, until he saw Kallinen blink and his hands shake.

D’Angelo almost said, “Oh shit,” but stopped himself. He looked at the radio in the center console and saw that the handset was hooked on the dash on Kallinen’s side. It should have been on Lerma’s, but that fat loser had probably thought he couldn’t talk on it the right way.

“Kallinen,” D’Angelo said. Kallinen blinked again, and looked at D’Angelo. “Hey bro, you’re good, alright? You hear me?”

Kallinen swallowed and gave a weak nod. He had a look of pure, out of control fear on his face. D’Angelo couldn’t reach the handset and couldn’t climb into the cab without drawing fire. He’d need Kallinen’s help.

He said, “Hey Kallinen, I need you to do something for me. I need you to grab that handset and give it to me. But keep low and quiet, don’t move a lot, okay?”

Kallinen barely moved his head. His jaw shivered. He rasped, “I’m gonna die.”

D’Angelo looked down the length of the convoy. All the gunners were down, dead soldiers lay scattered along the length of the convoy. One torn and bloody driver had dropped out of his open driver’s door. The firing had slowed to a random shot every now and then. Loud voices conversed in Spanish somewhere ahead. They didn’t sound panicked, so they weren’t from his company. The voices weren’t leaving.

D’Angelo’s heart rate skyrocketed. He wasn’t going to be able to sit tight and wait for help. If the enemy had planned on a hit-and-run ambush, it didn’t make sense for them to hang around and have a calm conversation.

He took a deep breath to steady himself. He still had to get on the radio and tell the command post about the ambush.

“Kallinen, you’re not going to die. Chill out, I’ll take care of you. Now give me the god damn handset.”

Kallinen didn’t move. He looked at D’Angelo with tears running down his cheeks.

“Lean forward a little bit, reach out with your right hand and grab the handset,” D’Angelo urged. “Hurry up, man.”

Kallinen let go of the pile of intestines but barely reached his knee before his arm fell. Toward the front of the convoy a shrill scream rang out, followed by a short, sharp burst of fire. Someone laughed, and a gruff voice called out, “These idiots are American soldiers? Why the fuck were we so scared of them?”

“Kal, grab the fucking handset and give it to me. Now.”

Kallinen mumbled, “I can’t.”

“Kal, If you don’t give me the handset, I can’t call you a fucking medevac. Gimme the handset.”

Kallinen’s eyes widened. He struggled to force himself a little higher in the seat, then grimaced in pain as he reached to the dash. His arm shook like he had Parkinson’s. He made an “uuhhhnn” noise as he forced his arm the last couple of inches. D’Angelo flattened himself against the floor, hoping the movement inside the cab wouldn’t draw more fire. It didn’t.

Kallinen got his bloody fingers around the handset and just managed to lift it off the green nylon cord it was hooked onto. He collapsed back into the driver’s seat, then held his shaking right arm toward D’Angelo.

D’Angelo grabbed the handset. “Thanks, Kal. Lay back and rest, alright? We’re gonna be okay. Just stay quiet and don’t move, okay?”

Kallinen nodded, laid his hand gently back onto his intestines and closed his eyes. D’Angelo put the handset to his ear and felt the earpiece slip around from the blood on it. He keyed the mike and said, “Thunderbolt, this is Wrench.”

Thunderbolt shot back a reply. “Wrench this is Thunderbolt, what the fuck is going on? Give me a sitrep!”

“Thunderbolt this is Wrench, we got ambushed and wiped out. We need some reinforcements, like now. How fast can you get someone to us? Over.”

The response was delayed this time. “Wrench, we’re working that issue. What do you mean, you got wiped out? What happened? Over.”

“Fuck,” D’Angelo muttered. “We were hit in a near ambush. The enemy blocked the road in front of us with a burning vehicle and when we stopped they opened up from concealed positions in the stores on our left. They also had at least one automatic weapon in an elevated position on the right. All our vehicles are stopped and I think almost everyone’s dead. How copy, over.”

Seven vehicles ahead, two men in black fatigues with black masks and gear sauntered into view on the right side of the convoy. They didn’t seem the least bit concerned about any danger. They kicked a few corpses in the head, then opened the door of a humvee. One of them stuck the muzzle of his AK into the doorway and jabbed something with it. Then they both reached in, braced themselves against the vehicle and yanked the body of the state trooper onto the street. The man’s brown uniform was ripped and stained red.

One of the men reached to the trooper’s belt and took his duty radio. The men moved on to the next vehicle. Three other men in black appeared behind them, grabbing rifles from dead soldiers.

D’Angelo’s breath caught in his throat. Adrenaline spiked his veins. There was no question now, they were coming for him.

“Wrench, did you see any of the enemy? Can you give a description? Over.”

“Thunderbolt, I see five of them now. Wearing all black BDU uniforms, black masks, black chest rigs and carrying AKs and M4 type weapons. Over.”

There was another delay from Thunderbolt. Up ahead, someone yelled in Spanish, “Hey! One of these assholes is talking on the radio!”   

The five enemy D’Angelo could see rushed to yank humvee doors open and look inside. He blurted “Oh fuck!” and jerked his head down. He waited a moment, then eased his head up until he could barely see over the dash. More than a dozen men in black were visible now, on both sides of the convoy. They were pulling all the bodies out onto the street.

“Wrench, I need more information. Are you Wrench 6? Who are you? Over.”

“Thunderbolt, I’m not 6. I’m not one of the company leaders, I’m just a mechanic. Over.”

“What’s your name, Wrench?”

D’Angelo didn’t want to say his name over the radio. Instead, he gave the generic response, “Echo 4 Delta.” Echo 4 for his rank, E-4, and Delta for the first letter of his last name.

“Wrench, give me your name in the clear. Over.”

“God damn it,” D’Angelo mumbled. He heard a wheeze and turned to see Kallinen staring at him, blue eyes full of fear. He keyed the radio and said, “Corporal D’Angelo.”

“The guy talking on the radio is named D’Angelo!” a voice announced. D’Angelo thought, Shit.    

“D’Angelo, are you secure right now? Are you safe?”

D’Angelo spat back, “No I’m not fucking safe right now, Thunderbolt! I just told you I’m looking at the enemy. And they’re listening to this radio traffic.”

“What’s your location?”

Fuck you, D’Angelo thought. There’s no way in hell I’m going to put my location over the radio with the enemy listening. “I’m in the area of the ambush, Thunderbolt. That’s all I can say.”

Shop doors flew open on the left side of the street. Men in black fatigues walked out, joined by others stepping through broken windows. Over twenty men milled around the convoy, peered into vehicles and yanked dead soldiers onto the street.

D’Angelo watched one soldier’s head bounce off the concrete. The soldier cried out in pain. The men who pulled him out jerked back in surprise, then one of them grabbed the soldier’s rifle away. They dug through the soldier’s gear and pockets, pulled his helmet off and forced him to his feet. One yelled in Spanish, “Jefe! We found a live one!”    

Jefe. Boss. D’Angelo wondered, Who the fuck is in charge of these assholes? “Thunderbolt this is Wrench, they just took one of our guys prisoner. Do you copy?”     

“Thunderbolt copies! Do you know who it is? What are they doing with him?”

The prisoner’s back was to D’Angelo, he couldn’t see the man’s face. A masked man jabbed his AK into the soldier’s stomach and yelled something D’Angelo didn’t understand. The soldier raised his hands. Then another man with a short, paratrooper-style AK hanging on his chest walked around the front of the humvee. This man had an entourage of four other men in black. He said something to the soldier, who shook his head furiously. Then the soldier tore open his body armor and let it slip off his shoulders. The man with the short AK looked at the man’s chest, then turned to his entourage and shook his head. He turned back to the soldier and rubbed his hair, like he was a cherished son. The soldier recoiled in terror. The man took him by the arm and led him between the vehicles, out of D’Angelo’s sight. His entourage followed. D’Angelo knew he had just seen their jefe.    

Aw, fuck, D’Angelo thought. The boss checked his fucking nametape. They’re looking for me.     

“Thunderbolt this is Wrench, I don’t know who it was. They took his weapon and walked him away somewhere. Over.”

“Roger. Wrench, can you stay where you are and keep reporting?”

“He’s still talking on the radio,” a voice yelled. “He’s fucking watching us!”

The masked men swarmed around the vehicles, moving faster down the line toward D’Angelo’s truck. As he watched, three men popped all the doors of the humvee two vehicles ahead and pulled bodies out. He saw them tear open body armor to read name tapes.

“Thunderbolt, I don’t think so. I don’t have a lot of time. I see over twenty of them now, all armed with AK’s and M4 type weapons. Black fatigues with no markings. One of them fired an RPK during the ambush, I recognized the sound. They’re checking all the vehicles in the convoy.”

As soon as he let go of the transmit key, he saw something he hadn’t expected. A man stepped into view with a Rocket Propelled Grenade launcher slung over his shoulder. His partner walked behind him, carrying a vinyl pack designed to carry three RPG rounds.

“Thunderbolt, one of these guys is carrying an RPG. They didn’t use it during the ambush. You copy?”

“Thunderbolt copies. Listen to me, Wrench. Don’t hang around if it’s not safe. You do whatever you have to to stay alive. You copy? Do anything you think you have to. We’re behind you and we’ll get you as soon as we can.”

D’Angelo’s exhaled and closed his eyes. They were telling him goodbye. He was on his own. He keyed up and said, “Roger, Thunderbolt, see you later. Out,” and dropped the handset.

He considered his options: there were only three, and two were suicide. He could get out and run, knowing he’d be chased down and shot in the back. He could fight back and kill a few of them before being killed. Or play dead and hope they didn’t check him too closely, or read his name tape. He opened his eyes to see Kallinen still staring at him with wide eyes. He said, “Kallinen, when they come to you, don’t say anything about me. Just surrender, okay?”

Kallinen started mumbling something. As D’Angelo rolled onto his back and slid into the truck bed he recognized a few of Kallinen’s words. “. . . thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God. . . ” D’Angelo felt with his feet for a gap, then forced his lower legs under an anonymous corpse’s legs. The truck bed was slick with what felt like warm oil, but D’Angelo knew what it was.

He forced his rifle under a jumble of limbs until it pointed at the tailgate. Then he rolled halfway left, listening for the men to reach his truck. Their voices were still a little ways off. He reached to the sleeve of the dead soldier beside him, pulled as hard as he could. He hoped to God that the RPK gunner wasn’t still watching, there was no way in hell that he wouldn’t spot the movement.

Nobody fired into the truck. The voices outside came closer. Kallinen still rasped a prayer, the same prayer, from the cab. D’Angelo got the body of the soldier closer and lifted one shoulder. Jesus, the guy was heavy. He got the soldier’s shoulder just high enough that he could jiggle his way underneath, one tiny bounce at a time.

The truck’s passenger door opened. D’Angelo froze. Someone outside laughed and said, “Shit, I thought you had to be in shape to be in the American Army. Look how fat this bastard is.”    

He heard a scraping noise, then a wet thud as something heavy hit the ground. A voice giggled, “Hey asshole, watch out. You hit my foot.”    

D’Angelo let go of the dead soldier’s shoulder and as slow as he could, laid his own left arm across his face. He turned his head a little, enough so that he didn’t look like he was watching the tailgate but not so far that he couldn’t see it. He quietly flipped the safety off his rifle. Outside, someone exclaimed, “Hey look, the driver’s alive, and there’s a fucking radio in here! I bet that’s the cocksucker who was talking about us.”    

Kallinen kept repeating a Hail Mary. Orders were yelled outside, and the driver’s door opened. Kallinen shrieked. D’Angelo grimaced despite his efforts to keep every muscle still. Kallinen’s back had been resting on the driver’s door, and D’Angelo knew he had fallen backward when the door opened. The pain in his torn abdomen must have been excruciating.

D’Angelo forced the thought of Kallinen’s agony out of his mind, let his lips part, left his eyes halfway open and tried to slow his breathing so the movement of his chest would be invisible under his body armor. He hoped he had a corpse’s expression on his face.

Spanish shouts mixed with Kallinen’s screams. Someone yelled in accented English, “Whas jour fucking name, boy?”

Kallinen didn’t answer. D’Angelo’s heart tried to smash a hole in his chest. His midsection heated, and he realized he had just pissed himself. It didn’t matter, the bodies in the back had pissed themselves too. Nobody would notice.

A stern voice outside said in Spanish, “Check his name tag.”

Oh, fuck, D’Angelo thought. Kal, let them think you’re me. If you don’t, I’m done. He cursed himself for his selfishness, but it was true. He hoped they would think Kallinen was him.     

Kallinen had new body armor, the kind that had a complicated fastening system and went on over your head instead of closing in front like the old vest D’Angelo was wearing. He tried to remember if Kallinen had a name tape on his body armor. He didn’t think anyone in the company had one. As far as he could remember, name tapes were only on their uniform tops.

Kallinen screamed, “No, stop! That hurts!”

Someone yelled back, “Chut thee fuck up, pendejo! How you open thees fucking thing?”

Another voice growled, “Who was talking on the radio, boy?”

D’Angelo closed his eyes. Kallinen, please, don’t tell them about me.    

“It was. . . it. . . I was! I’m sorry!”     

D’Angelo opened his eyes again. I owe you, Kallinen. For as long as I live.     

In his peripheral vision, D’Angelo saw the muzzle of an AK poke over the wall of the truck bed. He nearly shit himself, but caught it in time. Another AK joined it. Two men had climbed onto the side of the truck and were looking into the bed. One of the men said, “One of them is still moaning. That one, over there.”

D’Angelo’s heart rate shot way up again. He checked himself. Oh God. Am I moaning? Then he heard it, the pathetic noise one of the soldiers in the back had been making since the truck bed was raked by machine gun fire. With all the other crap going on, he’d stopped hearing it. The other soldier, who’d been making the hiccup noise, was silent.     

“I can’t figure out how to open his armor, Jefe. And he’s a fucking mess, his guts are hanging out. I don’t want to get that shit all over my hands. He’s the only white guy here, and he said he was talking on the radio.”    

“Does he have a wallet?”    

Seconds of silence, then another scream from Kallinen. “No wallet, Jefe.”    

“Fuck it. It’s him. Get rid of him, he’s too fucked up to keep. We have two others anyway.”    

“You don’t want any others?”    

“No. No need for more. How were our losses?”   

“Not bad, Jefe. A couple of these Americans got lucky. Two dead, one other might die from wounds. They were just throwaways, nobody important.”    

Outside, Kallinen screamed, “No! Please, no!”

A voice replied in Spanish, “Calm yourself, son. It’s alright.”    

Two shots rang out. They sounded to D’Angelo like pistol shots. Kallinen didn’t scream again. D’Angelo felt a wave of guilt wash over him, with an even guiltier touch of relief. They had killed Kallinen, D’Angelo might be safe now.

One of the AK’s pointing into the truck fired once, two feet from D’Angelo’s head. His eyes slammed shut for a moment. He could have sworn his body jerked from the sudden shock of fear. The moaning from the wounded soldier stopped. D’Angelo swallowed and waited for another round to explode from the AK. Another round, for him.

Go away, God damn it, D’Angelo prayed. You think you just killed the guy you were looking for, get the fuck out of here.     

A voice ordered, “Take their rifles and let’s go.”     

The rifles pointing into the truck bed withdrew. D’Angelo swallowed again and prayed, Please, God, don’t let them come in here.     

Metal scraped metal, chains rattled, and the truck tailgate fell with a clang. A masked man hoisted himself with a groan and stepped into the bed. Heads appeared behind him, looking into the truck. D’Angelo had a sudden thought, that maybe he should have followed Top Olivares’ orders to wear the same gear as everyone else. D’Angelo’s gear was unique and better than everyone else’s. If one of these guys decided he wanted it, D’Angelo was a dead man.

The man inside the truck picked up an M16 and handed it back. One of the men at the tailgate pulled his mask off. Through slitted eyes, D’Angelo saw the face in the sunlight. A dark, bearded man, maybe forty years old. He took the M16 and looked it over, then said, “What a piece of shit. I don’t know why they want us to send these back, they won’t sell for much in Mexico.”  

“I don’t know either, Jefe.”    

The man in the truck grabbed another two rifles and passed them to waiting hands. The unmasked man smiled and said, “Boys, this is a good day’s work. I think God will smile on us for today.”     

“Jefe, do you think this was a good idea?” one of the entourage asked. “I understand why we killed the police, but killing American soldiers? Don’t you think that will bring more attention to the border, instead of making it easier for us to move our stuff across?”

“Miguel, I hear what you’re saying,” a paternal voice answered. “Maybe it will make it harder for our business, I don’t know. But you have to trust those who planned this operation, they thought about everything. It will work out for us. If God wills it.”    

Voices murmured agreement. The man in the back passed another rifle back. He stepped over another body onto D’Angelo’s ankle. D’Angelo stifled a groan. The man grabbed D’Angelo’s rifle by the front sight and started working to free it from under another soldier’s hip.

This was it. D’Angelo had to decide, right now, what to do. He could let the man free his rifle and then surprise him. Blast him in the face with a burst, then take out that asshole in charge and maybe a couple of others before he was shot down. Or he could keep playing dead, let the man take his rifle, and hope the man didn’t realize he was alive. Every soldier he knew would want him to shoot it out, kill as many enemy as possible and die a hero’s death. On the other hand, his wife, daughter and parents would want him to play dead, to reach for that one faint hope of survival.

D’Angelo didn’t know what to do. The faces of his wife and daughter floated across his mind. He remembered his Vietnam veteran grandfather’s advice, before his first deployment. Never let yourself be captured, no matter what. Take death over capture if it comes to that. And his wife’s words, on that same day. Don’t be a hero. Do whatever you have to so that you come home to me.  

He wished God would give him a sign, some kind of direction. He swallowed again. His hand tensed on the pistol grip of the rifle.

The man in the bed of the truck freed the front of the rifle and lifted it. D’Angelo moved his eyes, looked into the man’s face. The man was looking down at the rifle, not at him.

D’Angelo took his decision, said a silent prayer, and made his move.  

23 Responses to “Line in the Valley, chapter 4”

  1. 1 M. A. Baxley, Jr.

    I can’t wait to see where this is going… Are there really soldiers this inept? If so, how did it get this way, and how do we remedy it?

    • Baxley,

      Unfortunately, in every large army there are inept troops. Read up on the 507th Maintenance Company ambush in Iraq. Prior to the invasion all genades and AT-4s were confiscated “for safety”, the company went completely off the route they were supposed to be on, unit cohesion completely fell apart, one soldier was left behind, and the commander hauled ass out of the city while his unit was being torn apart. I’m not saying those troops were worthless or that none of the mistakes were understandable, but there was plenty of ineptitude to go around. I wrote this as a worst-case scenario, and it definitely would not be a likely result. But it could happen, with the right mix of poor training, poor mindset and inept leadership.

      The rememdy is hard, realistic training, driven by reality instead of decades-old doctrine.

  2. 4 spemack

    Good stuff, Chris. Kinda hard to read, in a sense that it is very visceral and all too plausible. Can’t wait to read more and for Jerry and his boys to sort these bastards out.

  3. Chris this is friggin fantastic! I’m not a “professional” critic, but from a reader and part-time editor, this is gripping stuff! Can’t wait to read more, AND get the full book

    • Scot,

      Thanks, and what did you think of it from an editor’s perspective?

      • I really like how you tell it from a shifting first-person perspective, not a narrative. Its gritty and real. Apart from a few minor errors, that other readers have mentioned, its good! Keep it up

  4. 10 Don Williams

    Bravo Zulu, excellent work. Mr Hernandez continue to put fire on that target.

  5. 12 Tyson

    More, more! I’m hooked.

  6. Great stuff, I hope some publisher out there wakes up and signs the papers! Have you looked at Marko Kloos’ site? He’s e published on his own, I suspect you’ll get a contract but from a selfish perspective I hope that happens soon!

  7. 15 Travis

    Mr Hernandez,

    I’m also hooked. Please get this thing published so that I can read more. You’re totally fucking with my OCD here… 😀

    • 16 Travis

      Actually, f’it. Put the thing in PDF format and let me pay you via PayPal. No?

      • Travis,

        I’ll check out the mountainguerilla site. And you’re probably right that only one of those guys had any good training. As far as publishing the whole thing, I’ve got a couple of options. Depending on which option I take, the book could be out within a couple months. I will announce when it’s coming out, and I appreciate your support.

        Got any specific critiques for me?


  8. 18 JR

    Excellent. I really like the shift to D’Angelo’s point of view for this chapter. I look forward to the book.

  9. 20 Tobias P.

    There has been quite some criticism about the ignorant and dangerous characters Olivares and DeLeon in the last chapter. Maybe they are realistic, but in that case you have a case of

    That leads to my only criticism for this chapter, which is similar to what I wrote about the briefing earlier: Considering there are a lot of people being killed, we don’t get to know anything about them. It feels to me like their only point is to illustrate how despicable people like Olivares and DeLeon are (which, naturally, feels a bit preachy, but hell, I enjoy Heinlein and Correia, so I can stand preachy). You don’t have to make the other characters heroes or even smart, but give them some names and a short, but too late moment of bravery. For inspiration, read some Guy C. Kay or G.R.R. Martin, they know how to give minor characters a moment in the limelight to make a world feel alive. It works well with the guys in black (proving you do not need to do a Tarantino dialog about something unrelated to make characters come alive)

    Besides that: Great pacing, good writing (better and better), crafty cliff-hanger. Definitely buying the book.

    • Tobias,

      I didn’t develop those characters very much because they aren’t, in the big picture, very big or important characters. I pretty much just need the reader to know DeLeon is a nice guy but weak and inexperienced leader, and Olivares is a douchebag who thinks he knows everything.

      I haven’t had time to read your link, but I’ve had the discussion about realism vs. what fiction readers actually want to read. One of my guiding principles has been, “I want any combat vet or street cop to read this and say, ‘yeah, this is real'”. Unfortunately, that doesn’t sell well. Ridiculous, nonsensical crap like the Jack Reacher series is hugely successful, realism isn’t. I wrote Proof of Our Resolve in as close to a totally realistic sense as I could, knowing that would turn off readers who want to read about 6’10” tall, 300-pounds-of-solid-muscle, ultra super ninja Special Forces assassins who kill millions of enemy with backflipping hatchet attacks. I spoke to a literary agent about this very subject recently; I told him that since I know the truth about combat, I would be insulting real combat vets if I wrote BS like that. He was a little surprised, but when I explained it he understood.

      I realize you weren’t suggesting I go full unbelievable, and I appreciate the link. But I decided if the choice is between being a bestselling writer of unbelievable crap or being a relatively unknown writer of real soldiers’ stories, “I’ll take writing real soldiers’ stories for $100, Alex”. 🙂


      • 22 Tobias P.

        I actually don’t want you to go into the other territory at all – more so because the link I gave is not about what readers want but how they react (tvtropes is not about improvement, but observation – it also is a huge timesink so don’t get lost surfing there). The only lesson one can take from the article is that sometimes, to appear realistic, one has to tone down what one experienced: Real world examples include Dick Winters from “Band of Brothers”, whose real-world exploits were even more impressive than what the series showed.

        My other point goes more like this: Since you do not flesh out any other character, the scenario seems to be built around the purpose of exposing bad leadership, which -to me- feels distracting from the actual story that is advancing here.

        And yet the proof of that bad leadership, the loss of lives, is less tangible with all those faceless soldier lying around. In cinema, I’d probably say something like “don’t tell me, show me”. Now I would not recommend going as far King did in “The Stand”, dedicating a whole chapter to a character before killing them off (it works, it works well, but not on just 300 pages). Moorcock did a nice version in “Dorian Hawkmoon”, summing his battle up with small paragraphs starting with “How xxx died:”, giving a good summary of what is happening and why it matters, taking just a little more time than describing the scene itself takes. Note: Both are memories from books I read decades ago, I am working from faulty memory here.

        Then again, maybe I care too much about scenario and characters and too little about the message. What you are writing is working out quite nicely, as I already said.

        • Okay, sorry if I misunderstood you earlier.

          The lack of character development is part of a compromise I’ve had to make throughout the book. The novel is already 120,000 words; I’ve had an agent outright refuse to even look at it unless I removed at least 30,000 words. The average publisher won’t print anything from a new author that’s over 80,000 words. The maintenance company guys weren’t central to the story, so I only put what I felt I had to about their backgrounds.

          Thanks for the insight, you’ve given me some important stuff to think about.

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