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“Send it,” the spotter lying next to Mike said.
The lieutenant crouching low several feet behind Mike said, “Shoot the fucker.”
Seven hundred yards away, the center of mass moved. The target’s heart slipped in and out of Mike’s crosshairs, partly obscured by a bicycle the target was trying to repair on the far side of the dirt road. Mike pressed his finger pad against the trigger, felt the warm smoothness in its curve, but he didn’t fire. Instead, he watched the target through his scope.
It was a bearded Afghani in his mid-fifties. He troubled Mike because the man didn’t match the description of the target he’d been assigned. The target should’ve been younger. This man was about the age of Mike’s dad, who was surely sound asleep at that moment, thousands of miles away. The Afghani wore a white tunic stained with sweat and dust, and a turban with one loose end that continually fell across his face while he tried to reseat the bicycle chain onto the sprocket-wheel. The man fiddled with the chain, leaning the top tube of the frame against his forehead as he crouched down, unwittingly keeping the bicycle between himself and the business end of Mike’s sniper rifle. The man would drop the chain and lift his hands as if he were arguing with the bicycle. He would wipe the grease on his tunic, wag a finger at the bike, then try again to tug the chain onto the sprocket’s teeth, the whole time flipping the loose end of the turban out of his face like he was swatting a pesky fly. Once he angrily squeezed the rear tire with both hands, appearing to punish the bike for being so stubborn. The man’s frustration and the way he scolded the bike reminded Mike of how his dad would fuss with his ancient Ford F100. Yeah, he thought, his dad would be sleeping now, with Mike’s son and wife asleep in the next room of the old ranch house. Mike clenched his eyes shut, saw the image of his wife and son sleeping in their beds—warm, at peace, and far away. A nightlight would be glowing in the corner, illuminating his wife’s cheekbone and an eyebrow shaped like a comma. He took a breath and opened his eyes again.
A small, battered Nissan pickup rattled past the Afghani. He waved his hand, maybe asking for a ride, but the driver leaned out the window and said something that must have been offensive. The bicycle man shook his fist. A sedan sped by headed in the opposite direction, kicking up a cloud of swirling rust-colored dust, obscuring him for a moment. The man raised his fist at the sedan, too.
“Take the shot, goddammit. Before the whole damned village drives by.” The lieutenant peered through his binoculars. He lowered them from his eyes, lifted them, then lowered them again. His voice rose a little higher in pitch. His voice would do that when he got stressed and felt the platoon wasn’t responding quick enough. “That’s our target. Take it out.”
At his shoulder, Mike’s spotter, a kid named Terry, whispered urgently. “Jesus, Mike. Just send it.” Mike looked at Terry. Terry’s face was flushed from the heat and from nerves. He was a good soldier, but fidgety. Not a good trait for a spotter. “What are ya waitin’ for, Mike?”
Mike had wanted to teach his son to hunt, as his dad had taught him, before he would deploy that January. Because what if he didn’t come back? He took his son out just before Thanksgiving. They climbed to a tree stand, the one he and his dad had built long ago. He was crouching behind the boy’s shoulder, with one gloved hand lying lightly on the small of his son’s back. It was a Gore-Tex glove, the kind he wore in the army. He’d given a similar pair, a little too big, to his son on his birthday the month before. The boy had just turned ten. He wore one glove on his left hand, but his right, with the index finger hovering above the trigger, was bare. Mike had told him to take the glove off his trigger hand for safety’s sake. “Got him in your sights?” Mike asked.
“Yeah,” the boy whispered, and his voice quivered slightly. Mike knew the boy was trying to control his voice, to speak evenly.
“So let out half a breath, and keep both eyes open, and when you’re ready, squeeze, don’t pull.”
“Okay,” the boy replied, and let out half a breath, but still he didn’t fire.
Down field, the buck lifted his head and snorted into the chill morning air. Its breath rose and disappeared in a vapory mist. The buck stood in a clearing, framed by the pines and the bare aspen branches. The animal was a beautiful sight, Mike thought. The muscles in his heavy shoulders rippled as he bent again to the wet grass. He was an 8-pointer and would make a fine first trophy.
The boy lifted his finger from the trigger and rested it outside the trigger guard as his father had taught him. He bit his lip. “Do you think he knows we’re up here?” Mike’s son asked.
“No Ben, he’s got no idea.”
“Sergeant, do you need a fucking invitation to follow orders?”
“No sir,” Mike replied.
“Then follow goddamned orders and take the target out. Now.”
Mike stared through the scope. He twisted the magnification ring ever so slightly, tightening the focus. He could almost see his father’s face out there, decades ago, the smudge of grease on his chin, the pursed lip as he peered under the hood of his Ford truck. “Mind of her own,” his father would say, shaking his head and sighing. “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” He always said this part with a grin. He loved his truck the way a cowhand might love his horse. Its breakdowns were just a part of its ornery personality.
“Why doncha buy a new one, Dad?” Mike asked him on a winter morning when he was ten.
“And give up on the old girl?” His dad shrugged and patted the faded hood. “We been through too much together. I drove you and mom home from the hospital in her when you were born.”
“I am ordering you to kill an enemy combatant. You hear me?”
Terry whispered again through clenched teeth. “Jesus, Mike. He’s just a fuckin’ towel head. You’re gonna get us both slaughtered.”
Mike ignored him and looked sideways over his shoulder at the lieutenant. “Sir, the man is fixing a broken bicycle. He ain’t the target Terry and me were assigned. He’s just fixing his bicycle.”
A doe emerged from the brush about ten yards from the buck, and after it, a fawn.
“Looks like the buck’s got a family, Dad.”
“What if I miss and hit the fawn?”
“You won’t miss, son.”
Mike eased back an inch. The ball of his foot had started to ache, and his ankle made little cracking sounds when he shifted his weight from it. He could feel the warm blood pulse back into his cold toes.
“You cold, Ben?”
“I’m okay, Dad.”
“You know that buck ain’t gonna wait for you to shoot.”
“So you gotta take the shot.”
“He’s got a family.”
The lieutenant scoffed. “I don’t give a damn. That son of a bitch is the mission you’ve been assigned to. A threat. Eliminate it.”
“Send it Mike, for chrissakes.”
The Afghan man raised his hands once more to the heavens, apparently pleading with some higher power for help with his unwilling bicycle chain. A quarter mile further up the dirt road, just cresting a hill before descending towards the man, two young bareheaded men on a skinny motorbike spluttered into view, trailing dust. Although he couldn’t hear them, Mike could see that they were laughing. Two kids on a motorbike. An angry man in the crosshairs. His dad sleeping soundly thousands of miles away, while in the next bedroom, his son also slept deeply, taking nearly silent breaths, his wife in the bed next to the boy because both were afraid for Mike, and outside the bedroom window, a battered old short bed pickup.
“Do it quick,” the lieutenant said, his voice grim, under control now.
Mike squeezed the trigger.
The buck bolted into the underbrush unscathed, and the doe and the fawn leapt sideways and vanished. Mike saw the splintered tree limb above where the buck’s head had been, exactly where his son had aimed. The boy laid the rifle down. A slim sliver of blue smoke drifted from the tip of the barrel. He was biting his lip again and did not look at his father.
“Sorry, Dad. I missed.”
“I know, Ben.” Mike pressed his palm against his son’s back and had a thought, that he wished he would never have to remove it.
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