You know, a normal person, upon stepping out of a grocery store in a small town in Wyoming and seeing a dark red Crown Vic full of four young men, all Hispanic, all exuding the vato belligerence, two with shaved heads and goatees, watching them intently, might or might not immediately identify them as a threat. If they did, in this day and age, they might dismiss their initial concern as prejudice, and nobody wants to be prejudiced. So, they would try to ignore the mean-mugging and go about their business. To all outward appearances, that was what I did.
But I am by no means a normal person anymore. Haven’t been for a lot of years. Most “normal” people would probably call me “paranoid” if they could see inside my head. I would probably correct them, pointing out that I am, in fact, “professionally paranoid.” It’s kept me alive in some very, very unpleasant places.
I wasn’t looking at them as I walked across the street toward my beat-up old pickup, but was keeping them within my peripheral vision, watching them without focusing on anything in particular. I learned a long time ago that if you keep your eyes unfocused, you can actually see a lot more around you. Details get fuzzy, but any movement will be instantly visible, and you can keep track of your quarry spacially all the time. Also, it keeps people from getting that hackle-raising sense of being watched, since you’re not staring at them.
Let these fuckers think I was oblivious.
I made a show of looking both ways before crossing the street, even though there is usually very little traffic in Powell, and crossed to the truck. My .45 was on my hip under my jacket, but I had a lot more firepower in the cab. Part of me was hoping not to have to use it in town; Powell had a very low crime rate, and committing the first killing in decades was not going to help us stay low-profile. We might have a good relationship with the county sheriff, but word of a shooting was going to get around.
I got in and started the truck up, making sure my SOCOM 16 was next to my leg and easily accessible. To my complete lack of surprise, the car followed me as I pulled away from the curb and headed west, out of town. They weren’t terribly good at this; they were following too close, and trying to pull this off in a small town was never a good plan in the first place. Outsiders were noticed, especially Hispanics in a place where most people were pretty white.
I was driving through town partially on autopilot, already thinking ahead, trying to remember good ambush sites. There was no way I was going all the way back to The Ranch with these clowns in tow, and if they were who I thought they were, shaking them was going to require some applied violence. Outnumbered four to one, I wanted a terrain advantage.
Unfortunately, Powell sits on pretty flat ground. Surrounded by fields, there aren’t a lot of good ambush sites close to town. I’d have to head north, up toward Polecat Bench. There were hills and ravines up there where I could set up, though I needed to open up that time-distance gap so that I could park the truck and move off to find a shooting position.
I was studiously avoiding thinking about the wider implications of a car full of possible sicarios in our backyard. There would be time for that later, provided I got out of this with my head still attached to my shoulders. I needed all my mental energy to concentrate on the fight at hand.
I wove through the outer neighborhoods, moving just over the speed limit. I’d made sure a long time ago that I knew Powell, Ralston, and Cody like the back of my hand, just in case. I don’t think at the time any of us had figured that we would actually be E&Eing through ranchland Wyoming, but here I was, and the worst-case scenario appeared to be coming true.
I dropped south and turned onto Highway 14, heading southwest toward Ralston. The Crown Vic was still following; I’d been moving quickly, but there was too little traffic to be able to lose them, particularly in the middle of the morning. Most everybody was working the fields or the range at that time of day. That was okay, though; I hadn’t expected to shake them off in town.
I ran through the gears as I accelerated down the highway, the Crown Vic keeping pace behind me. They hadn’t started shooting, which was good, but I didn’t want to give them a straight line of sight longer than I absolutely had to. They were bound to get impatient sooner or later.
I’d thought about going through Ralston and hitting the 294 north; there were several turnoffs into the foothills of Polecat Bench up there. But with them following so close, I realized that I didn’t want to stay on one road that long. So, as soon as a turnoff presented itself, heading out into the fields to the north, I suddenly stomped on the clutch and the brake and twisted the wheel, turning off the highway with a squeal of tires and onto the side road. Working the clutch and accelerator faster than I think I ever have before or since, I ran back through the transfer case, roaring past two farmhouses before taking another left.
The Crown Vic had almost spun out when I made the turn off the highway. They’d swerved hard to avoid slamming into my tailgate, then back to follow me through the turn, and almost flipped over. I was briefly disappointed that it hadn’t happened; that would have solved my problem, and possibly left one or more to work over for information.
I kept taking turns, avoiding staying on a straight line for very long. They had to be getting pissed by now, but still hadn’t opened fire. Sooner or later, I was going to have to stay on the straight and narrow a little longer, and see if I couldn’t open up that gap a little farther.
Hitting the next major road, I banged a hard left and raced over the creek, heading up into the hills. I was pushing the truck as hard as I dared; I didn’t want to flip on a curve or lose control on a bump, but I knew the road and I knew the old Dodge’s capabilities well enough. I kept my speed right at the edge of what both the truck and I could handle, roaring uphill into the foothills.
I glanced in the mirror behind me. The Crown Vic was falling back a little. I grinned tightly. Tough guys they might think themselves, but my vato buddies back there were flatlanders. They weren’t comfortable driving at high speed in the hills. I was opening that gap.
My next turn was a risky one. The first violent turn off of Highway 14 had been onto a paved road; this one was onto dirt and gravel. And I waited until the very last moment to stomp on the clutch and wrench the wheel over.
I damned near broke the rear end loose as I hit the gravel road. The truck definitely fishtailed a little, and it took a good hundred yards before I was confident that I was fully in control again. Then I was bouncing and roaring up the road and over a ditch, leaving a cloud of dust between me and my pursuers. They could easily see where I had gone, but they wouldn’t be able to spot me well enough to hit me for the time being, and if they were driving like flatlanders on the paved road, this gravel track was going to give them fits.
I had to slow as the track headed into the next draw, but I was relying on that dust cloud to provide some concealment. I bounced back over the dry wash and turned off the dirt road onto a barely defined vehicle track going up the side of the finger.
After trundling another three hundred yards, just around the curve of the draw, I found my spot. I threw the truck in neutral, set the brake, and killed the engine. I didn’t have much time.
My chest rig was on the floor under my seat. A yank brought it out as I kicked the door open, then I swapped hands, grabbed my rifle, and bailed out of the cab. I had to move fast, before the dust settled.
I ran uphill, my boots slipping slightly on the bunchgrass as I went. There was a rocky outcrop at the top of the hill I was aiming for, hoping to get there before the gangbangers could get around the curve of the draw and spot me. I hoped they’d get focused on the truck and not notice me, even though the slope was open ground covered in sagebrush and bunchgrass.
My heart was pounding by the time I got to the top and flung myself behind the boulders. I leaned my rifle against the rocks, lifting one eye over the edge to watch the draw as I shouldered into my chest rig. I only had four mags in it, plus one in the gun, but a hundred rounds of 7.62 would be more than enough for this situation.
As soon as the fast-tech was snapped around my waist, I grabbed the rifle, bringing it to my shoulder and pointing past the side of the boulder, my eye finding the scope as I scanned for targets. The dust was settling around the parked truck. There was no sign of my pursuers, yet.
The draw stayed still and silent. Even what little traffic there was out on the highway was all but inaudible. The only sound was the whisper of the wind in the grass and the faint creak of my boot as I shifted my position ever so slightly.
I was suddenly struck by the impression that, if not for the old Dodge sitting down there on the slope below me, and the modernity of my rifle and chest rig, this wasn’t all that different from what some frontiersman might have experienced out there a hundred fifty years before.
Time dragged on, or at least, it seemed to. The draw stayed empty. I was starting to think that the bad guys had given up. Or maybe they’d buried the grill of that low-slung car in the ditch only a few dozen yards from the road.
Then movement caught my eye. A voice echoed down the draw. Rendered unintelligible by distance, it had the unmistakable tone of a curse.
I eased out just enough to get the dark figure in my scope. It was one of the bald ones, wearing a black jacket buttoned at the collar and baggy jeans. He was struggling up the draw, a pistol in his hand. He didn’t look like he was dressed for walking in the badlands. And he really didn’t look happy about being out there, either.
I placed the stadia line on his upper chest, and rested my finger on the trigger.
Then I hesitated. I knew what this was; these men were there to kill me, or, failing that, to kidnap me for torture and later murder. I didn’t know for certain who they were, but we’d killed enough MS-13 thugs in Arizona and Mexico that I had little doubt that these guys were here in some connection to the mountain range of corpses we’d left behind us in Mexico and Central America.
But we were Stateside. I’d willingly ignored and blatantly violated a lot of laws downrange, particularly in Latin America. I’d killed a lot of people. But for some reason, being here, in the US, the fact that if I dropped the hammer on this guy, who couldn’t touch me with that dinky little 9mm he was carrying, it would be a homicide, gave me pause.
I knew, in that pause, that these dogfuckers wouldn’t hesitate. Giving them a chance would be suicide. My finger tightened on the trigger.
The rifle boomed loudly, the report echoing and rolling down the draw. The bald guy staggered, then fell on his face.
I quickly transitioned to the next guy, a baby-faced little fat dude with longish hair and a white t-shirt. He was momentarily frozen with shock; they must have been expecting to catch me unawares and helpless. They must not be familiar with the Mountain States. While not everyone was armed up there, a lot of people were, and not just with little subcompacts for CCW. Truck guns were pretty ubiquitous, especially with the hard times that had marked the last few years.
His hesitation didn’t last long, though. These guys hadn’t come up here to pop their violence cherry; they’d traded shots with other gangbangers before. He dove for the dirt, holding his pistol up uselessly, searching for a target.
I eased off a little of the tension on the trigger and adjusted. It wasn’t an easy shot at two hundred, but I was in a good position with good glass. I let out most of the air in my lungs, paused, let the reticle settle as best it could, and squeezed. The trigger broke just as the stadia line crossed the bridge of his nose.
Another rolling boom echoed down the draw, and he jerked as the bullet passed through his face and cored out his heart.
Satisfied that he wasn’t getting up again, I kept scanning, looking for the other two. There was no sign of the car; I assumed they’d gotten stuck and continued on foot. It was probably a pretty safe assumption. That was not terrain for a Crown Vic.
But after five minutes, they hadn’t appeared. I came off the scope and eased away from the boulder, careful not to skyline myself. I scanned the slope behind me, then started working my way around to the western side of the hill. I should have been able to see them if they were trying to come around to my flank, but I was in combat paranoid mode at that point, and wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. Besides, it’s never a good idea to stay in one place for long, especially when you’ve just smoked two of the bad guys from that position. Mobility is security for a sniper, and for all intents and purposes, that was my role at that moment. I was alone, and couldn’t rely on anyone else to watch my back.
The far side of the hill was as empty as the draw, and while I might have been able to find microterrain to conceal my approach, even in the sage and bunchgrass that provided all the ground cover there was to see, I figured I could be fairly confident that whatever military training was seeping into the world of the Latino gangbanger, through the likes of MS-13 and Los Zetas, open-ground infiltration was not one of the skills being taught.
I paused behind another outcrop, taking a second to plan out my next move. I needed to get back to The Ranch. First priority had to be getting to a secure location, and that was the only truly secure location for Praetorians in the world.
I needed my truck; it would be a long haul on foot. I carefully moved back around the hill to my previous vantage point, stopping and waiting to watch and listen. I didn’t want to run to the truck only to go barreling into the last two gangsters’ fire. They had some ground to cover before they could do anything with their pistols, presuming they hadn’t gone back to get more firepower out of the car, but since I was by myself, I had to err on the side of caution.
But as I scanned the draw, I saw nothing but the two corpses lying where they’d fallen. Somebody out at the nearby farm had to have heard the shots, but unlike a lot of urban areas, the sound of gunshots out in the open wasn’t a terribly significant thing out there. I could have been somebody out plinking or shooting coyotes.
In a way, that was just what I’d done.
There was still no sign of their buddies. I waited for a few minutes, my eyes skimming over the slopes opposite and craning my head out just enough to see below me. Nothing. The draw was just as empty as before. They must have scrammed as soon as they saw the first two catch it.
I held my position a little longer, then started back down toward the truck. They may have run, but I wasn’t putting money on them making their retreat permanent. Not only was I already a target, that, unless I missed my guess, they’d been paid for, but I’d just smoked two of their homies. They’d want revenge, if nothing else.
I half-ran, half-slid down the slope, coming to a halt against the cab of my truck with a small cloud of dust. I hadn’t shut the door, so I tossed my rifle in on the seat and followed it without bothering to strip off my chest rig. I pulled the door shut with a bang as I jammed the key in the ignition, stomped on the clutch and brake, and twisted.
The old, faithful truck started with a roar, and in moments I was moving again, bouncing and swaying toward the far end of the draw, watching the mirrors for any sign of my attackers.
My rear view stayed empty even as I rounded the hill to the west, passing an abandoned farmer’s shed. I spotted the dirt road through the fields and made for it as fast as I dared. I still about knocked my head against the ceiling of the cab a couple of times.
Once I got on the road, it got easier. I turned north, through the fields, and headed up to the top of Polecat Bench. I’d have to be careful on my route back, and make sure I wasn’t dragging anyone along with me.
It did occur to me, as I planned my route, that evasive driving might be pointless. If they could find me in Powell, they had to know where The Ranch was.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. While I had been assured that steps had been taken to discipline the members of the Network (or the Cicero Group, as the more dramatic members liked to call it) who had leaked our information to the bad guys while we were in Mexico in the hopes of using us as bait, I still didn’t know just how much had been leaked in the first place, or even if the leak had been entirely plugged. We knew where a lot of the bodies were buried, and we had demonstrated a willingness to violently stomp all over the cunning plans hatched in back rooms and restaurants, far from where the bleeding and the dying was happening. There were definitely those we supposedly worked for who considered us a liability.
That said, we had plenty of enemies outside the Network, as well. We’d spent the last several years leaving a growing swathe of dead jihadists, rogue operators, and narcos behind us. For the most part, until Mexico, we’d kept our profile low, at least outside of certain circles. But sooner or later, the butcher’s bill comes due, no matter how righteous the killings.
I was afraid of what I was going to find as I drove north.
The Ranch sat on about six hundred acres, backed up on the Beartooth Mountains. It had once been a genuine cattle ranch, up until a combination of the economic downturn, the ever-increasing costs of ranching, and the younger generation’s lack of enthusiasm for raising cows forced the aging owner to sell. He hadn’t been running cattle for some time before he sold the land. Some of us felt a little bad about buying his land and not actually ranching on it, as he evidently had hoped that somebody would take up the torch when he was gone, since his kids wouldn’t.
But we’d turned it into our base of operations and training center. While we might have been sneaky and underhanded when it came to getting the job done overseas, for this place we crossed our t’s and dotted our i’s. All the requisite paperwork was filled out for a tactical training facility, not unlike Blackwater’s old one at Moyock. In the interests of increasing our security and being neighborly, we had even actively cultivated a close relationship with the local sheriff, having the department out to train and shoot with us regularly.
The entry gate was closed and appeared abandoned as I pulled up. I knew better. I’d helped put the concealed, hardened guard posts in myself, so I knew where to look. Even then, I couldn’t see anyone, which was kind of the whole point.
I was already on the phone. “I’m here,” I said, holding the phone with two fingers in my wheel hand.
“Roger,” the voice came from the speaker. “I see you. You sure you’re clean?”
“As a whistle,” I replied. I had been very careful and very watchful on the way back. That was actually putting it mildly. I had been on edge, poised to go into aggressive evasive driving, while ready to draw my .45 and dump the mag into any vehicle I saw that looked remotely suspicious. None of us who had deployed as Praetorian Security (I’m sorry, Solutions) shooters ever quite turned it off, anymore. But even so, this had been a nastier shock than I’d expected.
One of the younger guys stepped out onto the road. He was wearing plates and carrying an AR-10 slung in front of him. He peered at me until I waved, then unbarred and swung the gate open. I rolled through, pausing just inside with my window down.
After he secured the gate, he walked up to my window. “Sorry, Mr. Stone,” he said. “I didn’t recognize you at first.”
“Don’t apologize,” I told him. “You did what you were supposed to.” I glanced at the glorified pillboxes set in the brush beside the road. From inside, I could see the men with rifles watching through the firing slits. “Has there been any activity out this way? Any probes, or anything suspicious?”
The kid shook his head. Holy hell, he barely looked old enough to shave, much less be a vet who had done his four years in the mil and gotten out. Or was I just getting that damned old? “We haven’t seen anything but you guys who were out coming back in in a hell of a hurry,” he said. “What’s going on? All I’ve heard is that something’s happened and we had to go to stand-to.”
“You know about as much as I do at the moment,” I told him. “Somebody tried to jump me out in town, and it sounds like I wasn’t the only one. I’ll make sure the word gets passed down once we know more. Just keep your eyes peeled.”
“Roger that,” he said. I waved vaguely at him and put the truck back in gear, heading up the gravel road toward the main house.
Larry and Nick were on the porch as I pulled up, both kitted up and armed. Larry was a bald giant of a man with a dark beard that showed streaks of gray these days. He’d trimmed it down from his “scary murder hobo” beard to a goatee, but that didn’t make the six-foot-five mountain of a man any less intimidating. He looked like a monster, which, conveniently enough, was his callsign. Of course, his love of B-grade monster movies and action-horror novels had gotten him the callsign, but most people outside the team wouldn’t realize that.
Nick was not a small man, but next to Larry, he looked like he was. Almost half a head shorter, he was still heavily built, though his brown hair and beard were also starting to show a little gray. His eyes were set in a semi-permanent squint that still saw a lot more than it seemed.
Nick blew out a relieved breath as I pulled up and piled out. “Have we got everybody?” I asked, even as I dragged my rifle out of the cab with me.
Larry shook his head, his mouth tightening to a thin line inside his goatee. “Hal’s on the way back, but we’ve had no contact with Jim or Little Bob,” he said. “They’re the only ones still out.”
I fought back the sinking, hollow feeling in my gut. Jim had been my assistant team lead for years now. Little Bob had been with us since we’d first gone into Kurdistan. Both were solid professionals and good friends. If they were out of contact, it could only be because things had gone very, very bad.
“How many of us actually got hit?” I asked as I mounted the steps to the porch.
“Hal’s running as far behind as he is because he had to lose a couple of bad guys who started shooting at him,” Nick told me. “Apparently, there was a sheriff’s deputy only a half mile away, and he got involved. Jack had a narrow scrape, and a couple of the newer guys got a bad feeling down in Cody and came running back up here. Not sure about anyone else.”
“I left two corpses and a couple of scared gangbangers on the west slope of Polecat Bench,” I said, as I headed inside. If anyone was going to have a more complete picture of what was happening, it would be Tom. The retired Colonel and I didn’t see eye to eye all the time, but he’d been hired to run training and turned into a pretty good mastermind at turning the company into the de facto private special operations command that it was.
Tom was in the command center in what had been the master bedroom. Nobody lived in the main ranch house anymore. It had become entirely a headquarters building, though one that could be used for meetings with clients and outsiders as well. Most of us had our own cabins scattered out on the two thousand acres of the ranch, away from the ranges.
Tom was standing in the middle of a room covered in maps and whiteboards. We had a few laptops up, too, but most of us had become rather minimalist when it came to having monitors everywhere. Whiteboards and paper maps are simple, cheap, and don’t require power and working internet connections.
Tom looked up as I walked in, my rifle still in my off hand and chest rig over my jacket. He was smoking, which was rare indoors, but given the day I’d had already, I imagined that Tom no longer gave a shit about filling the room with smoke. The crow’s feet around his icy blue eyes looked deeper than normal, and his already gray hair seemed to be going whiter by the day.
“Jeff, good,” he said. “Glad you made it back in one piece. What’s the score?”
“Two dead gomers, two in the wind,” I replied. “How many incidents so far?”
He pointed to the map of Wyoming spread on the north wall with the hand holding his cigarette. There were several red pins in it. “You make six, including James and Robert. I’m counting them both as ‘incidents’ until we get some contact and/or confirmation otherwise.”
I studied the spread, which covered nearly a hundred miles. “All within the last couple of hours?” I asked.
He nodded, taking another drag. “Tighter than that,” he said, checking his watch. “The first incident was…seventy-four minutes ago.”
I shook my head. “Well, if there was any doubt that this was coordinated…”
“There is certainly none now,” Tom finished for me. “The only question is which one of our admittedly myriad enemies has finally caught up with us?”
“After Mexico, I’d be willing to say that it won’t be just one,” I said. “Let any one of them get wind of us, and all kinds of assholes will be dropping their feuds for just long enough to put us in the ground. It’s the way of the world.” I stepped closer to the map. There were little notes attached to the red pins with callsigns, indicating who had been involved. The only two that were missing were “Kemosabe” and “Sasquatch.” “Do we have last known positions for Jim and Little Bob?”
He shook his head. “Not precise enough,” he replied. “They were both heading into town this morning, but we haven’t exactly been doing five-point contingency plans while Stateside.” He frowned. “That’s probably my mistake, but I imagine that it wouldn’t have gone over well.”
I grimaced. No, it wouldn’t have. I would have chafed at it, myself. Stateside had become much less stable in the last few years since the beginnings of the Greater Depression, but it was still Stateside, and most of us, if unconsciously, associated it with safety. We still went armed everywhere, but I don’t think any of us really anticipated a situation that would have required downrange levels of security and contingency planning to present itself, particularly not in rural Wyoming.
“I’m going to get reset, grab some more ammo, and go find ‘em,” I said. “Powell’s not that big; we shouldn’t have too much trouble.” Especially if they’ve run into something they can’t handle, I didn’t say.
No sooner were the words out of my mouth, then a sudden roar of gunfire sounded from the direction of the gate.