Scorpions, by Cliff Cardin (Featuring characters from Diggin' Out A Thorne")

(The following is a backstory that will provide insight into actions taken in "Diggin' Out A Thorne")

Sam Sheppard arrived in Iraq as a fresh recruit straight out of Quantico's scout sniper  school.

 They teach a lot of things in Quantico. By the time a scout sniper graduates from the  program, they have learned to hunt, hide, zero a weapon, adjust for elevation and wind,  even adapt for a cold or hot barrel. About the only thing they haven’t done is kill a man.  That's reserved for the battlefield.

Sam entered his assigned tent and threw his gear onto one of the vacant cots. He was scheduled to meet his spotter, a fourth-year man out of Camp Pendleton, named Nick. Sam wasn't worried about the pairing. He had already been told Nick was a standup guy with a fair sense of humor.

Chances were good that Nick would become Sam's only friend. Most soldiers couldn't relate to the role of a sniper. It was far too complex.

Killing a man during the heat of battle is easily justified. Morality is suspended when someone is shooting at you. Natural defense mechanisms kick in, triggering your will to survive. However, the ability to wait callously for a target, a target that will most likely never know you're there, and slowly squeeze a trigger, requires a different mindset altogether.

Sam understood the role. He believed in what snipers did. They eliminated enemy targets—which in turn, saved lives. They called themselves HOGs, or hunters of guns. Marine snipers understood every target put down was a gun that would never harm a fellow Marine. By performing their tasks well, husbands went home to their wives, and fathers were able to raise their children. He was proud of that.

Sam was acutely aware that neither, he, nor Nick, had been tested in battle. That would occur soon enough. He sat down on the cot and broke out his canteen. Putting a dash of water in his hand, he casually splashed his face. The desert air was hot, very hot—and dry. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a tube of medicated military lip balm and started to cover his lips. He was concentrating on the process when a stout, five-foot eleven-inch marine stuck his nose into the tent. He appeared to be in good humor.

“I've heard you could put lipstick on a Hog,” he said with a slight laugh. “But I'd never actually seen it done, until now." The man smiled at Sam and stuck out his hand. “I take it you're, Sheppard? I'm your spotter, Nick. That is of course, until the brass realizes I'm a better shot than you."

Sam smiled at the man and extended his hand. “That's odd. At Quantico, we were taught the better sniper was always the spotter.”

“Well, that explains everything,” he said. “We're using Quantico rules.” Nick grinned again to let Sam know he wasn't serious.

“Nice to meet you.” Sam offered.

Nick threw his duffel bag onto the cot, "You too," he said, changing his tone. "But don't get too comfortable. The Colonel wants to see us. I think he's come up with something for us to do.”

“Already?” Sam asked. I haven't had time to take in the grounds.

Nick laughed. "Oh, I didn't know that. Hell, if that's the case, he'll probably change his mind."

Sam returned the smile, then stood up and quickly stowed his gear. The two men walked across the compound to tent number two. “When did you get in?” Sam asked.

“Two days ago. How about you?”

“About an hour ago.”

“Well, it appears you've made it just in time. We're getting ready for a big offensive. They’re probably going to ask us to head out and take a look.”

“I've noticed half the platoon is wearing chemical weapons suits.”

“Yeah, their running drills three times a day. Some of these guys on the other side get a little crazy. It's best to be prepared. You ever fire an M40 in a chem suit?”

“Not recently.” Sam replied.

“Me either.”

“You think we're going to need that stuff?” Sam asked.

“I doubt it.”

“You don't mind if I take the gear anyway, do you?” Sam asked jokingly.

“Not at all. In fact, pack two sets. You never know.”

Sam just smiled.

As the two men approached the tent, Sam's saw an imposing figure standing behind a table. The man was tall, muscular, and had a thick stock of neatly cropped silver hair. His shirt was rolled up to his elbows. Sam guessed the colonel was in his mid-forties. The colonel looked up and smiled. “You my two snipers?” He asked.

“Yes, sir.” Sam and Nick replied in unison, snapping to attention.

“At ease, gentleman. Come on in.”

Sam and Nick walked up to the table. Spread across the top was an aerial reconnaissance map of the area. The colonel didn't waste a lot of time. He stared down at the map then up at the two marines standing in front of him.

“We're here. About forty klicks to the northeast, you'll find a series of ridges. On the other side of those ridges, are structures. Intelligence reports Rahim Hussein has taken up residence—right about there.” He pointed to a spot on the map.

“In case you haven't heard of Hussein, he's been a real pain in the ass. During the past several weeks, he's been responsible for at least three raids on supply lines. We thought we had him nailed down once, but he got away." The colonel paused and looked directly at his sniper team. His voice turned gruff. "It's time to take him out, gentlemen. This is what he looks like.”

The colonel tossed an eight by ten black-and-white photograph onto the table. Sam picked it up, studied it briefly, and then handed it to Nick. The colonel continued. “We don't have much time. Hussein moves around. Pick up whatever supplies you think you'll need and head out. Sam, I know you just got here. Nick will show you where to pick up your gear. We have a helo scheduled at seventeen hundred that will drop you near the base of the ridge. The terrain is rocky, which should provide cover. The drop point will put you about five klicks from the target. You'll have to hike in from there. Support will not be available gentlemen, so take your shot and get out. No heroics. He paused, looking at the men. Any questions?”

 Sam shook his head. He couldn't think of any. "No, sir, he replied.

“Good. Godspeed.”

Sam and Nick saluted, turned, and walked out of the tent.

“Well, that didn't take long,” Nick said.

“I'm glad I slept on the plane,” Sam agreed with a sly smile.

“Well, look at it this way. I didn't want to run through all of those chemical weapon drills anyway.”

Sam nodded. “Are they going to give us a chance to zero our weapons?”

“You're not calibrated?”

“I was before I left, I wouldn't mind checking the gear; things move around.”

“We've got some targets laid out down range. We're not supposed to pick up the helo until seventeen hundred. That gives us enough time to fire off a couple of rounds.”

“I'll get my stuff.”

“The two men walked past the camp perimeter to a hastily constructed range. While Nick checked in, Sam took in the surroundings. Against the ridge, he saw a couple of targets that had been placed inside metal frames. There were several tables and benches, all empty.  At the moment, they were the only shooters. “How far you make that?” he asked, when Nick returned.

“The range master guarantees it's exactly one hundred meters from the bench.”

“Well, okay then. Sam pulled out his M40A1 and moved into a seated position at a nearby table. He braced his weapon with a sandbag. Nick took a position at Sam's side and pulled out a spotting scope.

“Okay cowboy, let's put one on paper.”

Sam took time to settle in, inhaled, exhaled slowly, and squeezed the trigger.

“Nick saw a small puff of dirt spring from behind the target. "Not bad shooting... about a quarter low."

Sam adjusted the scope and slowly moved himself back into position. Again, he exhaled and squeezed.

"That one's right through the center. I'd say you're there.” Nick was impressed that Sam had successfully zeroed his weapon in two shots. They didn't have targets at two hundred or three hundred-yard intervals, but Nick knew that wouldn't be a problem. He figured Sam had plenty of stats on the gun. All snipers memorized data obtained on previous engagements, most commonly referred to as D.O.P.E. Nick had been watching Sam's form, judging it; and the man had passed. He guessed the people in Quantico knew what they were doing after all.

"We should stop off and get something to eat before we meet the helo?” Nick offered.

“Sounds good. You don't suppose they have anything that passes as a burger?”

“As a matter of fact, I believe they do.”

The two men dropped off their gear then Nick took Sam to the mess tent. For the most part, conversation was limited to pleasantries. Sam was ok with that. He gorged himself on burgers and fries, grateful for the hot food. During the next couple of days, they would be confined to MREs and nutrition bars. After they finished, the two men grabbed their gear and headed out to the chopper. The pilot was already there.

The pilot turned out to be a slender man named John. He looked young. “You two my cargo?” He asked with a broad smile.

“Afraid so.” Nick replied.

“Well, hop in. It's going to be an easy flight. No resistance." He looked at Sam. "The colonel said to get you within five klicks, so that's what I'll do. When you've completed your mission, use the assigned frequency and call in for extraction.”

“Got it.” Sam said.

Sam sat back in his seat and closed his eyes. As the helicopter lifted off, he focused his attention on the sound of the whirling rotor. He felt a little nervous as the wheels left the ground. Suddenly, the war was real. He glanced over at Nick; his eyes were closed. Apparently, someone didn’t like to fly. The pilot glanced over at Nick as well, and smiled. The flight proceeded without incident, and roughly twenty minutes later the helicopter set down. Sam and Nick stepped out. Neither man spoke; Nick's look said it all—he was happy to be back on the ground.

Both men threw their packs over their shoulders and moved away from the chopper. They watched as it took off. Sam took a look at the GPS coordinates and pointed to the northeast. “It's that way,” he laughed. Although the area was desolate, both men would have preferred to have been dropped at night; even with the rocks, the desert didn't provide a lot of cover.

“I hate this place already,” Nick said.

“A little hot for my liking, but I prefer it to swamps.” Sam replied.

“I take it you weren’t a fan of swamp drills,” Nick huffed.

Sam nodded. "Don't tell me you were."

“Hell, no, the instructor got a real kick out of it though. Made us submerge into the mud. I got one heck of an ear infection, even with the plugs.”

“I still prefer this to swamps. We don’t have to deal with snakes.

“Around here, you’re more likely to find scorpions, but don't kid yourself. We definitely have our share of snakes. One of the guys found a two and a half foot viper in his tent last week. Don't let your guard down.”

Sam nodded. The two men made pretty good time climbing the hill. As they approached the top of the ridge, they became more cautious. Conversation ceased. Eventually, they found suitable high ground and took up a position. The structures were finally within range.

“How far you make it?” Sam whispered.

“Hundred and fifty yards, no wind. All we need now is a target. Nick took out the picture of Hussein and gave it to Sam for reference. Sam took a look and then handed the picture back to Nick. As night fell, a crescent moon dimly illuminated the sand colored structures. Sam assumed the target was in the third house on the left. His assumption was predicated upon a man with a well-worn AK-47, standing guard in front of the home's door.

Nick leaned back and took a sip of water from a canteen, then returned his attention to the scope. There were several villagers milling around below, but otherwise, very little activity.

Another two hours dragged on. Nothing. It was a little past eleven when a man looking very much like Hussein stepped out onto the front porch. Nick saw him first through the scope and signaled Sam. Sam nodded, indicating he had acquired the target. He was lining himself up for the shot, when he unexpectedly flinched, causing him to hesitate for just an instant. He was about to take a life—the first of his career. Suddenly, a little girl, no more than five or six, ran outside of the house and leaped into Hussein's arms. Sam saw the child mouth the word "baba," through the scope, and then give Hussein a kiss goodnight. The word was Arabic, for "daddy."

“What are you waiting for?” Take the shot.”

Sam watched the man embrace his daughter. Before he could decide what to do, Hussein carried the young girl back through the door and disappeared into the house.

“What the hell happened?” Nick asked.

“I couldn't get it clean; the girl was in the way.”

“Then you shoot around,” Nick said.

“I couldn't; she's a civilian—and a kid.”

Nick withheld any further comment. It was the adrenalin talking. If the kid was in the way, he wouldn't have taken the shot either, and he knew it.

“He'll be back, and I'll be here,” Sam said.

The two men waited throughout the night, but Hussein remained inside.  At dawn three large trucks pulled up in front of the house. Men rushed out from the structures and jumped into the transports in a big hurry. Both Sam and Nick searched for Hussein, but he was nowhere to be found.

“We could take out the driver and a couple of the men,” Sam said.

“We're not cleared.” Nick replied. “And we're not prepared for a fire fight. No heroics, remember. I think we should back off and call it in."

”The two men backed down the hill then called in the information to headquarters. The mission was a bust. Both men were disappointed; neither had much to say on the way back to the extraction point.

As the helicopter arrived, Nick turned to Sam. “About what I said back there, forget it. If you didn't have a shot, then you did the right thing. You can't shoot through a kid. That was just the adrenaline talking. You did exactly what I would've done.”

“Thanks, but I did what I did. It's really no more complicated than that.” The two men returned to camp and debriefed with the colonel; then they returned to their tent to get some shuteye. 

Two days later the promised offensive had yet to materialize. Sam was resting when he looked down to find a scorpion at the foot of his cot. He casually reached over, picked up a nearby cement block and smashed the venomous creature, full force. He looked up to find the Colonel staring at him.

“Scorpions," the colonel offered. "That one is called Leiurus quinquestriatus,  or if you prefer, The Death–stalker. They're all over the place, in case no one bothered to tell you." He motioned for Sam to follow him. "Come with me please. I'd like to speak with you for a minute. Sam followed the officer into an adjacent tent where the colonel took a chair and sat down. He motioned for Sam to sit.

“That scorpion I just watched you kill—you didn't hesitate.”

“No, sir, I didn't.”

“Would it have been different if a baby scorpion was next to the mother?”

“No, sir, of course not.”

“I don't know what happened out there on your last mission. I wrote it up as no opportunity due to the deployment of a human shield. What I don't know is whether or not you had a shot before the child came out. No one will ever know that but you. Truth is, I don't need to know. What I want you to do, Sheppard, is to think of those men as scorpions. I want you to dispatch them as easily as you just did. I can guarantee you; they are just as deadly.”

“Yes, sir," Sam replied.”

 The colonel paused to make sure he had Sam’s full attention. When he spoke his voice was low. “I just got this letter from dispatch. Hussein attacked one of our supply lines this morning. We lost seven marines.”

Sam bowed his head.

The colonel looked at his young sniper. “This folder contains their pictures and names.” He paused and then pushed the folder in Sam's direction. “I spoke to their commanding officer. I want you to learn about these men and help him write the letter to their families.”

Sam looked at the colonel, not knowing how to react.

“That's all, Sergeant,” The colonel said.

“Yes, sir,” Sam said. He picked up the folder and left the room. He would have preferred the sting of the scorpion.


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