THEY EVACUATED the village of Darg at dawn. Masud's men went from house to house, gently waking the occupants and telling them that their village was to be attacked by the Russians today and they must go up the Valley to Banda, taking with them their more precious possessions. By sunrise a ragged line of women, children, old people and livestock was wending its way out of the village along the dirt road that ran beside the river.
Darg was different in shape from Banda. At Banda the houses were clustered at the eastern end of the plain, where the Valley narrowed and the ground was rocky. In Darg all the houses were crammed together on a thin shelf between the foot of the cliff and the bank of the river. There was a bridge just in front of the mosque, and the fields were on the other side of the river.
It was a good place for an ambush.
Masud had devised his plan during the night, and now Mohammed and Alishan made the dispositions. They moved around with quiet efficiency, Mohammed tall and handsome and gracious, Alishan short and mean-looking, both of them giving instructions in soft voices, imitating their leader's low-key style.
Ellis wondered, as he laid his charges, whether the Russians would come. Jean-Pierre had not reappeared, so it seemed certain that he had succeeded in contacting his masters; and it was almost inconceivable that they should resist the temptation to capture or kill Masud. But that was all circumstantial. And if they did not come, Ellis would look foolish, having caused Masud to set an elaborate trap for a no-show victim. The guerrillas would not make a pact with a fool. But if the Russians do come, Ellis thought, and if the ambush works, the boost to my prestige and Masud's might be enough to clinch the whole deal.
He was trying not to think about Jane. When he had put his anus around her and her baby, and she had wet his shirt with her tears, his passion for her had. flared up anew. It was like throwing gasoline on a bonfire. He had wanted to stand there forever, with her narrow shoulders shaking under his arm and her head against his chest. Poor Jane. She was so honest, and her men were so treacherous.
He trailed his detonating cord in the river and brought its end out at his position, which was in a tiny one-room house on the river bank a couple of hundred yards upstream of the mosque. He used his crimper to attach a blasting cap to the cord, then finished the assembly with a simple army-issue pull-ring firing device.
He approved of Masud's plan. Ellis had taught ambush and counterambush at Fort Bragg for a year between his two tours in Asia, and he would have given Masud's setup nine out of ten. The lost point was due to Masud's failure to provide an exit route for his troops in case the fight should go against them. Of course Masud might not consider that a mistake.
By nine o'clock everything was ready, and the guerrillas made breakfast. Even that was part of the ambush: they could all get into position in minutes, if not seconds, and then the village seen from the air would look more natural, as if the villagers had all rushed to hide from the helicopters, leaving behind their bowls and rags and cooking fires; so that the commander of the Russian force would have no reason to suspect a trap.
Ellis ate some bread and drank several cups of green tea, then settled down to wait as the sun rose high over the Valley. There was always a lot of waiting. He remembered it in Asia. In those days he had often been high, on marijuana or speed or cocaine, and then the waiting hardly seemed to matter because he enjoyed it. It was funny, he thought, how he had lost interest in drugs after the war.
Ellis expected the attack either this afternoon or at dawn tomorrow. If he were the Russian commander he would reason that the rebel leaders had assembled yesterday and would leave tomorrow, and he would want to attack late enough to catch any latecomers, but not so late that some of them might have left already.
At around midmoming the heavy weapons arrived, a pair of Dashokas, 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine guns, each pulled along the road on its two-wheeled mounting by a guerrilla. A donkey followed, loaded down with cases of 5-0 Chinese armor-piercing bullets.
Masud announced that one of the guns would be manned by Yussuf, the singer, who, according to village rumor, was likely to marry Jane's friend Zahara; the other by a guerrilla from the Pich Valley, one Abdur, whom Ellis did not know. Yussuf had already shot down three helicopters with his Kalashnikov, it was said. Ellis was skeptical about this: he had flown helicopters in Asia and he knew it was close to impossible to shoot one down with a rifle. However. Yussuf explained with a grin that the trick was to get above the target and fire down at it from a mountainside, a tactic mat was not possible in Vietnam because the landscape was different.
Although Yussuf had a much bigger weapon today, he was going to use the same technique. The guns were dismounted, then taken, each carried by two men, up the steep steps cut into the cliffside that towered over the village. The mounts and the ammunition followed.
Ellis watched from below as they reassembled the guns. At the top of the cliff was a shelf ten or fifteen feet wide, then the mountainside continued up at a gentler slope. The guerrillas set up the guns about ten yards apart on the shelf and camouflaged them. The helicopter pilots would soon find out where the guns were, of course, but they would find it very difficult to knock them out where they were.
When that was done, Ellis went back to his position in the little one-room house by the riverside. His mind kept
returning to the sixties. He had begun the decade as a schoolboy and ended a soldier. He had gone to Berkeley in 1967, confident that he knew what the future held for him: he wanted to be a producer of television documentaries, and since he was bright and creative, and this was California where anybody could be anything if he worked hard, there had been no reason he could see why he should not achieve his ambition. Then he had been overtaken by peace and flower power, antiwar marches and love-ins, The Doors and bell-bottom jeans and LSD; and once again he had thought he knew what the future held: he was going to change the world. That dream had also been short-lived, and soon he was overtaken once again, this time by the mindless brutality of the army and the drugged horror of Vietnam. Whenever he looked back like this, he could see that it was the times when he felt confident and settled that life would hit him with the really big changes.
Midday passed without lunch. That would be because the guerrillas did not have any food. Ellis found it hard to get used to the essentially rather simple idea that when there was no food then nobody could have lunch. It occurred to him that this might be why nearly all the guerrillas were heavy smokers: tobacco deadened the appetite.
It was hot even in the shade. He sat in the doorway of the little house, trying to catch what breeze there was. He could see the fields, the river with its arched rubble-and-mortar bridge, the village with its mosque, and the overhanging cliff. Most of the guerrillas were in their positions, which provided them with shelter from the sun as well as cover. The majority of them v/ere in houses close to the cliff, where it would be difficult for helicopters to strafe them; but inevitably some were in the more vulnerable forward positions, nearer the river. The rough stone façade of the mosque was pierced by three arched doorways, and one guerrilla sat cross-legged under each arch. They made Ellis think of guardsmen in sentry boxes. Ellis knew all three of them: there was Mohammed in the farthest arch; his brother Kahmir. with the wispy beard, in the middle; and in the nearest arch Ali Ghanim, the ugly man with the
twisted spine and the family of fourteen children, the man who had been wounded with Ellis down in the plain. Each of the three had a Kalashnikov across his knees and a cigarette between his lips. Ellis wondered which of them would be alive tomorrow.
The first essay he had written in college had been about the wait before battle as handled by Shakespeare. He had contrasted two precombat speeches: the inspirational one in Henry V in which the King says: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead"; and Falstaff s cynical soliloquy on honor in 1 Henry IV: "Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. ... Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. ... Who hath it? He that died o' Wednesday." The nineteen-year-old Ellis had got an A for that - his first, and his last, for afterward he was too busy arguing that Shakespeare and indeed the entire English course were "irrelevant."
His reverie was interrupted by a series of shouts. He did not understand the Dari words used, but he had no need to: he knew, from the urgency of tone, that the sentries on the surrounding hillsides had spotted distant helicopters, and had signaled to Yussuf on the clifftop, who had spread the word. There was a flurry of movement throughout the sun-baked village as guerrillas manned their posts, retreated farther into their cover, checked their weapons and lit fresh cigarettes. The three men in the archways of the mosque melted into its shadowy interior. Now the village seen from the air would appear deserted, as it normally would during the hottest part of the day, when most people rested.
Ellis listened hard and heard the menacing throb of approaching helicopter rotors. His bowels felt watery: nerves. This is how the slants felt, he thought, hiding in the dripping jungle, when they heard my helicopter gunship coming toward them through the rainclouds. You reap what you sow, baby.
He loosened the safety pins in the firing device.
The helicopters roared closer, but still he could not see them. He wondered how many there were: he could not
tell from the noise. He saw something out of the corner of his eye, and turned to see a guerrilla dive into the river from the far bank and begin swimming across toward him. When the figure emerged near Ellis he could see that it was scarred old Shahazai Gul, the brother of the midwife. Shahazai's specialty was mines. He dashed past Ellis and took cover in a house.
For a few moments the village was still and there was nothing but the heartstopping throb of rotor blades, and Ellis was thinking Jesus, how the hell many of them have they sent? and then the first one flashed into view over the cliff, going fast, and wheeled down toward the village. It hesitated over the bridge like a giant hummingbird.
It was an Mi-24, known in the West as a Hind (the Russians called them Hunchbacks because of the bulky twin turboshaft engines mounted on top of the passenger cabin). The gunner sat low in the nose with the pilot behind and above him, like children playing piggyback; and the windows all around the flight deck looked like the multifaceted eye of a monstrous insect. The helicopter had a three-wheeled undercarriage and short, stubby wings with underslung rocket pods.
How the hell could a few ragged tribesmen fight against machinery like that?
Five more Hinds followed in rapid succession. They overflew the village and the ground all around it, scouting, Ellis presumed, for enemy positions. This was a routine precaution - the Russians had no reason to expect heavy resistance, for they believed their attack would be a surprise.
A second type of helicopter began to appear, and Ellis recognized the Mi-8, known as the Hip. Larger than the Hind but less fearsome, it could carry twenty or thirty men, and its purpose was troop transport rather than assault. The first one hesitated over the village, then dropped suddenly sideways and came down in the barley field. It was followed by five more. A hundred and fifty men, Ellis thought. As the Hips landed, the troops jumped out and lay flat, pointing their guns toward the village but not shooting.
To take the village they had to cross the river, and to cross the river they had to take the bridge. But they did not know that. They were just being cautious: they expected the element of surprise to enable them to prevail easily.
Ellis worried that the village might appear too deserted. By now, a couple of minutes after the first helicopter appeared, there would normally be a few people visible, running away. He strained his hearing for the first shot. He was no longer scared. He was concentrating too hard on too many things to feel fear. From the back of his mind came the thought: It's always like this once it starts.
Shahazai had laid mines in the barley field, Ellis recalled. Why had none of them exploded yet? A moment later he had the answer. One of the soldiers stood up - an officer presumably - and shouted an order. Twenty or thirty men scrambled to their feet and ran toward the bridge. Suddenly there was a deafening bang, loud even over the whirlwind of helicopter noise, then another and another as the ground seemed to explode under the soldiers' running feet - Ellis thought Shahazai pepped up his mines with extra TNT - and clouds of brown earth and golden barley obscured them, all but one man who was thrown high in the air and fell slowly, turning over and over like an acrobat until he hit the ground and crumpled in a heap. As the echoes died there was another sound, a deep, stomach-thudding drumbeat that came from the clifftop as Yussuf and Abdur opened fire. The Russians retreated in disarray as the guerrillas in the village started firing their Kalash-nikovs across the river.
Surprise had given the guerrillas a tremendous initial advantage, but it would not last forever: the Russian commander would rally his troops. But before he could achieve anything he had to clear the approach to the bridge.
One of the Hips in the barley field blew apart, and Ellis realized that Yussuf and Abdur must have hit it. He was impressed: although the Dashoka had a range of a mile, and the helicopters were less than half a mile away, it took good shooting to destroy one at this distance.
The Hinds - the humpbacked gunships - were still in the
air, circling above the village. Now the Russian commander brought them into action. One of them swooped low over the river and shelled Shahazai's minefield. Yussuf and Abdur fired at it but missed. Shahazai's mines exploded harmlessly, one after another. Ellis thought anxiously: I wish the mines had knocked out more of the enemy - twenty or so men out of a hundred and fifty isn't much. The Hind rose again, driven off by Yussuf; but another one descended and strafed the minefield again. Yussuf and Abdur poured a constant stream of fire at it. Suddenly it lurched, part of a wing fell off and it nosedived into the river; and Ellis thought: Nice shooting, Yussuf! But the approach to the bridge was clear, and the Russians still had more than a hundred men and ten helicopters, and Ellis realized with a chill of fear that the guerrillas could lose this battle.
The Russians took heart then, and most of them - eighty or more men, Ellis estimated - began moving toward the bridge on their bellies, firing constantly. They can't be as dispirited or undisciplined as the American newspapers say, Ellis thought, unless this is an elite outfit. Then he realized that the soldiers all seemed white-skinned. There were no Afghans in this force. It was just like Vietnam, where the Arvins were always kept out of anything really important.
Suddenly there was a lull. The Russians in the barley field and the guerrillas in the village exchanged fire across the river in a desultory fashion, the Russians shooting more or less at random, the guerrillas using their ammunition sparingly. Ellis looked up. The Hinds in me air were going after Yussuf and Abdur on the cliff. The Russian commander had correctly identified the heavy machine guns as his main target.
As a Hind swooped toward the clifftop gunners, Ellis had a moment of admiration for the pilot, for flying directly at the guns: he knew how much nerve that took. The aircraft veered away: they had missed one another.
Their chances were roughly equal, Eilis thought: it was easier for Yussuf to aim accurately, because he was sta-
tionary whereas the aircraft was moving; but by the same token he was the easier target because he was still. Ellis recalled that in the Hind the wing-mounted rockets were fired by the pilot, while the gunner operated the machine gun in the nose. It would be hard for a pilot to aim accurately in such terrifying circumstances, Ellis thought; and since the Dashokas had a greater range than the helicopter's four-barrel Gatling-type gun, perhaps Yussuf and Abdur had a slight edge.
I hope so, for the sake of all of us, Ellis thought.
Another Hind descended toward the cliff like a hawk falling on a rabbit, but the guns drummed and the helicopter exploded in midair. Ellis felt like cheering - which was ironic, for he knew so well the terror and barely controlled panic of the helicopter crew under fire.
Another Hind swooped. The gunners were a fraction wide this time, but they shot off the helicopter's tail, and it went out of control and crashed into the face of the cliff, and Ellis thought: Jesus Christ, we may yet get them all! But the note of the guns had changed, and after a moment Ellis realized that only one was firing. The other had been knocked out. Ellis peered through the dust and saw a Chitrali cap moving up there. Yussuf was still alive. Abdur had been hit.
The three remaining Hinds circled and repositioned. One climbed high above the battle: the Russian commander must be in that one, Ellis thought. The other two descended on Yussuf in a pincer movement. That was smart thinking, Ellis thought anxiously, for Yussuf could not shoot at both of them at once. Ellis watched them come down. When Yussuf aimed at one, the other swooped lower. Ellis noticed that the Russians flew with their doors open, just as the Americans had in Vietnam.
The Hinds pounced. One dived at Yussuf and veered away, but he scored a direct hit and it burst into flames; then the second was swooping, rocket pods and guns blazing away, and Ellis thought Yussuf doesn't stand a chance! and then the second Hind seemed to hesitate in midair. Had it been hit? It fell suddenly, going twenty or
thirty feet straight down - When your engine cuts out, the instructor in flight school had said, your helicopter will glide like a grand piano - and crashed on the ledge just a few yards from Yussuf; but then its engine seemed to catch again, and to Ellis's surprise it began to lift. It's tougher than a goddam Huey, he thought; helicopters have improved in the last ten years. Its gunner had been blazing away all the time, but now he stopped. Ellis saw why and his heart sank. A Dashoka came tumbling over the edge of the cliff in a welter of camouflage, bushes and branches; and it was followed immediately by a limp mud-colored bundle that was Yussuf. As he fell down the face of the cliff, he bounced off a jagged outcrop halfway, and his round Chitrali cap came off. A moment later he disappeared from Ellis's view. He had almost won the battle single-handed: there would be no medal for him, but his story would be told beside campfires in the cold Afghan mountains for a hundred years.
The Russians had lost four of their six Hinds, one Hip, and about twenty-five men; but the guerrillas had lost both their heavy guns, and now they had no defense as the two remaining Hinds began to strafe the village. Ellis huddled inside his hut, wishing it were not made of mud. The strafing was a softening-up tactic: after a minute or two, as if at a signal, the Russians in the barley field rose from the ground and rushed the bridge.
This is it, Ellis thought; this is the end, one way or another.
The guerrillas in the village fired on the charging troops, but they were inhibited by the air cover and few Russians fell. Almost all the Russians were on their feet now, eighty or ninety men, firing blindly across the river as they ran. They were yelling enthusiastically, encouraged by the thinness of the defense. The guerrillas' shooting became a little more accurate as the Russians reached the bridge, and several more fell, but not enough to halt the charge. Seconds later the first of them had crossed the river and were diving for cover among the houses of the village.
There were about sixty men on or near the bridge when Ellis pulled the handle of the firing device.
The ancient stonework of the bridge blew up like a volcano.
Ellis had laid his charges to kill, not for a neat demolition, and the explosion sprayed lethal chunks of masonry like a burst from a giant machine gun, taking out all the men on the bridge and many still in the barley field. Ellis ducked back into his hut as rubble rained on the village. When it stopped he looked out again.
Where the bridge had been, there was just a low pile of stones and bodies in a grisly melange. Part of the mosque and two village houses had also collapsed. And the Russians were in full retreat.
As he watched, the twenty or thirty men still left alive scrambled into the open doors of the Hips. Ellis did not blame them. If they stayed in the barley field, with no cover, they would be wiped out slowly by the guerrillas in good positions in the village; and if they tried to cross the river they would be picked off in the water like fish in a barrel.
Seconds later, the three surviving Hips took off from the field to join the two Hinds in the air, and then, without a parting shot, the aircraft soared away over the clifftop and disappeared.
As the beat of their rotors faded, he heard another noise. After a moment he realized that it was the sound of men cheering. We won, he thought. Hell, we won. And he started cheering, too.