"Chasing the Long Count" by Michael King
An early morning chill filled the mountain air. The cloudless sky was a tender shade of baby blue. A slight breeze filtered through the pines and blew down the mountain behind Max. He didn’t like being upwind from the approach team, but he had no choice. A magpie quacked behind him. It flopped through the trees in undulating waves, struggling to keep its long tail aloft. It passed Max’s right flank in a flash of black and white and then disappeared down into the trees.
He waited patiently for his team of four soldiers to come up the mountain, through the low scrub oak and thick sagebrush. The men were all retired Special Forces renegades so they were going to be tough to catch, but Max’s ambush was flawless. He had them dead to rights.
Before Max actually saw his men, he heard them. He had to listen very carefully because the soldiers stalked silently on a bed of soft, dead spruce needles that muffled their footsteps. But he heard them coming. His combat senses were acute and precise, honed to perfection from years of warfare.
Max finally saw the approach team emerge from the bushy scrub oaks, one at a time, slowly. Their camouflage clothes mixed perfectly with the forest background, but even so, Max was able to identify their outlines as they emerged from the undergrowth. There should have been four men, but he only saw three. Carefully and silently, he reached into his back pocket and pressed a small button on a remote control.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Three VC pop-up dummies snapped to attention to the left of the men. The soldiers turned and fired quick, accurate shots at the dummies. Each wooden decoy was splattered with explosions of paint bullets. As the soldiers’ attention was drawn to the dummies, Max launched his ambush from the opposite side. From his belly position in the brush, he showered the men with a rapid fire of paint bullets. It was glorious, perfect. Except there were only three men; there should have been four.
It was then that Max felt a sharp pain in his back. The fourth man. The soldier had somehow reversed the ambush and dropped out of a tree from behind him and stuck Max with a wooden training knife. He rolled over onto his back and saw the camouflage-clad warrior standing above him with a big victory grin on his face. Two of the soldier’s front teeth were missing, long ago knocked out in combat.
“You bastard,” Max said.
“You’re getting careless, old man,” the soldier said, reaching down and helping Max to his feet.
“I still win. There are three of you dead and only one of me dead,” Max said with a smile.
“How do you win if you’re dead?”
“I always win, remember that,” Max said, punching his soldier hard in the chest. The man recoiled and grinned.
The group gathered in camaraderie under tall spruce trees on the side of the mountain and discussed their exercise. Max told them what they had done right and what they had done wrong. He complimented and scorned with equal conviction, reviewing every tactic and every step of the exercise.
Max was pleased with his current squad of soldiers. He called them Omaha Company. The team had fought together in Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, and Liberia. They had completed lucrative assignments in Chile, the Philippines, Sierra Leone, Angola, Grenada, and Columbia. Their many operations, training exercises, and insurgencies had transformed the men into a tight band of fearsome warriors, an unconventional weapon able to move as a single battle mechanism in any combat scenario.
The men of Omaha Company were all multi-millionaires. It was the reward they reaped from auctioning their skills to the highest bidder, in any conflict, anywhere in the world. Some called them mercenaries, but Max much preferred Tactical Military Consultants or Private Military Servicemen. He felt those titles were so much more refined and professional, almost dignified.
The men walked down the mountain as a group. The thick spruce forest soon gave way to a bright and airy aspen grove on the slopes. White tree bark and delicate leaves let in more sunlight than the thick bower of pines up on the mountain behind them.
The men descended through the tall, wild grass until Max’s house was finally in view. Though his sprawling log frame rancher looked rustic, like a wilderness lodge on the side of a mountain, it was anything but rustic inside. It was outfitted with the most expensive furnishings and decorative accoutrements from around the globe as well as numerous animal heads and trophies from illegal hunts and exotic safaris.
The place had cost Max over six million dollars, but that was the going rate for a house in the ultra-exclusive alpine community of East Vail. Max’s house was halfway up the mountain, separated from the other homes in the neighborhood by his long driveway and gated entrance that kept everyone at arm’s length. Just the way he liked it. It allowed Max and his men the freedom to use the vast acreage behind his home for their frequent, and sometimes noisy, combat training exercises.
Max chose to settle in Vail for two reasons. One was the advantage provided by high altitude training. The other was the military history of the place. Long ago, members of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division founded Vail after returning home from World War II. The 10th Mountain was one of the first divisions of U.S. Military that could actually call themselves Special Forces. They had trained harder and longer than any other branch of the U.S. Military at Camp Hale, just twenty miles west of Vail. They suffered through endless hours of high altitude training, overnight bivouacs in the harshest of conditions, and miles of cross-country and downhill ski training. After their preparation in the Colorado Rockies, the men of the 10th Mountain were sent to face the Germans in the mountains of Northern Italy. The Germans were dug in deep. No one could penetrate the front lines in the Italian mountains, that is, until the boys from Camp Hale came along and made quick work of the German forces, driving the Nazis back into the motherland and changing the course of WWII forever.
Max loved the fact that a handful of those hard-hitting soldiers came back to the mountains and established the community of Vail, Colorado. Max often said, “If this place was good enough for the badasses of the 10th Mountain Division, then it’s good enough for me.”
The men of Max’s Omaha Company also lived in Vail. They each owned an expensive, bucolic home somewhere in the valley. They often caroused through the streets of the village, eating and drinking excessively at the high-end restaurants. None of the locals really knew what the men did for a living or where they got their money, but in Vail no one asked about such things. Affluence was not uncommon. It was, in fact, the norm. The men of Omaha Company lived like wealthy villains in the pristine alpine community.
With their training exercises complete, the soldiers walked through the tall grass down the gentle slope of Max’s backyard and stopped on the blue slate patio in the shade of the dancing aspens. The men looked like they had just been to war. One of the soldiers opened a built-in refrigerator from behind a hidden oak panel and tossed bottles of beer to the other men. They dropped their guns and equipment on the patio and reclined on rockers.
Max’s assistant, a small man named Ku, emerged from the house through great sliding glass doors. He wore a dark green keikogi and carried two trays of sandwiches. The soldiers tore into them and chugged cold beer. Max leaned against the log wall and surveyed the scene before him. He felt safe in the sylvan setting, surrounded by his men.
“When’s the next gig, Max?” the soldier with a long Fu Manchu moustache asked through a mouthful of sandwich.
“I don’t know, fellas. I haven’t had any leads in while,” Max replied.
“We’re hungry for the rush, Max,” another said.
“I know, boys. You’re a bunch of pitbulls. You need the action, just like me. Hang in there. We’ll get something real soon. I have a good feeling about it,” Max downed his first beer, pulled out a pouch of Redman Long Cut from his flak vest, and stuffed a heavy wad in his lower lip. It made his jaw stick out even more than usual.
He knew his men needed a fight. They needed it soon.
MICHAEL KING graduated from The University of Pittsburgh with a degree in English Writing and a focus on Meso-American Anthropology. A life-long creative writer, Michael has spent his career in retail-chain marketing and operations in Pittsburgh, PA. His novel Chasing the Long Count was inspired by his time living on Cape Cod as a young man as well as his continued studies of the Maya culture. He currently lives in the South Hills of Pittsburgh with his wife Risa and their two young sons.