Clay reluctantly resigned himself to staring up at his green-washed surroundings, hoping for a miracle. The 'never out of the fight' ethos he held dear, and the desire to succeed in untenable situations taunted him as he surveyed the smooth earth above him. He found no handholds to grab and hoist himself upward … and even if they existed, he wasn't sure he could un-wedge his body.
Although his legs dangled freely below him, his tactical vest and the small rucksack he wore added enough girth around his torso to ensure he wasn't moving up or down from this point. The most annoying part … well, besides being stuck in a hole … was his assault rifle pressed uncomfortably against his chest, making each breath difficult and painful.
Unbidden, nasty thoughts of what would become of him seeped in along with the cold. If he didn't extract himself, he would linger for days until he died of thirst. Sadly, there was water near, a small bottle in his rucksack, but with no way of reaching the container, it would mock him as his mouth slowly dried up. Clay snorted as he realized he wouldn't starve to death … he regularly fasted for three days, and had once gone thirty days without food, just to learn how his body reacted. However, he had ample water during his fasts … unlike now.
This is gonna suck!
Clay allowed himself several minutes to wallow in self-pity before self-preservation kicked in again. He grinned as his brain identified one possible method to alert the team to his location. Sending up a narrow beam, infrared bat signal the others could detect with their night vision, was a longshot, but he would rather try something instead of only dangling here waiting to die.
With extreme difficulty in the tight space, Clay began his attempt to reposition his weapon so it pointed upwards. The scope pressed painfully on his chest, as if wedged between two ribs, but Clay grunted out his discomfort as he continued to tug, push, and turn the assault rifle. He was glad he'd chosen the shorter, more compact weapon for this mission … he'd never be able to transpose his long barrel sniper rifle.
Gritting his teeth, Clay gave a final push with all his effort, rotating the weapon so the laser sight pointed upward. The new position also alleviated some of the pressure on his chest, making it easier to draw in breaths. Though it put his arm at a painfully awkward angle, his fingers were able to reach the recessed button on top of the device. He debated whether to turn it on and off using morse code to send an SOS, but decided he wouldn't be able to maintain this position in the long term, so tapped twice to turn on the laser, sending a steady beam upward.
Silently berating himself for not recognizing the rookie wasn't behind him, Brock's grasp on Cerb tightened. The slight yelp alerted him to the fact he pulled the pup's hair, and he released his hold … gently petting him as an apology. I'm batting a thousand tonight. I lose the rookie, and then I hurt Cerb.
With is NODs still in place, Brock stared down at the treetops, wishing for a miracle and thoroughly disgusted with his performance. SEALs never left a man behind … ever … it was part of their proud ethos. The brotherhood stronger because you knew the man to your left and right would do everything in their power to protect you, and you them. He wanted to lay the blame on Krasbuckle, but if he'd done his duty properly, Brock would've noticed Clay go down and the captain couldn't have ordered them to leave Bravo Six somewhere out there.
Taking a quick glance at Jason, who sat grimly silent beside him, Brock regretted his action or lack thereof put the master chief in an untenable situation. It wasn't that long ago they lost Nate, and now Clay. He comprehended more than words often expressed … his quiet observations serving him well … usually.
Brock noticed all the little non-verbal telltale signs in Jason that their leader hadn't handled Nate's loss well. The nervous wiping of his hand on his thigh—as if Nate's blood still coated his fingers. He also caught the heavy sighs when Jason thought no one was paying attention. Those signified the weight of a leader's responsibility bearing down hard—likely mixed with unfounded guilt. Nate pushed for getting the paperwork, and Jason agreed because that's what they did—they risked all to make a difference.
Although they voluntarily accepted the inherent hazards of their job, it came with a price … guilt when a brother didn't make it home. None of them blamed Jason for Nate's death, but that didn't stop Jason from condemning himself. Brock expected tonight's loss would result in Jason taking on a boatload of new guilt even though the true responsible party sat safely next to him.
Swallowing hard against the bile wanting to creep up his throat, Brock turned away from Jason and scanned the forest below. Their rookie lay somewhere out among the trees. His vision blurred as tears pooled then trickled down his cheeks. If anyone noticed and dared to comment, he'd tell them the wind irritated his eyes. However, the truth was Brock would miss the new guy—and Clay's death was all his fault.
The cocky kid might've had a rocky start with Bravo, but Brock saw beneath the veneer Clay used as a shield. Anyone who grew up in the conditions Clay did, with an absentee father and no mother, would fast learn to use masks to hide their vulnerabilities. They all knew Clay had grown up in Liberia … so the claims Clay was riding the coattails of his father was utter bullshit. Ash Spenser would never win best-father-of-the-year … but he was a multiple award-winning recipient for worst father.
Brock lifted his NODs to brush away the wetness as his thoughts turned to Sonny. Anger roiled in his gut for Sonny's comment when they reached the helo and discovered Clay missing. The Texan made no bones about his dislike for Clay … almost coming to blows with the rookie when Clay stood up for himself after Sonny ruthlessly ragged on him and treated Clay like he didn't know his ass from a hole in the ground.
Lowering the night vision back into place, Brock made a silent vow he wouldn't allow Clay's name to be dragged through the mud for firing tonight—he would set the record straight. Brock saw exactly what happened as they approached the compound and stumbled upon the patrol. Although Clay's shot alerted the enemy, it was the right thing to do or Sonny would be dead as a doornail.
His back against the fuselage, Sonny gripped his weapon harder than necessary … his thoughts on the blond upstart who challenged his betters at every damned turn. I knew, just knew, the kid would be trouble even before Jason drafted him. Hell, his father is Ashland Spenser … a PNG'd SEAL with the bad grace to write a book about his time in the field. Although Sonny never read the book, he believed the ash-hole, who liked to stroke his own ego and gain media attention, likely revealed tactics, that with only a little stretch of the imagination, could result in current brothers being killed.
That thought stopped Sonny cold in his tracks. Clay is a brother. Ah, shit … we failed the kid. I failed him. About to voice his opinion they ignore Krasbuckle and go find their rookie, Brock's shout interrupted him.
"Jason! There!" Brock grabbed Jason's arm as he pointed off into the distance.
"What?" Jason wondered what the hell the dog handler was going on about.
"NODs on. See that laser beam … it's gotta be Clay signaling us his location. He's alive. We have to go get him!"
The helo titled slightly to the side as Sonny, Ray, and Trent all scrambled to the opening, each dropping their night vision in place and following Brock's arm.
Jason did the same, and although he couldn't be sure it was the PITA rookie, he would take any flack the cake-eaters wanted to throw his way—he was not leaving a brother. In short order, Jason communicated with the pilot, who agreed wholeheartedly to deviate from the flight path to another clearing about a click from the beam to allow the team to fast line down. She also indicated she had enough fuel to wait in a holding pattern for about forty minutes before needing to return to base.
As they approached the open space in the forest, Jason gripped the thick rope, determined to find their rookie and return within the allotted time … this mission wouldn't end with a trident studded coffin.