Easy, Kid … I've Got You
"Bravo Six, is that you?" Floated down to Clay, and at first, he couldn't believe his ears, but he recognized Brock's voice.
Clay responded, "Abso-fucking-lutely."
Relief washed through all of them as Sonny joked, "Well, Blondie-in-Wonderland, don't you know rabbit holes are for bunnies?"
Ignoring Sonny's teasing, Trent knelt at the edge, adding his light to Brock's and Jason's, who also took a knee. "Jesus, he's what, like fifteen or twenty feet down?"
"That's my guess too." Jason studied the deep chasm. The opening, front to back in relation to Six's position, was almost too narrow for Clay's body to fit and must've tapered enough to stop his downward fall. However, from left to right, the cavity was twice the width of his body. Jason also noted the slick sides didn't provide any hand holds—the kid needed assistance. "Six, we'll throw you a rope so you can climb out."
Grimacing, Brock noted the reflection from his flashlight and asked, "How high is the water down there?"
"Up to my chest now and still rising." Clay flexed his icy-cold, stiff fingers, attempting to regain feeling.
"Any injuries?" Trent inquired as Brock, Sonny, and Jason began pulling out rappelling lines while Ray kept watch for them.
"No." Clay didn't think calling attention to a bruised chest and chilly, numb appendages were necessary. If the team was here, they were soaked through and cold as well.
"Rope coming down. Let us know once you've got ahold of it," Jason called down as Brock fed the line to Bravo Six.
With the constant deluge of water now inching toward his neck, Clay seized the nylon rope with both gloved hands. "Got it! Coming up." Clay endeavored to pull himself upward but made no progress in freeing himself.
"Don't take all day, Alice," Sonny griped when Clay didn't ascend.
Hating to admit he couldn't do it, Clay said, "I'm wedged in too tight, need a little assist."
"Okay. Secure your grip, and I'll haul you up." Jason took the line from Brock and prepared to drag his rookie out of a potential watery grave.
Clay repositioned the line, wrapping it around one hand several times to lock his hold. With his free hand, he did the same nearer the end of the rope. "Ready."
Jason pulled with all his might, his boots slipping in the muck, sending mud and dead foliage down the hole. Clay grunted, the strain on his joints increasing as the earth refused to set him free. When his shoulders threatened to pop out of their sockets, he instinctively let go—before telling anyone. With the sudden release, Jason ended up on his ass.
"What the fuck!" Jason shouted.
"Sorry, it was that or a dislocated shoulder. I didn't move a damned inch."
Ray glanced at Jason, who was in the process of standing again, his backside now covered in mud. The rookie would no doubt receive the mother of all ass-chewings for just letting go—once they returned safely to base. But for now, Jason needed a solution so Ray offered a possible one, "Have Six tie the line under his arms. Won't yank anything out of a socket."
The rope returned to Clay with instructions. It took him ages to tie a knot as his fingers failed to cooperate and his whole body tremored due to the frigid conditions. By the time he finished, murky liquid lapped at his chin, and he had to tilt his head back to speak without getting a mouthful. "Ready."
"About time, the tea party's been over for hours and were late for a very important date," Sonny quipped, keeping his Alice-in-Wonderland references going.
"Shut up and make yourself useful," Jason growled. His worry increased because if the kid was so tightly wedged, it would take immense effort to free him. With Jason, Sonny, and Trent all taking hold as if playing tug-o-war, they used their leg, back, and arm muscles, giving it their all for several minutes, but Clay didn't budge.
"Guys, we got another problem," Clay called up.
Clay tilted back as far as he could, but rainwater still entered his mouth as he said, "Water's gonna cover my mouth in a moment … not long before it reaches my nose."
"Shit!" Jason rubbed his thigh. He wasn't going to allow Clay to drown in a hole only fifteen feet below him—this would NOT be the kid's grave. He needed a quick solution—this was a land mission, so they didn't bring any breathing apparatuses with them. Recognizing multiple heads were better than one, he said, "We need to work the problem—and fast. Any ideas?"
"We're gonna need to send someone down there to find out what's holding him in place," Brock said.
Trent shrugged off his med-pack as he said, "I've got a coil of NG-tubing. It's narrow, but at least Clay can get a little air—buy him a bit of extra time."
Jason nodded, one problem solved—sort of, breathing through the tubing wouldn't do for long, but perhaps long enough to send one of them down to the kid. "Brock, take overwatch. Ray, you're going down."
The guys all nodded, agreeing with the selection. Ray was the most compact of the men up top but possessed powerful biceps, so if he needed to dig Clay loose and hold onto the kid if he passed out due to lack of oxygen, Ray would be the best choice.
Unhooking his rifle, Ray handed it to Brock and then went to the hole. He tied a second rope around his waist, and kneeling at the edge, he prepared to go down head first. Ray flicked on the flashlight attached to his helmet and said, "Ready when you are."
After Trent handed him the hollow tubing to take to Spenser, Ray lay on his stomach and began a controlled downward trek. Coming close to Bravo's rookie, brown eyes met blue ones, the only part of Spenser's face above water. Although SEALs could hold their breath for longer than ordinary people, a frantic hand reached for the plastic lifeline, telling Ray he arrived barely in time. If Cerberus hadn't discovered Clay when he did, the outcome would be quite different.
"Okay, you relax and conserve oxygen … let me do all the work." Ray received a nod, and he read trust in those blue orbs. Ray probed with his fingers, locating Clay's body and where he was jammed in. Pulling out his tactical knife, Ray used the tip as a pick, digging where he believed would be most effective.
By the time he dislodged a large rock and a multitude of smaller ones, plus loads of thick argillaceous earth, Ray had to work by touch alone since the constant runoff filling the hole now crested over Clay's head—leaving the blond curls swishing in the muddy water. After several more unbearably long minutes, Ray shouted, "Try to pull him up now."
Above, Sonny held Ray's line, pulling in sync with Trent and Jason, who had Clay's line. With utter relief, they grinned at one another as they got traction. Their relief was short-lived as Ray's demanding voice reached their ears, "Breathe, dammit, breathe, Clay!" They pulled faster; aware time was of the essence if their brother quit breathing.
As Ray's legs appeared, Brock grabbed them and added his efforts to bring up his teammates. When Ray was on terra firma, Brock returned to guarding their six as Sonny and Ray both seized Clay's arms and hauled his unresponsive form up and out of the watery would-be grave. Though Brock wanted to assist further, they were still in hostile territory, so watching their backs as Trent worked on the kid was for the best. Coughing and gagging were music to Brock's ears, and he glimpsed Jason rolling Clay to his side, so he wouldn't aspirate.
Gasping for precious air, Clay shivered as his head lolled to the muck beneath him. Unfortunately, the nasogastric tube hadn't provided him adequate oxygen, causing him to blackout and inhale filthy water. The first thing he noticed as his wits came back to him was Jason's voice informing Havoc they located the lost eagle—alive, though a bit worse for wear.
The next thing he knew, arms were pulling him into a sitting position, and a canteen pressed to his lips with Trent commanding him to rinse and spit. Though he couldn't stop trembling, he managed to do as instructed. It was Sonny slapping his back when he started hacking again and Ray taking a knee in front of him, mumbling some stupid-assed apology for taking so long. If he could speak, which he couldn't yet, Clay would've told his 2IC how thankful he was they found him and got him out of the damned hole before he drowned.
Clay's world tilted and spun at sickening speed as he was abruptly hauled to his feet and his arms slung over Trent's and Jason's shoulders. The gunfire only registered in his buzzing ears as the team took off at a run. His legs nothing more than limp noodles, Clay was unable to bear any weight and found himself being dragged between his team leader and the medic as they raced for cover.
At some point, he must've passed out again, which only became apparent when he woke, slung over someone's shoulders in a firemen's carry. They were still moving, but not as fast, and there were no longer the popping sounds of bullets—only boots squelching in the mud as the rain continued coming down in a torrent. He drew in a deeper breath as his world righted itself a little allowing his eyes to focus.
Though unsure he could stand on his own, Clay didn't want to appear weak, so he said, "Put me down. I can walk."
Sonny snorted but whispered, "Not a chance, Sleeping Beauty. Shut your trap, and enjoy the ride for now. Danger close."
Clay now knew who carried him. Oh, joy, Sonny. The Texan would never allow him to live this down. Falling into a hole and having to be carried to exfil all because he swallowed a little water would be the source for endless razzing. However, for once, Clay did as told while suppressing his need to prove himself capable, and permitted his brother to be his conveyance.
Again, his body betrayed him, and Clay's awareness drifted away without his permission. When he woke next, Clay discovered he lay on the ground with a furry form curled close to his still shaking body. He was frozen to the core, and the never-ending rain only added to his misery. He only caught snippets of words, nothing making any sense to him, which should've disconcerted him, but as his fingers curled into the fur, seeking heat, he slipped into blackness yet again.
"Trent, how is he?"
"Not good. From what Ray described, his chest was compressed down there and adding in prolonged exposure to cold and a near-drowning, he's not out of the woods. Wish we had a way to warm him other than only Cerb."
"Do what you can. Blackburn is working on a daylight exfil, but unless he's successful, we're here until tomorrow night."
Lisa watched as Blackburn did his best to make a case for the daytime exfil he discussed with Jason to Captain Krasbuckle, but recognized it would be futile. Even if the storm abated in opposition to the weather report, the ticked-off captain would likely deny them out of spite for the team's willingness to buck the cake-eater's order and go after Spenser. Anticipating the strong crosswinds and heavy rains would continue until late afternoon as forecasted, Lisa turned her focus to more practical matters.
Although she didn't have current satellite imagery, the dense cloud cover making it impossible, she reviewed the printouts of prior images. When a fresh cup of coffee appeared on the table beside her, Lisa turned to peer at Mandy. "Thanks." She wrapped her chilly hands around the warm tin mug and lifted it to take a sip.
"Don't thank me until after you taste. It barely passes for coffee—more like hot, tinted water." Mandy sat in the empty chair next to Lisa.
Lisa grinned. "At this point, anything warm is appreciated."
Mandy nodded as she eyed the screen, her thoughts on the guys, she said, "They've all got to be freezing out there. It's gonna be a miserable wait for them. I hope Spenser …" she trailed off, unsure how to complete her sentence because she didn't know the extent of his injuries, only that Jason reported Clay continued to come in and out of consciousness after almost drowning.
"Yes, which is why I'm searching for someplace in the vicinity that might offer them more shelter from the elements." Lisa set the mug down and resumed her hunt.
"Can I help?" Mandy offered, scooting forward.
"Sure. Two sets of eyes are always better than one." Lisa handed half of the aerial image printouts to Mandy.
They worked quietly for the next fifteen minutes until Mandy tapped one image. "What about here?"
Lisa shifted the paper to her and studied the grainy photo showing a few structures that were relatively far away from the initial compound where they sought to snatch Sharif Gaza. "Might work." She calculated the distance from Bravo's current position and nodded. "About four klicks. Good coverage, not too rough … and no need to cross the river. Also puts them closer to a possible exfil point." She stood. "Thanks. I'm going to run this past Blackburn."
Mandy produced a wry smile as her internal dialog replied, 'Least I could do … they're in this mess because my crappy intel put them there.'
Clay roused again to being bounced around, but this time he wasn't slung over anyone's shoulder. He was on a makeshift stretcher held at four corners by his teammates. A tickle at the back of his throat started him coughing, at which point all forward motion ceased and he was quickly deposited on the ground as a hand clamped over his mouth, muffling the noise.
In a harsh whisper, Jason ordered, "Quiet!"
Clay almost rolled his eyes at the command—stopping a cough was no easy feat. But the SEAL part of his brain recognized Bravo One wouldn't make such a demand of him if it weren't vital, so he attempted to comply—unsuccessfully. The next thing he knew, his face was pressed hard against Jason's wet shirt near the armpit and held fast by the back of his head—to the point he couldn't breathe.
Needing air, Clay struggled, but his efforts were clumsy and ineffectual, which concerned him. On any given day, he should be able to pull away from Jason. His vision dimmed at the edges, and his body went limp—a mechanism of survival, which resulted in the hold loosening just enough for Clay to breathe in.
Unfortunately, air brought another round of hacking, and his nose and mouth were unceremoniously gagged again. As darkness claimed him, some part of Clay's mind registered Jason wasn't trying to kill him, though that might be the end result.
Jason held the deadweight of the rookie against him, praying he hadn't just smothered the kid while silencing his coughing, but they were dangerously low on ammo and couldn't afford to be discovered. For the past hour, they avoided several heavily armed patrols as they trekked to a structure Mandy identified near the new exfil location. The number of tangos concerned Jason since they were headed away from Gaza's last known position, and the hostiles should be thinning out, not increasing.
Traversing the woods without infrared ISR overhead to alert them meant they had to go old-school and rely on their instincts and night vision. Thankfully, the pounding rain and wind whipping through the trees were allies to them, partly covering their footfalls and creating lower visibility for their adversaries.
As the patrol moved off, Jason relaxed his sleeper hold grip and cradled Clay's head in one arm as his other hand moved under the kid's nose, waiting for an inhale or exhale. A soft inhale released the vice on Jason's heart—the kid lived.
Jason lowered Spenser onto the rope stretcher they fashioned earlier but didn't meet the reproachful eyes of his team. Although they were cognizant of the valid reason behind his action—all their lives were at stake—they would still be pissed at him. Part of him hoped Six wouldn't recall what he did to him, but if he did, Jason would take the time to explain himself—though he wouldn't apologize because it was the right thing, the only thing he could do to keep them all safe.
Gripping his corner of the litter, Jason rose, and the others followed his lead. Silently, Bravo Team continued their slow and cautious trek, now only a click away from their destination. Each sentient man hoped they reached the structure before Clay woke again, and every damned one of them was concerned because he kept losing consciousness.
Thankfully, they didn't encounter any additional patrols, and after reconning the building, they moved inside, glad to finally be out of the rain. Sonny and Ray took first watch as the others situated their downed teammate.
Trent took a knee as Cerberus inched closer to Clay. He grinned at the dog and said, "Give me a moment, Cerb, then you can help warm him up again."
While Trent checked Clay's pulse and respirations, Cerb trotted to a far corner and shook well, eliminating as much water from his fur as he could.
"How is he?" Jason asked.
"You suffocating him didn't help. He stopped shivering, and his respiration and pulse decreased which indicates his core temperature is too low … hypothermia's the real threat. If we don't warm him soon, the risk of dangerously irregular heart rhythms increases."
Jason moved behind Clay to a wall and began stripping off his vest and shirt. "Take his wet top off, skin to skin contact is the best we can do."
Trent nodded, agreeing. Brock knelt to assist Trent with Clay. Once they removed his shirt, they dragged him towards Jason, who now sat with his back against the wall, and rested Clay's back against Jason's torso. They moved Clay's hands into his lap, and Trent covered Clay with an emergency foil sheet before Jason wrapped his arms around Clay to hold him in place. Cerberus then gently laid across his boy's thighs and rested his head on his stomach, adding his warmth.
At the doorway, Sonny shrugged off his water-proof pack and unzipped it. He pulled out his lucky beanie and tossed it to Brock as he said, "Goldilocks needs this more than me."
Brock grinned as he caught the fabric cap. It was apparent to all that their newest brother was starting to get under Sonny's skin, regardless of how gruff he still acted towards Clay. The fact Quinn constantly gave Spenser nicknames spoke volumes about his hidden acceptance of their rookie. Crouching, he put the dry beanie on Clay and pulled it as far down as possible.
The men settled in for the wait for exfil, all cold but grateful to be out of the rain and wind. As Jason held Spenser, sharing much-needed warmth with Clay, his mind reviewed the events of the screwed-up mission. He wondered what repercussions were be awaiting them upon their return. But whatever the price to be paid, it was worth it because they found Clay alive—and Jason wouldn't lose the kid who reminded him of Nate.
Clay sluggishly blinked as he climbed out of the abyss once more. His first thought was how nice it was to be snuggling with Stella in a reverse spoon—he typically held her, not she, him. Reality came on the heels of a harsh coughing fit as Jason whispered in his ear from behind, "Easy, kid. I've got you. You're going to be alright."
Notes: Yeah, Clay's finally out of the hole ... but the evil muse isn't done with him yet.
Wishing all my readers a Happy and Prosperous 2022 ... may your dreams come true and your burdens be light.
If all goes as planned, I'm hoping to have TREASURES, book 12 in the Beauty of Life series completed by March. If you are interested, you can visit my website lauraactonauthor dot com (remove spaces and change dot to a .) for a sneak peek of the first chapter.