combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2004

Dragon God of the Hindu Kush
excerpted from Dragon God of the Hindu Kush

          The Marine watched the lights of a U.S. Army truck arc around the corner onto Ramna 5 Road. He picked up his rucksack, suppressed a feeling of dread, patted his gear for reassurance: one of his scarred ice axes strapped to the side of the pack, the slightly stolen XM-29 OICW rifle, a lumpy bulge of borrowed M-67 grenades in a side pouch of his web gear, a holstered Beretta snugged tight at his waist. Finally, he touched the pocket holding Ashley's get-lost letter.

          The truck hit bumps — lights bounced up and down — it looked like a warily blinking leviathan as it approached the U.S. Embassy compound in Islamabad, Pakistan. A post-monsoon rain had fallen in the night, and every time the lights dipped, glare flashed from the drenched pavement. Matching flashes of pre-dawn lightning flickered in the Margalla Hills.

          The M-998 truck slammed to a halt, its huge tires skidding and squealing. Lieutenant Mick Nakamura leaned out the window of the GMC troop carrier, grinned at his former college classmate. "Hey, climb aboard, buddy. Let's go get 'em." Chopstick Mick had a high-pitched voice belied by his monster physique. He had been tagged with the nickname at OCS when his bunkmate discovered he hated Oriental food.

          Jack Flashhardt shivered in the cool air, smiled an uncertain greeting, clambered into the cab. Put his pack between his legs. Right, buddy, let's go get 'em. No, I'd rather be going after a good grade back in law school.

          "Your climbing class," Mick enthused. "It'll be cool. After we absorb your training, we'll search in Hindu Kush heights we haven't been able to reach. Your call sign'll be: Teach." Gave him a small ISR — a palm-sized, intersquad radio. "We have a PRC-117 for satellite comm to Islamabad but this's just for us."

          "Good, Chopstick. I'm happy to give the class." Yeah, right — eager as a cobra entering a den of hungry mongooses. Just let me get through this without gettin' my ass shot off. "But why isn't your unit already trained and up to speed?"

          Mick smiled. "We were in Fort Greely, Alaska, doin' cold weather training at CRTC when the lost bomb emergency came up. One day I'm lookin' at Gunny Sack Mountain and hopin' to head to the 10th after completing training, but all of a sudden they packed us up and sent us off to Southwest Asia to search for the missing device."

          Same as me, Jack thought. The curse of being an experienced mountaineer — unlike Chopstick's crew. That wonderful capability got me activated, sent to Southwest Asia. He glanced at his climbing boots. No crampons but they wouldn't be ice climbing.

          During the ride to Islamabad airport, Mick, a very short, hugely wide, extremely muscular Army lieutenant, with Asian eyes that disappeared when he smiled, oriented him on a topo map. He spread it over his PASGT Kevlar helmet.

          "I figured you'd appreciate our jump zone," Mick said. It's right where the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush meet. Very significant joining of the two highest mountain ranges in the world."

          Jack, longer and leaner than Mick, blond and blue-eyed in contrast to Mick's dark hair and eyes, had grown up in the mountains of Montana, had climbed a half dozen Fourteeners in Colorado — mountains over fourteen thousand feet above sea level — had climbed major summits on four continents, but not in Asia. The impromptu class he had dreaded teaching looked better, considering this unexpected payoff.

          "There's a ridge on the west side of the valley where you can give my team the climbing class. It's the eastern border of Afghanistan." Mick grinned, his eyes disappearing, and his canines appearing: he didn't have buckteeth, but when he grinned, his teeth were definitely out there, making him look hungry for flesh.

          "You mean the Durand Line," Jack offered.

          "Yeah, you're well-informed. I guess a British officer surveyed the border in the 1890's, and an 1893 treaty set the line between the two countries."

          "Lord Durand was quite a guy," Mick added. "Some say he lived a normal life, others say he died in Tajikistan at an age of 124, after being gored while hunting Marco Polo sheep. He was the first to mention Shangri-la, where people lived healthy, long-lived lives. Some say for hundreds of years."

          "Yeah right!" Jack scoffed.

          "And he said the valley was filled with gorgeous babes who were insatiable," Mick grinned.

          "Hey, this is starting to sound like a typical soldier's tale."

          "With a lot of tail in it," Mick concluded with a grin. "Anyway, we won't be going over the mountains, so back to business. Colonel Farley got a HUMINT report from Camp Rhino in Kabul. The lost Air Force bomb might be hidden in a highlands vil. So your training class is a cover to check out Pakistani territory. If we find it, Farley's off your back." Oh, great! Can't shake Colonel Farley. Gotta win the War on Terrorism for him after class. Told the colonel no-go on joining the search for the bomb, but I'm here anyway. He plan this?

          Feeling trapped, Jack glanced at the sidewalk, saw a group of early-rising mullahs shake their fists at the Americans. One picked up a rock, then the truck was past.

          "Screw off, pissant ragheads!" from one of the troops in back.

          "So, Jack," Mick asked, "you a little more excited about action than you were last night? 'Cause I promise you, we'll get some! The Taliban dudes aren't gonna expect an American force on the Pak side of the border." The two had bumped into each other in the Marriott Hotel bar. Mick had asked Jack to give his men the climbing class.

          "Sorry, dude," Jack responded. "I'm a temporary 0203 Intel pogue with a day off. You're Regular Army, I'm a Reserve Marine. I didn't sign up to win a war. I thought I was gonna be a JAG lawyer, a 4402 — not an oh-three-oh-two grunt." I'm missing out on law school, and fighting bullshit wars in goat herder countries that make Death Valley look like the hanging gardens of Babylon.

          Mick smiled — showing his canines but no sympathy. "Luckily, you're a mountaineer. We needed one. Fortunes of war, buddy."

          "Yeah, I know you gung ho types: Vivere militare est — To live means to fight." He lowered his voice, "But, Mick. Aren't you a little —" he stopped himself from asking the rest of the question: nervous — no, terrified about combat?

          Sensing Jack's nervousness, Mick sang: "My eyes are dim.
I cannot see"

          Jack laughed, finishing the old Stanford drinking song: "For I must find a place to pee,
On the Leland Stanford Junior Farm."

          Fifteen minutes later, outside a military hangar on the west end of Islamabad Airport, one of Mick's grinning troopers handed Jack a mushroom parachute and a reserve, helped him double-check the rigging on the tarmac while the rest of the team headed for the waiting helicopter. The young pilot, who was standing next to the CH-47D helicopter, grinned and greeted him, somehow recognizing him as a fellow officer.

          After liftoff, they hightailed north at 120 knots. He sat against a bulkhead at the rear of the chopper, end of the team from Mick. He debated reading the printed-out get-lost e-mail.

          Mick sat down next to him, glanced at the bagged XM-29 OICW rifle. "Really shoot around corners? How'd you get it?"

          "I delivered it from Camp Hansen. Supposed to drop it off at the colonel's office yesterday, but everybody had secured by the time I got in from Okinawa. So, after you talked me into giving your soldiers the climbing class, I thought the XM-29'd give me extra security."

          "So you brung it," Mick slapped his knee. "I love it! What's OICW mean — I forgot."

          "Objective Individual Combat Weapon."

          That's right. I heard about it at Fort Benning. How's it work?"

          "In the 20 millimeter mode, each shell has a mini-computer in it," he explained. "The sighting video camera's laser determines the range to — say, a boulder. The computer explodes the shell just above and past the boulder."

          Mick giggled. "Bad guys can't hide behind anything — that's great!" He shifted back to his assistant team leader to check last minute details with the aid of a laptop computer. Jack loaded the XM-29 with a thirty round magazine of 5.56mm ammo and a six round clip of 20mm computer-directed shells, put its bag in his pack.

          Dawn's light was blooming orange over the Himalayas, shining through the starboard gun port. One of the troopers began a song and others quickly joined, in an effort to raise unit spirits. They sang a song to the tune of the Yellow Rose of Texas: "There's a yellow whore in Karachi,
That I am going to see.
No other GI screws her,
No other, on-ly me."

          "She cried so when I stiffed her,
It like to break my heart,
But if I ever pay her,
We never more will part.
There's a yellow whore —"

          Suddenly, the helicopter lurched, the big Lycoming engines roared. The aircraft's AN/ALQ-156A missile approach warning system suddenly fired flares.

          Jack glanced out the rear hatch, was astounded when a short missile with a bright-white nose, green body blazed past the 47, shot upward in the dark blue sky. Heart went into overdrive — a Stinger Missile or a Russian SA-18. Would've blown them out of the sky if it had hit. Hopefully, the MAWS worked.

          White-hot anti-missile flares blossomed in every direction as the M-130 dispenser kicked in again. The chopper banked. Flight engineer braced himself, then yelled, "Just short of your jump. Taking fire."

          Chopstick Mick Nakamura leaped up. "Let's go, guys." He unslung his short M-4 rifle, chambered a round. "Looks like we got lucky — a hot LZ! Go, go, go." Troopers on the ten man team stiffened — a few eager, some looked terrified — eyes bulging, some anxious, eyes blinking — they passed, hooked up to the jury-rigged overhead line, jumped, one after another.

          Mick locked eager eyes with him, spun away. Damn, Mick. Wait, he thought. Muffins, coffee, something?

          The two gunners fired the two door-mounted M-60D 7.62mm machineguns to port and starboard. The chattering, crashing sounds drowned out the engines.

          Standing at the hatch, he looked at the gunners, at the scared flight engineer. Took a deep breath, pushed down goggles, buckled his line, forced the jump into the howling air stream. Once away from the aircraft, pounding sounds faded — but his heart was loud in his ears, thumping in his throat.

          Jubilance when his parachute, a low-level static line chute, banged open between the peaks and the valley floor, two thousand feet above ground. Fleeting thought: Fortes fortuna juvat — Fortune favors the brave — but in this case, it favors the scared shitless.

          A twisting updraft caught him. Big problem with looming peaks ahead. He let the OICW hang by its sling, tugged on the back shrouds, struggled to turn the parachute. No luck. Glanced down — most of the team far below, but above his level, two other jumpers caught in the same swirling winds.

          He heard a voice crackle over his ISR. Fumbled in a cargo pocket, pulled out the palm-sized radio.

          Mick shouted, "Hostiles in that rock terrace to the north! Form on the white rockpile. Break. Teach, that you up there?"

          Pushed the transmit button, controlled fear, answered in a level voice, "Six — this's, er — Teach. Caught in an updraft."

          Mick's voice yelled through the radio, "We're taking fire, my pos. See that rock fence? Get your spacegun out an' blast the hostiles with the defilade ammo — keep their heads down."

          Shoved the ISR in his breast pocket, turned on the OICW sighting system, switched the selector from 5.56mm to 20mm grenade launcher.

          Tried to ignore wide swings caused by the swirling updraft, peered into the gyrating, bouncing video screen, spotted the terrace dividing two small fields. Waited, put the laser dot above the rocks, chambered and fired a round. It arced through the air, exploded a hundred meters short, closer to the scrambling Marines than the terrace.

          Pissed at his poor shooting, he raised the weapon another inch, waited for a blast of air turbulence to pass, fired the remaining five rounds with a spraying motion, then fired the thirty round M-16 in short bursts until it emptied.

          The parachute spun, jerked upward again. Looked over his shoulder, saw a hostile erupt from a cloud of dust on the terrace, do a comical pinwheel sprawl.

          He would never re-load in time, so he slung the empty weapon over his shoulder, pulled out the radio, yelled, "Six, that's it."

          "No sweat, Teach," Mick answered. "I'm on the deck. I think you scared some, hit a couple with your suppressing fire. Sit rep?"

          He looked down. A parachute draped over a ridge to his left, far below. "One of your guys hit hard. He's not movin'. The other is still sailing — like me — but he's not gonna clear a serac —" The trooper smashed into the ice ridge, bounced away.

          Mick's voice crackled on the squad network as he shouted at his men on the ground, "Form on me."

          Across the valley, the departing CH-47 belched another set of flares. A Stinger-type missile sliced into the fiery decoys, another blasted the chopper into a huge ball of expanding orange fire; out of it spiraled the crumpled, burning aircraft.

          Shocked, Jack sucked in frigid air. The captain, no more than thirty. The co-pilot, sergeant engineer, both in their twenties — dead. Gunners, maybe teens — dead. Two jumpers on the cliffs — maybe hurt bad. A blasted disaster.

          Far below, the sounds of small arms fire banged again. Caught in a powerful, murky storm cell — he sailed up, over the first Hindu Kush peak, down through the air at a terrifying pace. Swung wildly at the end of his shrouds like a surfer tumbling in wave after wave after wave.

          Hit, bounced off a cornice. Careened over a jagged ridge, chute finally caught on a rock outcropping. Slammed him to a stop on a very steep — almost vertical snowfield. Impact knocked the wind out of him; he lay without moving, tried to regain his senses.

          Long minutes later, revived by ice-cold snow jammed down his neck, up his wrists, he looked at the snowfield below — too steep, too dangerous. Above: hanging cornice, eager to become an avalanche. Right side: leaning serac. Left side: another icy pillar. Straight down the only way out, but it was near vertical — far below — a green valley. A valley that could be an oasis from fear and violence if he could reach it. Decided to rest, be at his best before he attempted an escape.

          He gave up, cautiously reached into a pocket, took out the copy of the e-mail from Ashley. Still too shook to read, but after a month, he knew her important phrases by heart: miscarriage of the baby — re-assess my life — forget marriage — end our relationship — pursue my career — good luck, Jack. Yeah, right. Luck.

          He pulled out his activation order by mistake. Glanced at it. To: yeah, me. Subject: Reassignment to Active Duty — report no later — Camp Hansen — assume duty of mountaineering instructor.

          The orders had doomed his first year at law school, changed his whole life. All because of a bunch of fanatical Muslims. He was starting to hate the whole Middle East-Asia thing.

          Crumpled the wrinkled document, let the wind whip it away. Pulled out the e-mail. Mashed it, tossed it. The wind caught the slip of paper — it skipped across the snow, disappeared.

          The baby had also disappeared like a wind-tossed scrap. Dreamed of — gone. Ashley, brilliant, tall, smoky hazel eyes, pouty lips, tangled blonde hair — gone. Might've been different if he hadn't been activated, jerked out of law school and his life in Palo Alto, sent to Asia.

          Resting was a mistake — he caught a mental vision of the falling, flame-engulfed helicopter. The pilot's cocky grin and greeting, the young gunner's friendly "Mornin', sir." Gone.

          The memories flooded through his mind, wouldn't stop. Pressed his gloved hands to his head. Realized his helmet and goggles were missing, one of his axes, as well.

          Crack and rumble of a distant avalanche, loosened by the dawn's early light, snapped him back to reality. Still hung up by his snagged parachute on the fifty-degree slope, he carefully dug a last clod of snow from under his collar. Looked at the green valley far below: enemies waiting to kill him? A sylvan glen to fight his way out of? Waiting folk welcoming him to a glen of tranquility? He grabbed his ice axe, tucked in the M-29, took a deep breath, released his chute.

          Slid down a huge expanse. I'm alive. I'm alive. I am alive. Self-arrested with his axe, kicked up a rooster tail of snow, but then he tumbled: bounces stunned him. Slowed, flipped to his back, continued to skid: kicked-up more snow trying to dig his heels and elbows and ice axe into the snow, wishing he could slow himself with his teeth. Spotted a huge bergschrund crevice ahead.

          The giant crevasse — the end of a glacial ice flow. Too fast for terror, he slid over the deadly opening on a snow bridge. Plummeted down another long, steep slope, sprawled over a ledge, fell into a stream.

          Frigid water rushed over his face. He gasped, staggered to the ice-encrusted bank. Reached for a jagged rock, but was un-balanced by his pack; the gushing water knocked him away. Flailed, floated, struggled to twist around so that his feet were downstream, shot over a waterfall.

          Screamed "No-o!" Tumbled through the air. Landed in a glacial-melt tarn pool at the base of the falls.

          Underwater: pushed up by the blowback of the falling torrent, he bounced above the surface, was immediately shoved under again. Dazed by the impact of the descent, he weakly fought the drag of his gear-laden rucksack, web gear. Failed to release it, watched air rush out of his mouth in huge bubbles. Sinuses, lungs burned. Water had a murky blue tint to it, the white bubbles squirmed, wiggled upward, left him behind.

          Hands appeared, grabbed him. He clutched his rescuer's waist — glimpses, a naked body — guy — no, a woman! Helped him to the pool's surface. Scrambled to safety, shivered uncontrollably — wiped water out of his eyes — looked at his rescuer.

          The blonde woman spoke over her shoulder. He didn't understand her — yeah, she was naked! Thick wet hair spread over square shoulders.

          Knee-deep in water, he strapped his axe, pulled his M-9, quickly checked the surroundings: snowfields above, but here — halfway to the valley floor — stunted pine trees, scattered bushes, jagged boulders. No danger: only a second girl, unarmed and naked, bending over the side of a steaming pool. Two horses — a bay, a palomino — grazing nearby. A pastoral setting at the end of the horrendous adventure.

          Unable to control his shivering, he unslung the XM-29, shrugged out of his rucksack, waded to shore — holstered the M-9.

          The first girl looked so much like Ashley, he felt disoriented, as though he were somewhere else — maybe a dream world with his lost girlfriend. Her teeth also chattering. She knelt, undid his waterlogged boots, helped him strip off his jump suit. Led him over a smooth rock ledge, into a nearby shallow pond of hot water. Skin burned, tingled. Sulfurous-smelling steam rose from the pool.

          He shivered uncontrollably, still managing to check out her perfect pale skin, blue eyes, thick eyebrows and eyelashes bleached almost white, her full red lips on a Nordic face. He sank into the hot water, finally relaxed. Her skin looked silky smooth — it shone like white satin across her squared, broad shoulders.

          "Who are you?" In a loud, slow voice. "Speak an — y Eng — lish?"

          The girl smiled, replied in accented but perfectly sensuous English, I'm Penel Kong and she's my sister, Wantonal. Welcome to Shangri-la of the Hindu Kush."

          Stripped to his skivvies, comfortable in the pool's hot waters, Jack commented to his rescuer, "You're twins." Managed to add, "How come you two look so ... white?"

          "Not twins, Wantonal's much older." First girl sold that thought with her voice. "We're here for a sunrise soak."

          The second girl, pulled skin-tight black leather pants over her long legs, added, "We're white because five Northmen joined and then deserted and hid from the Grand Army while on a quest to find the original land of the Aesir, the gods of Asia that built Troy, then moved on to Asgard —"

          "And conquered the Vanir — the gods of fertility," Penel finished.

          "They deserted when the Grand Army turned back from the Indus River. We True Hunza live in the valley of Shangri-la, descendants of those Vikings."

          "Vikings in — so this is Shangri-la? You mean the real Shangri-la? One in Lost Horizon? It was in Tibet. This's the Hindu Kush."

          Penel smiled. "We know where we are. Did your guide know where he was when he gave you directions?"

          "Guess not. How come you have a Greek name? And what army did they desert from — those wayward Vikings?" The two girls looked like misplaced Hollywood starlets.

          "From Alexander's Grand Army. He traveled through in your 321 B.C. He was a Greek."

          "Wow! That's two thousand years ... well, thanks for pulling me off the bottom." Could have bought the farm. And thanks for knowing English, even if you can't read calendars.

          Penel floated to him, grinned, massaged his body.

          Her medicinal actions were lost on him, just like the history lesson — suddenly he felt horny — not a shock, considering she could've been a high school cheerleader — enough sex appeal to incite riots on the team bus.

          "Drink." She cupped her hands, trickled sulphurous-tasting water into his mouth. "Drink and be restored. The waters have healing powers. For now and forever."

          He choked, swallowed. Forever? I might not survive the drink. Glanced around again, checked for stray Taliban or bandits: empty boulders, ten-foot-wide waterfall gushed into the icy tarn beyond the hot spring. No threats. No crazed Ponce de León jumping up to steal the now and forever water — whatever that meant.

          Leaned back, sank to his neck, felt a change sweep through his body that made him feel rested, fresh. Jack decided he'd feel even better with his clothes on and his weapon handy — so he got out of the pool. The other girl, who didn't look "much older" wore only her leather pants. Murmured a husky hello, dried him with a large wool shawl. She accidentally — playfully? — brushed her full, bare breasts against his chest when she toweled his hair. He inhaled a hint of saffron, fought an urge to embrace her, touch her.

          Still nervous, he restrained himself until she looked into his eyes with an inviting smile. Her look, her hand, slowly drying his hip with the shawl.

          Girls must be bored stiff. Shortage of guys in Shangri-la? No wonder it's called Paradise. Stick around awhile? Pull her closer, stupid.

          Before he could act out his impulsive fantasy, he heard a horse's hooves approach on rocky ground. Dropped his hands, glanced at the XM-29. Bullet in the back from some jealous local. You dumb

          Guy aimed a huge pistol at him — at least a .44 magnum. Old-fashioned Dirty Harry revolver. Demanded in an English accent, "What the bloody hell're you doin' to my gels?"

          Unnerved, he raised his hands faster than a Frenchman in a war, stared at the glaring stranger. Don't shoot, pal. I don't —

          "You should see the expression on your face." English guy — maybe a teenager — bellowed with laughter. "Caught you with your pants down, what? But who the bloody hell're you? And how'd you get into Shangri-la?" Guy rode a small roan mare with a white flash on its face. Young, early twenties — dressed in a well-worn khaki shirt, ragged shorts, a bizarre black top hat. Suddenly, the horse reared, he fell off, got up, slugged the horse in the neck. The mount swung its head around, tried to bite him.

          Jack gave up on any semblance of dignity. Stepped behind a boulder next to his clothes, pulled them on, answered, "Dude, we we're on a recon training jump in Hunza Valley. I got caught in a weird updraft. This really Shangri-la?"

          "Fabulous. Don't suppose you have a radio?" He looked like a teenage Leonardo DiCaprio. Blond, curly hair, thin face, blue eyes, a big nose only a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon could love.

          "Nothing long range. I'm lucky I'm alive, pard." Checked — the guy had holstered his piece. "Hey, I didn't know the girls belonged to you. Penel — whatever — saved me from doing a deep six."

          The first girl, now dressed, grinned at him, white teeth flashed.

          "I'd feel a helluva lot more accommodating with my gels if you'd brought a radio. Now you're trapped here, as well."

          "Shut up, Dickey," Wantonal said. She approached, wearing a wool sweater. "We're not thy gels."

          "Yes, Dick-ey," Penel added. "We need not thy permission to soak in the waters." She smiled, "Or to rescue handsome strangers."

          Abashed, the English kid grinned. "Sor-ry."

          "Where's here, dude? I mean, I just sailed over a mountain. It's not that far back — we can walk it in a couple days." He looked up at the mountains that surrounded the narrow valley — they did look steep, but he'd climbed sharp peaks all over the world.

          "Impassable heights, I'm afraid," the Englishman responded. "I've been stuck here for years. Ever since the Soviets blew the tunnel in '79 — it was the secret passage into the valley. I'm Dickey Arses of the SAS." He pronounced his name like R-seas. "From Nottingham, England. Worcester College, '77."

          Jack introduced himself. Pulled his wet boots on, asked, "Don't you mean the Russians? The Soviet Union fell years ago."

          Startled, Arses looked at him. "Steady on — you mean the bloody Afghans threw them out? When did that happen?"

          "You forget all the crap you learned in high school? Years ago. And the Soviets bit the dust around 1990-91." This guy was either crazy or stupid.

          "I'll go to bloody hell," Arses exclaimed. "And you're a Yank."

          "You said you were in the SAS in '79?" Looked at Dickey's face. "What were you — a regimental mascot?"

          "Not likely, I was twenty four. I'm more'n double that now." Guy was a kid. Stretching it, maybe his twenties.

          "Too true," Arses continued. "No mirrors in the valley but it doesn't take long to realize that you'll turn into a wellspring of health the longer you stay. But to more important issues. Let's get back to Asgard. The king — the gels' dad — will demand to meet you. Climb on Penel's pony." Asgard? That was the name of the home of the Viking gods up in Scandinavia — a long way from the Hindu Kush!

          Penel had retrieved his waterlogged pack. He dried, then reloaded the XM-29, filled the 20mm with a fresh six round clip from his pack, hoisted the heavy rucksack and web gear on, mounted her palomino. She and Wantonal doubled up on the third horse, the big headed bay with a chopped-off, stubby mane.

          The four let the horses pick their way down the rocky trail towards the flatlands. He looked at the steep cliff below the trail, wondered where they were taking him. Thought of the downed helicopter. This had to be better. He hoped Chopstick and his men had survived the gun battle. Mick was so gung ho — trying to prove a Japanese-American kid from a garlic farming family could be a tough guy in the Army.

          The sun cleared the vertical Hindu Kush peaks by 10:00 A.M. He looked at the blue skies, saw wisps of clouds swirling above the valley like hovering specters. Feelings of well-being vanished, even after the sun warmed his face. Wondered if the Englishman was a plant — maybe connected to the bomb somehow. Possibly a posted guard. Was the stolen bomb, hidden in this valley?

          Snapped back to reality by the Englishman's voice, he heard the kid say, "— every bloody day, vicious winds swirl over the valley. That's why no one comes here by air. That's part of why I've been stuck here for twenty-odd goddam years."

          "What's the rest?" Guy had sat on his ass for over twenty years if he wasn't lying. But he had to be spinning a yarn. He wasn't a day over twenty.

          "Hard to explain it," Dickey said, "The people're great, of course. Women all gorgeous — just look at these two. I figger there's something in the atmosphere. Hilton got it right in his book, Lost Horizon. He'd been here — the locals remember him — even though he disguised and fantasized all the features. An' moved the location a hundred miles east when he wrote the book." Dickey looked back at Jack. "I developed a bit of lassitude. You feel so bloody good, it's hard to get motivated. And the issue of living longer — I'm proof."

          "You said there was a tunnel that got blown. Why don't you dig it out, pard?"

          Arses looked back again, "Miles of tunnel by hand? Haw, haw. Not bleedin' likely. Tried twice, years ago — but attacks by unknown forces — China Bitch's giant dad most likely — lost five men the first attempt. A suspicious cave-in cost ten more the second go-around. Locals refused after that. And the heights are too dangerous. Avalanches fall all afternoon. I've tried countless times but I've always had to turn back."

          The Englishman glanced back at Jack. "I know there's a way, for the blasted Chinamen come to steal the life-prolonging tarn waters. I just can't find it."

          Jack had different ideas about climbing out of the valley, but didn't trust the Englishman enough to tell him that avalanches generally didn't launch at night. That was why experienced climbers always started summit attempts around midnight. That was the time for him to take a long hike with no goodbyes.

          He didn't think twice about the attraction of living a healthy life in a completely foreign, boring-ass environment. Anyway, if this were Shangri-la, a land of peace and tranquility, why'd the Englishman carry a weapon? And who had a weird name like China Bitch? Jack suppressed growing worries while he watched the track ahead.

          Suddenly, Arses topped a ridge, cursed.

          The two women and Jack joined him, spotted several men sneaking up on a solitary person in the valley below. Jack pulled the glasses out of his pack, saw that the woman was leaning over a stream, washing. The men creeping through streamside brush wore turbans.

          "Whoever he is, he's in trouble," Arses exclaimed.

          "A woman. Friend or foe?"

          Arses said, "No one I know — but I can see the others are bloody ragheads. They kill us on sight. Let's ride hard, stop the vicious bastards." Urging his horse down a very steep ridge, suddenly, he slipped half out of his saddle. Jack caught him and pushed him back on his horse. "Hurry!" Dickey shouted.

by Wayne T. Haaland
... who is a former Marine officer, instructor of English and Asian Religious History, a mountain climber, and freelance writer. Dragon God of the Hindu Kush is the first volume in a trilogy, with Dragon God's Blowback forthcoming.