Chapter 57: Put Up or Shut Up
(Seven weeks later)
I settled in behind the rifle, making myself as low as possible. The rifle stock sat on the trunk of a pine tree which had blown down in a storm. I was using the log for cover; my head covered with a camouflage hat, paint on my face, and a ghillie suit around my body. The burlap strips of the suit were woven with bits of grasses and ground covers in the area; it broke up my form and made me nearly invisible. If I did it right, the instructors wouldn’t be able to see me even if they were looking right at me with binoculars. And the instructors were looking, hard. If they saw me before I took my shot, I had to pay their bar bill. Again.
They were Marines, the first four times hadn’t been cheap.
They were in a covered observation point six hundred and twenty yards away, slightly downhill. Four of them were using binoculars and spotting scopes to look for any movement or anything out of place; if they spotted something, they would radio an instructor in the field and use voice directions to move him to what they suspected was me. So far, they hadn’t come close, sending them to seven false alarms already.
It had taken me four hours to move into this position. Starting two miles away, I had crawled down the hill, moving with the wind and changing the vegetation twice to match the surroundings. Sometimes it was only a few inches as a time, moving forward then waiting to move again. I had come to rely on my cat’s instinct for stalking; she seemed to understand when to freeze and when to move. The instructors, who didn’t know my true nature, were shocked at how quickly I had picked up what they spend months teaching to their snipers.
I used my laser rangefinder, the steel plate cut into the head and torso was seven hundred and eighty-seven yards away. I consulted the portable ballistics computer; feeding in the distance and estimating it was twenty yards below my position, I followed it and raised my scope by twenty-two clicks from its previous position. I was watching the left-to-right breeze closely; I used the movement of the treetops, the grass and the shimmer of heat rising from the ground to estimate it at five miles per hour. I adjusted my scope accordingly, the conversions memorized during long study sessions and tested during long runs by the instructors.
You only had one chance to take a shot before you became the target. It had to count.
I focused on my breathing, taking slow and deep breaths to relax. My cheek was welded to the stock, my body making as many points of contact with the ground as possible to give a stable platform. I could see the crosshairs moving slightly with each heartbeat. I took a deep breath, and let it out halfway. Waiting until I was between heartbeats, my finger added a single ounce of pressure and the chain reaction started.
The competition-grade trigger on my Remington M40 rifle broke cleanly, releasing the firing pin forward and striking the primer. The chemicals in the primer ignited, starting a chemical reaction in the powder in the cartridge. The 168-grain hollow-point boat-tail match bullet fired down the long barrel, exiting at over three thousand feet per second. The recoil pushed into my shoulder, then the rifle returned to its previous position. I watched the vapor trail of the round as it traveled to the target, finally smacking it dead center in the chest with a loud CLANG.
Now the really fun part began. The shot had drawn the attention of every instructor to the direction I was in. I had chosen my firing position well, there was no cloud of dust from the expanding gases at the front of the barrel. I stayed perfectly still, trusting my skills, while my heart was beating out of my chest.
They had ten minutes to try and locate me or I would pass. They directed the instructors to two possible locations, neither that close, and finally the whistle blew. “TIME! SHOOTER RISE!” I moved up to my hands and knees, my sore muscles protesting before I stood up. I grinned as I saw the instructors shaking their heads. They would be buying my beer tonight, plus a big steak dinner, and it was going to taste good.
I safed my weapon, then took off the Ghillie suit and hat. On my fifth try, I had passed the test given to Scout Snipers after six months. I was congratulated, even hugged by some of the instructors as we walked back towards the classroom. Daytime stalk was the toughest test of all; in comparison, the marksmanship and night stalking was a breeze. I needed to learn them all, because I would never know whether my target could be taken in light or dark. During the training, I had learned of the deeds of Marine Corps snipers like Carlos Hathcock, who waited three days in an open field to take a thousand-yard shot that killed a VC Colonel.
Patience was something my cat and I had in spades.
“You sure you don’t want to become a Marine, E?” I smiled at Gunnery Sgt. Rodriguez, the senior instructor. E was my codename during training. “You impressed the shit out of me today. You name is sure to come up in the future when some piss-ant corporal complains that he hasn’t had enough practice by the fifth month.”
“No, Sarge, I think I’m good. Besides, you know that Scout Sniper isn’t open to women. We’re too good.” The other instructors hooted it up.
“That’s big talk for a little lady,” he said. “Care to back that up with a bet?”
I nodded. “Sure, let’s play some HORSE. No computers, no rangefinders, no spotters. Loser walks back to their car naked.” If the catcalls and interest weren’t up to a fever pitch already, this bet put it to legendary status. One of us was going to be taking a long, embarrassing walk past the classrooms and barracks to our car, and it wasn’t going to be me. He ran ahead to his office to get his personal weapon, and I met him at the unlimited range.
The rules of the game are simple, just like if you are playing basketball. The shooting mats overlooked a long, shallow valley. Dozens of hanging steel silhouette targets were mounted in the ground, at ranges from just over a hundred yards to over a mile away, each with a 12” diameter colored circle in the center of the chest. You picked a target, then a firing position; laying down (prone), sitting, kneeling or standing. Pick your shot and go first; if you hit, the other person then has to match the shot or they earn a letter. Miss your picked shot, and your opponent gets to choose. First person to reach HORSE loses.
Word had spread quickly that a rookie had not just challenged Rodriguez, but that it was the hot young blonde that had caught many eyes in the past few weeks, and what the bet was. Classes were halted, runs cut short, and by the time we were settled into adjacent positions there was quite a crowd around us.
I had issued the challenge, so he went first. He hit his first eight shots, all from the prone position while I missed three. I was a HOR before he finally missed a target at 850 yards.
I had noticed how comfortable he was prone, and decided to mix it up. Looking out at a target I figured was 350 yards out, I called out “Yellow. Standing.” The M40 was a heavy-barrel weapon, not well suited for offhand use. It quickly wore out your muscles, causing them to twitch and move. What the Gunny didn’t know was that I was a hell of a lot stronger than he was.
I set the scope and found the target, then focused on my breathing. The shot hit just below center with a clang. He made it as well, so I moved out to a target at five hundred yards and made the hit.
He didn’t. H for him.
I shifted to kneeling, and made a shot at six hundred yards. HO. I was on a roll. I went back to standing, forcing him beyond his limits as he couldn’t hold the target and was soon down HORS-HOR. I couldn’t afford to miss, just like pool, he’d go back to what he was used to and run the table on me. I thought for a bit; I was in better shape than him as a runner, and getting your heart rate back down after exercise was key to shooting. “Next one- combo platter. Fifty burpees in under two minutes, then 30 seconds to take a shot. Sitting, red X.” The red X target was five hundred yards downrange.
“You sure about this, E? It would suck to miss this shot and give me control again.”
“You worried about little ol’ me, Sarge? I’d start worrying about how many Facebook posts are going to contain your pale ass in the next hour.” I put my fist out to him, he bumped it. “Let’s do this. Matthews? Give me a clock.”
I set my rifle down, action open, and stood behind the position in my camo utilities. “Two minutes, ready, GO.” I started doing the burpees at a comfortable pace, from stand to squat, back to pushup position, back to squat and standing. I finished the fifty with three seconds to spare, not even breathing hard. I picked up my weapon and sat at an angle to the target, chambering a round. Using the estimated range and windage, I made the scope adjustments and focused on calming my breathing. When the shot left, I smiled, I knew it was good before it hit. CLANG. The crowd went wild, knowing Gunny had everything riding on this shot.
I safed the weapon and stood up, making a round of high fives with the crowd as Gunny stared down the target. “Two minutes, ready, go.” I watched as he completed the exercise, then sat behind his weapon. I could see the end of his barrel moving slightly and smiled; he was having trouble holding the target, so it would all be a matter of whether he could settle it and fire at the right time. The thirty seconds went by quicker than he expected, and his shot rang out a second after time was called.
It hit, by some miracle, but it didn’t matter. The cheers rang out as I raised my arms in victory. Gunny stood up slowly and moved towards me, pulling me into a brief hug. “That was some damn good shooting, E.”
“Thanks Gunny. Now… strip.” I backed up and watched with the rest of the group as he pulled off his utilities and T-shirt, exposing the hard muscles and deep scarring on his chest from his time in Fallujah and Afghanistan. Smirking at me, he dropped his boxers and pulled his socks off, then posed. “Like what you see?”
I put my finger to my chin, looking him up and down. “Not bad, but I’m married. Come on, it’s a long walk.” I rolled up his clothes for him and stuffed them in my bag while he went back to get his rifle. He grabbed his shooting bag in one hand and his M40 in the other, and I waited for him with my rifle and bag in my right hand. I took his arm with my left hand, and we walked back together while he glared at anyone who was starting to laugh. Me? I just looked at the crowd and said, “If anyone thinks they can do better than Gunny, put up or shut up.”
There were no takers.
We left the crowd behind and reached the parking lot alone. “Shit, E, that was the most fun I’ve had in years. This match will become legend around here.”
“Even if you lose in it?”
“I’m not worried, in a few years I’ll have lost to a two thousand yard shot, standing in a gale.” He looked over at me. “You’ve got all the skill you need, E. I don’t know what you are training for, I don’t want to know. I just know you will do it.” He reached his car and I handed him his clothes. “If you make it this way again, stop by. I’d love to hear how it went.”
I waited until he was decent, then gave him a hug. “You and your team have been great, Gunny. If I make it, a large part of the credit goes to you.” He put his rifle and bag in his trunk. “Now go change, I’m hungry and you guys owe me steak and beer.”
I walked back to my car and drove back to the house to get changed. Ker was there and met me at the door, and Al was behind her. “Have fun tonight, you’ve earned it,” she said. “We leave in the morning. You’re ready.”