Major Addison "Yadda" Reubens peered through the glare of the Iraqi sun at the town of Qalqalas in the distance. They were still several kilometers away. He could barely see their destination--an oasis straight ahead of them, past the town--on the horizon.
Sweating profusely, he adjusted the rough linen turban on his forehead and draping around his neck as he trudged among the smelly, bleating, jostling sheep. He glanced to his left, where Captain Joseph Jamison walked free and easily with the sheep crowding around him, as carefree as one who had been a shepherd his whole life. Reubens had to admire the kid; he had mastered the behavior of an Iraqi shepherd so perfectly, you could not tell by looking at him that these sheep had been in his care all of four hours. You couldn't even tell he had never been a shepherd in his life before then. Reuben's wandering thoughts snapped back into focus when he saw the large stones lining the road next to the town, as they drew closer. He knew what awaited them--or at least Joseph--behind those rocks. Reubens paused; suddenly, he did not want to go through with "the plan." He saw Capt. Faver glance at him, and McJacobs, both with knowing expressions. Sgt. Hamid bin Yakub, or "Yak," as they called him, had informed everyone of his intentions to "remove" Joseph from the operation and make it look like an inevitable accident. Reubens winced; if only he hadn't made the mistake that cost him that point position! Granted, he didn't like Joseph's preferential treatment by the Colonel any more than Yak did, but killing? Surely there was another way!
Could they escape through the streets of Qalqalas, perhaps? Yak would see them; he'd be watching them every step of the way so far. He wouldn't be able to see them in town from the field, and Reubens hoped he wouldn't be able to do anything about it. The soldier gripped his staff in determination; Joseph would not be killed, not as long as he could do anything about it.
"Yadda!" Corporal Aaron Revere, called "the Rev" by the other members of ISRL, interrupted Reubens' train of thought. "Which way do we go?"
Reubens glanced toward the rocks, and away toward the town. He pointed toward town. "Steer the sheep down that way!" he ordered, and the rest of his detachment obeyed, albeit not without puzzled expressions.
As Reubens expected, Yak's gravelly voice reached him over his earpiece.
"Yadda, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
Reubens winced, "We're taking the long route through the town… sir," he replied.
"That wasn't the plan, Reubens," Yak pointed out, deliberately being vague about his alternate plot. "Skirt the town; it will be faster that way. I'm almost in position."
Reubens and his group had almost reached the small decline into the town. "Negative, sir," he responded to Yak, "We spotted suspicious activity along that road; it's too risky."
"Risky?" Yak exploded, causing all the men to jump as his voice blasted their eardrums. "Reubens, don't you dare leave my sight--"
Reubens sighed with relief. They had made it to the outskirts of the town. A few paces more and Yak would be blind to them. "Approaching town, sir," he reported casually to Yak. "We'll turn off our comms till we get through, then I'll let you know when we reach the other side." He raised his hand to signal everyone to switch off their comms.
"Reubens, you'll regret--" click!
Reubens nodded with satisfaction as he saw the rest of the men switch off, effectively "going dark," at least to Yak. It was a risky maneuver, but Reubens hoped it would be enough to save Joseph's life.
"Keep the sheep close," he cautioned the young officer.
Joseph nodded and reached out with his staff to guide a wandering sheep back toward the flock. Carefully, Joseph worked his way to the edge of the flock, placing now his body between the flock and the various obstacles in the town streets such as crates, people, and even the occasional truck.
One sheep nearly got away from him, and as Joseph bent to restrain it, Reubens clearly saw an Arab, standing next to a rusty, blue cattle truck, raise his hand to his ear, staring at the group intently. Reubens saw him nod, saw his lips move, and by the time Joseph stood up, the man was a picture of disinterest. The Arab made eye contact with Reubens and nodded; somehow he was in contact with Yak, who had given him some sort of instruction. Reubens sighed and glanced to the other side of the road as they neared the truck. He heard one of the men call out to Joseph, but the dialect was strange, and even if they spoke Arabic, Reubens didn't know enough to fully understand what they said. The man smiled a rotting grin full of wide holes at the young captain and waved. Joseph looked to his sergeant for confirmation, which Reubens felt loath to give. Slowly, reluctantly, Reubens sealed his involvement with the plot against Joseph with a nod. Joseph turned back to the man, who began fingering Joseph's jacket admiringly. Soon all the men at the truck had him surrounded. Reubens used the ram at the head of the flock to steer the rest of the sheep away from the small scuffle as five Arab men swiftly wrestled Joseph into the back of their truck. He heard the others call out in surprise, he heard the truck motor grind to life, but Reubens could not bring himself to even look at the vehicle as it roared away with Joseph inside.
"Ey!" he heard one of the Arabs yell, and something slapped against his left side.
The Colonel's jacket, the one he'd given to Joseph; the men had ripped it off him and tossed it at Reubens. He saw a thick packet tucked into the pocket; by the feel of it, Reubens deduced there was money inside. Yak had sold Joseph to them.
Reuben burned inside.
"I hope you're happy, you turncoat!" he muttered before turning on his comm as they reached the far side of town.
Meanwhile, in the back of the truck, Joseph struggled in vain as a burly Arab bound and gagged him. The man left Joseph laying there and climbed out to the side of the truck.
The young soldier's mind raced. This was not at all how he envisioned his first mission! Why hadn't the others in his unit stopped them? Did they even care about him? Had Yadda known? Joseph soon forgot about these worries as he realized that this truck had very recently held many of some animal--sheep, perhaps? The truck bed was heaped with piles of dung. Joseph stumbled to his feet in disgust, for it occurred to him that he had landed on a few piles, himself. In the bouncing, lurching truck it was difficult to gain a footing, but at least Joseph made it to his knees, where it was easier to absorb the movement and control his body.
He considered his situation. They obviously intended to carry him a great distance, and Joseph was willing to bet the destination had nothing to do with Operation Shepherd. Where would he end up, and why had he been singled out?
"The Lord is my Shepherd," Joseph thought, "I shall not want..."