He saw the horse before the rest of his team and thumbed the selector on his rifle to safe. There were eight of them hunkered behind the row of HESCOs, eight Rangers in digital camo, black kneepads, and vests. Rifle rounds from the insurgents snapped against the wire mesh of the barricades, and he’d been watching, through a crack, the quadrangle of marketplace between him and the hostiles — sandstone, pottery, a dry concrete fountain — and then the horse emerged from behind the burnt husk of a Toyota and walked toward the center of the square. Left hind leg, left front leg. Right hind leg, right front leg. No hurry in its gait. No saddle or blanket. Just a bridle and a set of split leather reins. Russell had seen plenty of mules in this country, a disheveled pony, but never a creature such as this. It was a varnish roan, dark brown on its cheekbones, elbows, and hocks, and if it was startled by the noise of gunfire, it certainly didn’t show. The horse walked to the center of the quad and stopped. A hush descended over the square, and for several moments they didn’t take any fire. The men behind him were peeking over the barriers and examining the animal through their scopes. Fifty meters away, the horse snorted and stamped. It took a few more steps, ears pivoting left and right. Russell got his feet under him and rose to a crouch. His squad leader was a Texan named Cairns, and the man clapped a hand to Russell’s shoulder and gestured.
“They’ll shoot that thing,” he told him. “You see if they don’t.”
Russell shook his head. The sun sat on the edge of the horizon, and the sky was suffused with a warm crimson light. Stars were beginning to show. He couldn’t see a single cloud. It would have been a lovely evening but for the half-dozen men trying to kill them. He looked at the ground a moment and then he raised his rifle and stared through the scope. Caught in the center of his reticle, the horse looked to be about sixteen hands, and its conformation was very fine. He studied the horse’s face and then walked the gunsight down its neck and across its shoulders and back. It wasn’t a horse yet, just a year-and-a-half colt. How it got here and who it belonged to and why it had walked toward the shooting instead of away from it, Russell had no idea. He lowered the weapon slightly, blinked the dust out of his eyes, and then raised it to look again. He’d not gotten the scope to his eye when he heard the first shot.
Just to the left of the crosshairs was a puff of gray talc where the round had struck, and he thought he could see the small cavity it had made, but he wasn’t really sure. The horse took several steps and then stopped and turned to look in his direction. Russell felt his pulse quicken. The scope mounted on his rifle was a Trijicon ACOG with a magnification level of four, and through it he could see the horse’s eyes. He could see its lashes. The horse seemed to be staring straight at him, and before he’d lowered his weapon he knew what he was going do, and if it didn’t get him killed, he couldn’t imagine what would.
He glanced at Cairns.
“What’d I tell you?” said the sergeant. “That’s how dumb they think we are.”
Russell nodded. He slipped a hand in his pocket and touched the silver dollar, then unslung his rifle and propped it against the barrier. He had two grenades in the pouches of his chest rig, and he took these out and laid them alongside the rifle’s stock. He double-knotted the laces of his boots and then he unsnapped his chinstrap, took off the helmet, and set it on the ground upside down, placing the grenades inside. Cairns watched in confusion and then vague comprehension and then horror. The first words out of his mouth were, “Don’t you even think about it,” but it was already too late. Russell was around from behind the HESCOs and moving at a sprint.
Later, he’d not remember the gunfire. There’d be plenty of it, but he’d never recall a single round. There would be the feel of dead September air on his cheeks, the packed earth against the soles of his boots: it seemed to muffle your footsteps as you ran. He’d remember the shouts of his teammates at the barricades behind him, Sergeant Cairns’s voice deeper and slightly louder than the rest. Russell had only lowered his head. The blank odor of desert surrounded him, and then, of a sudden, there was the scent of horseflesh, and the moment he smelled it, there was no team screaming for him to get down or insurgents firing their rifles on automatic. There was only him and the colt.
The animal had turned to watch his approach and then shuffled sideways a few steps. Russell slowed several feet from the horse, wanting to hunker but knowing how the colt would respond. He stood straight as he could, face to face with the animal, and they began to rotate, the horse stepping to its right and Russell likewise stepping, like wrestlers circling for advantage. He extended a hand as slowly as he could, presented his palm, and began to make the clucking noises he’d first heard from his grandfather. “Whoa there,” Russell said, then gave the series of clucks, and the horse released a whinny and shook its head. The ground beneath their feet was a steel-colored powder, a few broken bits of sandstone, a few rusted metal shards. A half-demolished building stood two dozen meters away — ancient stone walls, baroque wooden shutters, a minaret. The horse backed toward it. Russell thought if he could back it completely behind the walls, he might get them out of the lane of fire.
But he couldn’t get them out of the lane of fire. The horse continued to turn, angling them toward the square’s center, back into the open, and the sand popped at either side, craters erupting in the ground as the bullets struck and caromed back behind him. He reached for one of the reins and missed it, and he reached again and caught hold of the leather, doubled it around his left hand, and drew himself against the animal’s face. He figured the colt would try to jerk loose from his grip, but the colt just continued to circle, Russell tethered to the animal now, and he could see for the first time the terror swirling in the horse’s eye and he himself reflected, distorted as in a funhouse mirror.
They kept turning, Russell trying to seize hold of the other rein so he could lead the animal down a side street, get it far enough from the fighting that it wouldn’t return. He was seventy-five meters from the nearest hostile, and he thought if the men who’d been firing at them were better marksmen, he and the colt would be dead already. He’d decided to release his grip on the rein and try to swat the animal to get it moving, when something exploded behind him and he was lifted on a warm cushion of air and slammed against the horse’s side.
When he came to, he was being dragged across the ground and his left arm felt like it had been jerked out of its socket and was numb to the shoulder. His vision was blurred and there was a loud ringing in his ears, and his entire body had the jangled sensation you get when you knock your elbow against a wall. There was the strong metallic taste of explosives in his mouth. His teeth hurt. He spat several times and then craned his neck to look behind him. The horse was walking sideways, its head cocked and its body crooked. It would take a few steps, tugging at Russell, and then stop and try to shake free of the rein. Russell could see the white of the animal’s teeth, lips pulled away from the bit and working furiously. He was dimly aware of shouting, and when he brought his palm to his face, it came away wet.
The horse took another step, jerked its head, and a sharp electric pain traveled the length of Russell’s spine. He scrambled to his feet before he even had time to consider the action, and the horse immediately straightened itself and took off at a trot, Russell shuffling as quickly as he could, turning to run alongside the colt with his left arm still tethered to the rein. There was a stabbing behind his shoulder blade, and he reached with his right hand, grabbed a palmful of the animal’s mane, and heaved himself onto its back. He forgot the pain momentarily and let the astonishment of what he’d just done wash over him. He was in northern Iraq, seated on a magnificent roan, and when his vision cleared and the world righted itself, he saw he was moving toward the enemy at a gallop. He fumbled his right hand down and took hold of the bridle and began tugging, trying to turn the horse. He’d never ridden with body armor, and he had no pommel to lean against, no stirrups to keep himself upright. He thought at any moment he’d be thrown.