Red sniper, p.1
Red Sniper, page 1
by David Healey
Copyright © 2017 by David Healey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means without the written permission of the publisher except in the case of brief quotation for the purpose of critical articles and reviews. Please support the arts by refusing to pirate creative content.
Intracoastal Media digital edition published 2017. Print edition published 2017.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Cover art by Streetlight Graphics
BISAC Subject Headings:
FIC032000 FICTION/War & Military
Let us learn to appreciate that there will be times when the trees will be bare, and look forward to the time when we may pick the fruit.
This one’s for mom and all the encouragement she gave her family over the years. We love you and miss you.
Standing in the Oval Office, President Harrison Whitlock IV reached out and took down the brutal horse whip that hung on the wall just to the left of the most famous desk in the world.
Technically, this was a Cossack whip or nagyka, once used by Russian teamsters to control their massive draft horses. It also happened to make a cruel weapon. The whip consisted of a wooden handle that measured eighteen inches in length, covered in braided horsehide that elongated into the whip itself. The nagyka was just about three feet long.
The leather was starting to dry rot and the battered nagyka looked out of place in the formal presidential surroundings that included portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In truth, the whip held nothing but bad memories. The president kept it there, however, as a reminder of a time when he had lived in fear of that lash.
More and more these days, Harry Whitlock’s thoughts seemed to return to those times. Just getting old, he thought. Given that the war had ended fifty years before, it was likely that he would be the last president to have served in World War II. Back then, as a very young pilot, his B-17 had been shot down over Germany. One could still catch a glimpse of that young man in the president’s bright blue eyes.
“Sir?” his chief of staff had materialized and caught him reminiscing.
“It’s all right, Bob,” the president said, turning to face his chief of staff and the business of the day, but not before returning the whip to its place on the wall.
The whip served as a reminder that freedom must be defended, and that it comes with a price.
Micajah “Caje” Cole squinted through the eight power telescopic sight of his Springfield rifle, looking for a target. Somewhere in the ruins of a barn high above the road, a German sniper was dug in like a tick on the back of a coonhound. That one enemy soldier had managed to pin down an entire squad that was an element of the advance toward Berlin.
Cole considered his options, none of which were good.
Too far away to get a grenade in there. They had an M1919 machine gun, which might make the sniper keep his head down, but it was ineffectual against the thick stone walls. What they needed was a battering ram. Maybe a tank.
All Cole had was a bullet.
Vaccaro crouched beside Cole, his head well below the stone wall that bordered the road. "Punch his ticket, Hillbilly, and let's get the hell out of here," he muttered.
"Ain't that easy," Cole replied, his eye playing over the ancient stones of the barn, the empty gaping windows, the slate roof. Where you at? The enemy sniper may as well have been hunkered down inside a fortress. The sniper had chosen his hiding place well, Cole conceded, because the barn had a commanding view of the road below.
Keeping his eye pressed to the telescopic sight, Cole puzzled it out.
So much of surviving as a sniper was about getting inside the other guy’s head. Cole thought about what he would have done in the German's shoes. He would be back from a window, shooting from deep inside the barn in order to be less of a target. The squad had already poured bullets into the windows until Lieutenant Mulholland called a ceasefire. The only real possibility for the German’s hiding place was the window in the loft, from which the sniper could shoot anything that moved on the road.
But how experienced was this sniper? He doubted that the German pinning them down was much more than a boy with a rifle. In these last weeks of the war, it was considered good enough to give a soldier a week of training, along with a rifle that had a telescopic sight, and call him a sniper. Cole damn well knew it took more than that, especially if the sniper expected to outlast his first day on the job.
Unfortunately, these Germans had the advantage of knowing the ground, and they also had desperation on their side. Making it worse was the fact that the young ones tended to be fanatics. Although the enemy snipers the Americans had been encountering were barely more than teenagers, they were all too deadly.
This sniper had waited until the squad was directly below, and then had picked off two men. Their bodies lay in the muddy road where no one could reach them now.
To Cole, it seemed like a waste, dying so close to the end of the war. Everybody talked about that, how they didn't want to get killed when the war was sure to end any week now. Nobody wanted to stick his neck out. For the two dead guys, walking down a road in Germany had been their final act of the war.
"This guy is acting like it's the last stand of the Reich," Vaccaro muttered.
"I reckon for him, that's just what it is," Cole said.
The Germans were done. It didn't take a general to see that. Germany’s looming defeat was obvious to the lowliest private. At the sight of approaching troops, German civilians came out of their houses, grim faced, waving white handkerchiefs. Since D-Day in June 1944, the Allied troops had pushed steadily across France and Belgium. Cole and Vaccaro had walked nearly every step of the way since June, and for most of those months all they had done was fight. The Germans’ final attempt to turn the tide of the war had come in December 1944 at the Ardennes Forest during what the Americans had labeled The Battle of the Bulge. They had been in the thick of the German breakout attempt in the Ardennes, where their sniper skills had been put to the test again and again.
Now it was April 1945 and it was only a matter of time before Germany was defeated. The Americans were on German soil. Rumors flew about what Hitler was up to, but it was likely that Der Fuhrer and his minions were holed up like rats somewhere in Berlin, probably deep in a bunker with lots of champagne and plenty to eat, hoping for a miracle.
Cole glanced up at the contrails in the sky, wispy fingers of white dragging across the blue dome above as Allied bombers made their way to the next target. The war was happening on the ground, as well as in the sky.
While the Third Reich, for all practical purposes, was over—kaput—not everyone had gotten the message or wanted to believe it. Germans were still being urged to fight to the bitter end, hence the last stands like the one taking place in this barn. Cole had been a hunter and trapper long before he was a soldier, and he knew too well that a cornered and wounded animal was the most dangerous kind.
Cole turned to Vaccaro. "You still got that tent?" he asked.
Vaccaro groaned. "You think he's dumb enough to fall for that?"
"Unless you got a better idea."
Vaccaro sighed and dug around in his pack for the tent. In fact, it was a canvas shelter half, or half a tent. It could be buttoned together with another shelter half to form an actual tent. Cole carried the other half strapped to the top of his pack.
"I suppose you want me to use m
"Mine's already got one bullet hole in it," Cole pointed out. A German sniper named Kurt Von Stenger had put it there.
With a dramatic sigh, Vaccaro whipped off his helmet and jammed it onto the sausaged canvas. Through trial and error, the two snipers had found that a helmet on the end of a shelter half, raised above a wall or poked around a tree, looked convincingly like an actual GI's head. The grungy canvas resembled a grimy face just enough to fool a distant sniper. They had tried using a helmet on a stick in the past, but it wobbled too much. A helmet held in one's hands had the problem of there being nothing beneath it—and besides that, it wasn't a good idea to have actual body parts anywhere near a high velocity Mauser round.
"Ready?" Vaccaro asked.
"Yep." He drew in a breath, held it. Kept the rifle scope focused on the barn window.
The rifle was a Springfield Model M1903A4 in .30/06 caliber. Cole knew its lines and curves intimately, and the stock fit against his shoulder and jawline like a part of his own body.
He sensed the movement in his peripheral vision as Vaccaro slithered a few feet away and popped the helmet above the wall. The trick was to do it fast, before the sniper had time to think. You just wanted him to react and shoot before he figured out that he was firing at a decoy. Along with very little experience, the sniper in the barn was bound to have an itchy trigger finger.
“Here goes nothin’,” Vaccaro muttered, and popped the helmet above the wall.
Right on cue, the German in the barn fired, his bullet smacking into the helmet and shelter half with enough force to knock it out of Vaccaro's grip. Vaccaro muttered a curse.
There. Deep back in the darkness of the barn, Cole spotted the enemy sniper's muzzle flash, no brighter than a firefly on a July night. Locking his crosshairs on the spot where he had seen the flash, he touched the trigger at the same instant and the rifle pounded into his shoulder.
He slid down behind the stone wall next to Vaccaro. "Got him," he said.
Cole could not say exactly how he knew that. It was as if he could feel the bullet hitting home.
Vaccaro was more cautious. He insisted on giving the helmet-above-the-wall trick one more try, although it would be a sorry sniper who fell for the same trick twice. Maybe a kid with a rifle would. This time, no shot came.
Vaccaro looked at him.
"When you're right, you're right," Cole said.
"In that case, you go first."
“On three." With Vaccaro covering him, Cole slid over the wall and ran in a crouch toward the barn. Vaccaro came right behind him. Cole poked the muzzle of the rifle into the barn and held his breath, listening for some sign that the sniper might still be alive. Most of the time, he could sense a person hiding in a building. It was like their body gave off vibrations.
Now, there was only a deathly stillness. He went on in, rifle at the ready.
They found the sniper on the floor of the hay loft. He lay with the slack pose of the dead. Cole's bullet had hit him in the chest. The sniper's face was untouched, the blue eyes gazing sightlessly out from the rim of his stahlhelm. This sniper couldn't have been much more than seventeen or eighteen. Blond peach fuzz on his upper lip.
"I am so sick of this shit," Vaccaro muttered, looking down at the dead boy’s face. Vaccaro was always playing the smart aleck when he wasn't playing the macho Italian guy from Brooklyn, but there was nothing macho about his expression at that moment. He looked deflated, like someone had punched him in the gut.
Cole grunted. He didn't like killing kids, either. But the fact remained that this young sniper had shot two Americans on the road below. Cole thought it was a lousy place to die—not that he had seen many good places, come to think of it.
This kid had killed them, and there was a price to pay for that.
Maybe you couldn't entirely blame this dead kid, considering that he'd been brainwashed since childhood, having come of age in Nazi Germany. That didn’t change the fact that were now three dead men on this nameless stretch of road.
Some dust had stuck to his rifle barrel, just in front of the action. Cole rubbed it away with his thumb. There was something reassuring about the tangible feel of the metal, still warm from the bullet he had fired a minute before. The smell of gunpowder filled his nostrils. He hefted the familiar weight of the rifle in his hands. He pushed whatever regrets he had about killing the young enemy sniper to the back of his mind and locked them away.
He would never have told this to Vaccaro or to anyone else, but he was not sick of this at all. He dreaded seeing it end. It was not because he enjoyed the killing, but he did like the way that being on the hunt—even being hunted—made him feel so alive.
There wasn't a damned thing he could do after the war that would come close. Other men had lives and families to go back to. What did he have but a crowded shack in the mountains and a few dozen rusty beaver traps to set in Gashey's Creek? Was he going to set up a still and drink most of what he made, like his pa had?
It wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to look forward to. Cole wondered if maybe there was something wrong with him, because he wouldn't mind if the war went on a while longer.
“Come on,” he said gruffly to Vaccaro, turning away from the young sniper’s body. “We’ve still got a few hours of daylight. Let’s see if we can make it to the next town before dark.”
Yegor Barkov had seen his share of bad situations, and he didn't like this one at all. He stood on the marshy plain just west of the Oder River, looking up at the high ground beyond, where masses of German troops were dug in to make their last stand on what was known as the Sellow Heights.
His commander had once pointed out that Barkov was an imaginative man, so it was not surprising that when studying the German fortifications before him, he had the passing thought that this was how the hammer must look to the nail.
He clutched his Mosin-Nagant sniper’s rifle in his big, rough hands and tried instinctively to get the lay of the land so that he could put that rifle to use.
"At least it isn't Stalingrad," said Oleg Tarasyuk beside him. The little man hawked and spat to further illustrate his opinion of Stalingrad. He was also a sniper, and the two had been together through thick and thin during these long years of the war. Where Barkov was massive as a bull, Tarasyuk gave the impression of some small, quick animal that was fond of baring its sharp teeth. He had earned the nickname norka, which was Russian for mink, a furbearer often made into sleek coats but that had a nasty disposition in the wild.
"What do you want to bet that these stupid generals want us to march right into those German guns?"
"Yegor," the Mink cautioned, ever mindful that one of the political officers might overhear. Like a mink, he lived by his wits.
Barkov hadn't needed to say it; they both knew well enough that marching right into the guns was just what was going to happen. Marshal Zhukov had lined up his army across from the Germans entrenched on Sellow Heights. It was the nature of the Soviet army that generals were expected to out-do one another, and Zhukov could sense the other generals snapping at his heels. Stalin encouraged competition over cooperation. It was better to have the generals at each other’s throats, after all, than at his own.
Stalin wanted Berlin so badly that he could taste it, and he did not care how many men it took to overwhelm the German defenses. Lives meant nothing to him. By default, Marshal Zukov could place no value on the lives needed to sweep aside the Germans. The problem was that the Germans did not want to be swept.
Barkov and Oleg had been fighting Germans nearly every inch of the way from Stalingrad, pushing the Germans back, again and again. It was clear by now that the Germans were not simply giving up, so now here they were at Seelow Heights.
Marshal Zhukov had Stalin himself breathing down his neck to make some progress. Hourly telephone calls from Stalin were not unusual. Stalin wanted immediate results, so Marshal Zhukov had developed a brilliant strategy for a full-on frontal assault. I
From somewhere in front of the Russian lines, a rifle shot rang out. An officer a hundred meters away crumpled and fell. It was the second officer that the German sniper had shot in the last thirty minutes.
The sound of the German sniper at work was like music to Barkov's ears. With any luck, he and the Mink could get themselves assigned to picking off the sniper, which would help them avoid the suicidal slaughter that Marshal Zhukov clearly had planned.
Barkov was no coward, but he was a survivor. One did not last long as a sniper without being wily. What was the point in dying stupidly?
Barkov thought about his options. The political officers to the rear would shoot any man who turned back from the front lines. In the Russian army, courage was strictly enforced at gunpoint. The sniper's rifle was something of a talisman enabling him to move more freely than the average soldier.
"Come on, Oleg. Let us see if we can put our talents to use."
The Mink understood Barkov's meaning at once. The two of them headed toward the rear, with the thought that they could move off to the flank in pursuit of the German sniper. Their chances of survival would be marginally better once the assault began.
They hadn't gone far when a commissar appeared, pointing a pistol at them. There was a dead boy at the commissar's feet, presumably a young soldier whose nerves had failed him and who had been stopped from fleeing with a bullet from the pistol. Only the fact that Barkov and Oleg were calmly walking, rather than running for the rear, kept the commissar from shooting them outright.
"Get back to your positions!"
"Comrade, we have been ordered to move to the flank to engage the German sniper," Barkov said.
by David Healey have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes