After first meeting under unusual circumstance on a battlefield in Iraq. Rusty and Kathy fall in love and build a homestead in Southeast Alaska. This is their story, it’s also the story of a pair of young Percheron draft horses that come together, form a team and help them settle this wild land.
If I stay with it, I should have this book finished sometime this fall. If folks like the preview, I’ll publish it in hardcopy and have it available for sale on this site. (It doesn’t cost much to keep the wagon on the road, but it’s not completely free). I hope you enjoy this sneak preview.
It Takes a Team
By Bob Skelding
Copyright 2009, by Bob Skelding, All rights reserved
There are few experiences more satisfying to the soul then watching rich black soil curl off the moldboard of a horse drawn, riding plow. The large team of black, Percheron workhorses leaned into their collar, their well muscled hindquarters providing the thrust necessary to pull the plow through the layer of sod covering the field.
On the seat of the 2-way riding plow, Rusty marveled at the incredible vista of the mountains surrounding this protected valley in southeast Alaska. Rising sharply from the low lands, the spruce and fir trees quickly gave way to low brush, then raw, gray rock at higher elevations. Snow still remained in the shaded areas near the mountain tops. The May sun provided sixteen hours of daylight, rapidly melting the last reminder of the winter storms. Everywhere he looked, melting snow caused small cascades of water to fall down the face of the rock.
Reaching the end of the field, he kicked down on the foot lever, causing the hub mounted, lifting gear to engage and lift the right hand plow bottom out of the ground. Making a sash S turn, Rusty set the left hand bottom with the hand lever and started back down the length of the field, his left hand horse walking smartly down the furrow he had just created.
When the plow struck the rock, it behaved differently than others he had hit. The oblong shaped rock partially lifted out of the ground, causing the plow point to ride up the length of the stone. Quicker than he could react, the forward pull of the team flipped the plow upside down, trapping Rusty under its weight.
His first thought was to stop the team. Shouting “Whoa”, he desperately grabbed for the lines leading to the horses’ bridles, but they were not in reach. When the plow had flipped over one of the lines had rapped around Rusty’s leg, and the other lay beyond his grasp.
Quickly assessing the situation, Rusty got a hollow feeling in his stomach as he knew his time was up. If either horse in the team moved at all, a plow point was going to spear him in the back. As the team shifted nervously, Rusty’s mind moved back to a dangerous day not so long ago.
March, 2004, Near As Samawah, Iraq
With only thirty four days left in the Army, Staff Sergeant Michael “Rusty” Ayers was playing it careful. Leading a patrol of two Humvees, Rusty diligently searched the roadside and surroundings for anything that looked out of place.
Triggering his radio, he spoke to the fire team leader in the vehicle behind him, “Alpha 21, this is Alpha 26”
“Alpha 21” was the reply.
“Wally, we have a convoy coming. Tell the guys to stand to.”
“Alpha 21 – Roger”
Without being prompted, the Bravo Fire Team Leader, tapped the leg of the guy standing in the .50 caliber machine gun turret and said, “Tim, keep an eye on that line of hills to the left.”
“Got ‘em covered Sarge.”
Using a pair of binoculars, Rusty watched as the lead vehicles in the convoy approached the potential ambush site. “I count two dozen trucks with four escort vehicles”, he announced over the vehicles intercom. “One of the Hummers is in front, the others are spaced throughout the convoy”.
“Why did he space himself out so much?” asked the concerned driver. “He should have concentrated his force a little more”.
“Probably, rear echelon types”, said the Bravo Team Leader.
Rusty was about to reply with a comment on how they should all be attentive, when suddenly his sight picture of the convoy was lost as a large explosion erupted in front of the vehicles.
“They triggered it early. The lead escort didn’t get caught in the blast”, the .50 gunner said in an excited voice.
The sound of the initial explosion had not yet reached them, when the crest of the hills erupted in fire. Green tracers and multiple flashes from RPG launches could be seen as fire poured into the side of the convoy. Through the smoke and flames, men could be seen running from their trucks to the ditch alongside the road. All of the convoy vehicles seemed immobilized by the fire, but suddenly two Humvees near the rear of the convoy peeled out of formation, crossed the shallow ditch opposite the enemy forces and began racing for the rear.
‘Are they running from the fight?’ thought Rusty.
As the Humvees crossed back over the road and began speeding for the far side of the hills held by the insurgents, Rusty brushed the though aside and exclaimed, “They’re trying to turn their left flank. Terry, take that dirt road up ahead on the left”, he told the driver. We’ll assault from the rear and their right flank.
Keying his radio, Rusty informed the other fire team of his intentions, “Alpha 21 this 26. You drop with your dismounts on their right flank, I’ll drop 100 meters past you. Bravo team leader will take the hummers to that small knoll in their rear and provide covering fire with the 50’s.
“Alpha 21, Roger”, was the reply.
When Rusty saw the Humvee in the rear discharging troops he told the driver to stop. Rusty and three other dismounts poured out of the vehicle, ran forward a few steps and fell to the ground, their M4 assault rifles pointing outward to cover the departing Humvees.
Quickly, Rusty gave the troops their orders, “Okay you guys, we hit the crest of the hill on line, ten meter intervals. Watch your zones of fire, we’ve got good guys to the left and right and a whole bunch of bad guys to the front. No firing unless you see the enemy or you’re fired upon. They haven’t seen us yet and I want this to be a surprise. Anyone have any questions? All right, watch your intervals and stay on line. Let’s move out!”
Coordinating their movement with the fire team to their right, Rusty led Bravo team forward first while the Alpha team provided cover. After moving forward approximately 30 meters the Bravo team dropped to the ground while Alpha maneuvered. Alternately the teams ran forward until they reached the lip of the hill holding the enemy.
Motioning the men down, Rusty crawled forward to view the Anti-Iraqi Forces still pouring fire into the convoy below. Making himself as small as possible, he quickly assessed the situation, slid back down the hill and briefed the squad. “There are three lines of trenches. We’re poised behind the right hand line and the convoy escorts are assaulting the left hand line. Here’s the game plan: we’ll assault the trench in front of us with grenades first, then individual fire. The SAW (Squad Automatic Weapon) gunners attached to each fire team will hold back and provide covering fire. The .50 gunners on the humvees will pin down the center trench line. After we clear the right hand trench, well come up on line and assault the center trench. When I fire a red star cluster, the .50’s we’ll cease firing. Are there any questions?”
With the squad on line, Rusty gave the signal and they began lobbing grenades into the Iraqi trenches. Time seemed to stand still as they waited for the first explosion. The first blast, sounding more like a loud crunch was followed quickly by several more. The resulting chaos in the Iraqi trenches was cut short by a crescendo of automatic weapons fire from the Americans. By the time the two fire teams ran forward to assault the trench line, there were only a few stunned Iraqi’s left alive. With the Iraqi’s shook up and taken by surprise, the squad made short work of the survivors.
“Status report - any casualties?”, called Rusty.
“I got a scratch from some shrapnel”, said one of the riflemen.
“Suck it up”, replied Rusty.
He then moved right into the briefing for the assault on the center trench line, “There’s not much room to maneuver, so when we hit the center trenches, I want the grenadiers up with the SAW gunners on the right flank. The rest of us are going to assault with three meter intervals. We all rush forward together. Only stay up for a count of ‘I’m up, He see’s me, I’m down’. Make two rolls to the left and come back up with your teammates.”
“We’ll throw grenades first. The signal to go will be when the grenades start going off. And for god’s sake watch out for friendlies moving into the other side of the trenches. I’ll fire the star cluster to lift the fire from the 50’s after the first roll. All right, let’s get in position.”
As the squad moved into place and began readying their grenades, Rusty slung his rifle across his back and prepped the star cluster. “Okay, throw ‘em”, he yelled.
The grenades were still in the air with the squad poised to jump out of the trenches when Rusty heard the sharp bark of M4 fire coming from the direction of the enemy forces. “Watch out for friendlies”, he yelled as the grenades began cooking off.
As they jumped out of the holes and began rushing forward, Rusty was astonished by the scene of utter chaos before him. Red and green tracer rounds filled the air like angry bees swarming from a hive. Dust was everywhere, wounded men were crying out and the din of battle was deafening. As he hit the ground, Rusty’s hand slapped the bottom of the star cluster and he hoped he hadn’t screwed up and fired it into the dirt.
The end of the third rush brought them to the center line of trenches and he found himself sliding feet first into a trench, like he was trying to beat a throw to second base. Rusty’s finger was tightening around the trigger as a figure in an olive drab shirt crouched before him. The first burst was high so Rusty readjusted his aim and sent a second three round burst into the side of the Iraqi just as his feet hit the bottom of the trench.
Catching himself from falling, he ran forward, towards a bend in the trench line. He had a gut feeling that he shouldn’t be standing as he rounded the corner, so Rusty threw himself face forward and pivoted his body to bring his rifle to bear down the trench. A small group of Iraqis were emptying their rifles in the air above his head. Two or three went down to Rusty’s fire before he heard his bolt click back on an empty magazine. He was fumbling for a new magazine as an Iraqi brought his AK-47 to bear. Just as he was bracing himself for the Iraqi’s shot, the enemy soldier’s head snapped forward and they were both bowled over by a charging figure in an American uniform.
What followed was a tangle of bodies, each desperately trying to gain the upper hand by punching and grasping. The struggle ended suddenly when the other American solider managed to draw a pistol and send a double tap of 9 mm slugs into the Iraqi.
Rusty let out a sigh of relief and was about to thank his buddy, when another group of enemy soldiers ran around the corner of the trench. Drawing his pistol, both he and his new pal emptied their side arms into the enemy.
They were both frantically reaching for fresh magazines when an another American soldier rounded the corner and said, “The trenches are all clear Sarge”.
Rusty’s shoulder sagged with relief at the news. Turning to his new partner, still laying across his legs, he saw a sweat and dirt stained female face. Her Kevlar helmet was cocked to one side and a wisp of auburn hair had fallen across one eye.
“I’m Rusty”, he croaked.
“Kathy”, she replied as she extended her hand.
Taking her hand in his, he marveled at the warmth and strength of grasp.
“I have to go check my men”, she said as she turned to leave.
“Kathy”, he shouted before she faded around the corner of the trench. “Thank You”.
Her reply was a quick smile and piercing green eyes that met his, before she moved around the corner of the trench.
With after-action reports, tending the wounded and securing the position, they didn’t meet again for another two weeks. It wasn’t until an awards ceremony at Corp headquarters that Rusty finally caught her full name. For bravery in battle, Sergeant Kathy MacAlexander of the Kentucky National Guard, was the first female recipient of the Sliver Star during the Iraqi conflict. After the ceremony, she was surrounded by reporters and dignitaries. Their eyes met twice, but they never had an opportunity to speak.
Later, one of the riflemen in the squad came up to him and said, “Hey Sarge - with these brand new bronze stars, do you think we have any career potential?”
“You go for it Pete. You’ll make a good lifer. I’m going to build a cabin back in the boonies, put this up on the fireplace mantle and let it tarnish into oblivion.”
Rusty - May, 2007, Prince William Sound, Alaska
Lying trapped under the plow, it was the memory of those beautiful green eyes, quick smile and the grasp of her warm hand that brought a deep calm to Rusty in his desperate situation. By wiggling his shoulder in the freshly plowed earth, he was finally able to reach the small folding knife in his pocket. Twice, he almost dropped it as he tried to open the blade. Finally, he managed to get the blade under the driving line that was wrapped around his lower leg. With his leg finally free, Rusty managed to work his way out from under the overturned plow.
Calling it a day, the tall gangly man with the short cropped, red hair unhitched the team from the overturned plow and drove them back to the homestead.
A lot of work had gone into creating the tranquil setting. A large log cabin sat on a small knoll above a fairly large creek. Set close against a rear corner of the cabin was an even larger log structure with the classic high roof line of a barn. Extending from sheds, built on to the side of the barn were a pair of small outdoor fenced enclosures, with gates leading to two large pastures. In one of the pastures, a small group of white faced, Hereford cattle grazed on the meadow grass. “I’ve got to remember to turn the cows in tonight”, he said out loud. “There’s been quite a bit of bear sign lately.”
Tying the team to a hitching rail in front of the barn, he began stripping off the sweaty harness. As each was hung neatly on a wooden peg in the barn, Rusty wiped it down with an oily rag. Before turning the horses into the paddock, he scooped oats into a pair of rubber tubs. Taking both of the big geldings by their lead ropes he led them over to a water trough for a drink. Their thirst quenched, he turned them into the paddock and smiled as they ran to the grain buckets.
Suddenly weary, he ambled up the steps to the wooden floored porch and flopped down in a swinging bench chair. In the creek bed below him a bald eagle was feasting on the carcass of a pink salmon, an early, but unfortunate fish to climb up the rocky creek, seeking to spawn in the calm waters at the head of the valley. On the opposite side of the creek, there was a path of torn branches in the alder thicket, revealing where a moose had pushed through to reach the water. “It’s paradise”, he mumbled. “But a lonely paradise. Maybe it’s time I found someone to share it with.”
Sometime in the night, he dreamt of the battle that broke the back of the attack on the supply convoy. Over and over he felt the warmth of her hand, the quick smile and the look of the flashing green eyes. “Kathy”, he mumbled. “Kathy MacAlexander, I wonder what happened to her?”
Available in Hardcopy - November, 2009, from this website
The actual first female awarded the silver star since WWII was Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester of the Kentucky National Guard. Sgt. Hester, along with her squad leader Staff Sergeant Timothy Nein and Specialist Jason Mike were all awarded this medal for bravery in an action similar to the one described in this story. During their fight, there was no infantry squad helping with the assault, they did it alone. Following the battle, 27 insurgents that had been attacking the convoy were dead. No one in Hester’s squad of Military Police was killed.