A sudden clatter of bullets was drowned by the shrieks of those falling in front of him while others ran for cover.
Ten metres away the girl stood screaming amongst crumpled bodies.
He grabbed his rifle, kicked the door open and ran. ‘Cover me!’ he yelled.
Robbo returned fire as Jack swept the girl into his right arm and glanced back at the Land Rover. The pillars were closer cover. Followed by bullets, he darted for them, his boots skidding in the dirt as he slammed him and the girl behind one. More shells whistled past demolishing tables and smashing tall jars of spice in the market place. The warm woody aroma of cinnamon filled the air and, for a split second, he was a kid again watching his mother bake apple pie - until the sound of bullets hammering into the pillar refocused his mind. He turned and levelled his SA80. It was a right-shoulder weapon, but he couldn’t risk putting the frantic girl down to change hands. He squeezed the trigger and she screamed as shell casings ricocheted off the pillar from the ejector – then stopped. He squeezed the trigger again. Nothing. ‘Don’t you fucking jam on me!’ he spat and tried again. Nothing. He dropped the rifle against his feet, hugged the girl onto his left side and pulled a Browning 9mm from his chest holster. Edging a look around the pillar he knew the man on the roof was beyond the thirty metre range of the semi-automatic, but he let loose shots anyway as Robbo bent below the wing of the Land Rover to reload.
The girl wriggled, kicking, shouting for her parents – ‘Umi, Abi’ – Mummy, Daddy. He couldn’t stop her pushing away from him. Her actions were making them both an achievable target. He slipped her to the ground behind his legs – a large firm hand holding her shaking body. His breathing slowed as he looked down at her. Terrified, brown eyes and a dusty tear-stained face stared back, while small shoulders lifted rhythmically as she gulped air. She must have been about eight he reckoned.
Jack looked across at Robbo pointing to the building. A second insurgent was visible behind a broken window on the end of the third floor. Under cover of the roof-top gunner, his shots were more precise. He picked off anyone still moving. One by one the screams of the wounded died away as his rifle tracked around and then stopped in line with the pillar.
‘He’s on you!’ bellowed Robbo.
Both insurgents opened fire smashing the concrete of the pillar in all directions. Jack wiped grit out of his right eye with the heel of his gun hand as dust and stones up flew up around him.
‘Umi! Umi!’ cried the girl.
He felt her freeze and pressed her harder against the back of his legs as another strafing exploded more chunks off the column. He glanced up. It was taller than his six two and leaning slightly now. If it fell there’d be nowhere to run. It looked like this could be it – he wasn’t going to get home to Sally and Mark after all. The buzz of twelve millimetre shells and the girl’s screams jerked his thoughts back. He let loose more shots. It was useless. The insurgents had the advantage. He knew it and they knew it. He glanced at the Land Rover. Maybe he could even the odds. ‘Robbo,’ he shouted.
His coporal turned.
‘Use the RPGs.’
Robbo reached in and dragged the weapons out. ‘Stay there!’ he bawled as he knelt by the wing and aimed.
Jack wasn’t going anywhere. He took a panted breath and smoothed a hand over the girl’s back. ‘You’ll be, OK,’ he said. She didn’t look up – didn’t take her eyes off the bodies in the road. It didn’t surprise him. He knew she wouldn’t understand his reassurance, but he needed to say it anyway.
Robbo fired. The RPG exploded against the parapet throwing the machine gunner into the air.
‘Get the sniper!’ ordered Jack as he looked down at the girl wriggling against his legs.
‘Umi. Umi,’ she cried and broke away from him.
‘NO!’ He snatched at her – the ends of straggly hair passing over his fingers. ‘Come back!’ he yelled.
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