The Cat and the Crosshairs


(Tambako The Jaguar [CC / Flickr])

The sniper in khaki swung his rifle toward the movement, his finger caressing the trigger. He’d seen a human form vanish into the wreckage of a house before he’d been able to make out any detail. He watched the house until the figure re-emerged.

Crosshairs on centre mass.

A few millimetres of movement by one finger was the difference between life and death, but he recognised the figure as a civilian woman, shuffling along with a shopping bag that looked nearly empty.

He took his finger off the trigger. Khakis didn’t shoot without thinking, and they certainly didn’t shoot some poor soul searching for any cans of food that might have been left behind in a shelled-out home.

Shooting civilians was the sort of thing that greens did but then if greens knew what compassion or decency were, they wouldn’t have chosen this town to fight in and he would be looking through a glass window at a well-kept street. It was down to the greens that there was nothing left of the house that stood more than a metre and a half from the ground, and that he was crouching at the bottom half of a window frame that no longer had a top, let alone any glass.

He wished the civilian luck and sent her a silent apology for the destruction, but then it hadn’t been the khakis who picked the battleground.

Something touched the sniper’s leg.

His right hand was off his rifle and on his pistol before he’d looked away from his scope and down. He relaxed at the sight of a black and white cat winding around his ankles. It wasn’t only the people of the town who had lost their homes.

The sniper reached down and the cat pressed its face into his hand. The cat was the first thing he’d seen in this town that wasn’t caked in dust that had once been bricks and concrete. He approved of the cat’s cleanliness. He brushed his own battledress down a couple of times a day and washed it whenever he could. He could never get rid of all the dust, but trying to be as clean as he could was one of the things that made him a khaki soldier.

Not like a green, who wouldn’t care less whether it was his own filth he was covered in or the town’s.

He ran his hand down the clean cat’s flank, feeling every rib under his fingers. Even rats were in short supply in this town.

He put his eye back to his scope and swept his field of view. No one in sight. He ducked out of the window frame, propped the rifle against the wall and pulled a tin of beef stew out of his pack. He wasn’t going to light his stove this far ahead of the khaki front line, but the cat didn’t seem to care. It was miaowing at him as soon as he had the lid off and buried its nose in the stew as soon as the sniper put it down.

The sniper smiled at the cat and stroked its back a couple of times before picking up his rifle for another sweep.

He saw green.

A man in green battledress, assault rifle pointing ahead, walking toward him.

He froze, hoping the green hadn’t seen the movement as he resumed his position.

He hadn’t. the green’s gait was unchanged, eyes darting around above his beard as he completely missed the rifle aimed right at him.

He wouldn’t be alone.

The sniper swept his scope around, marking the rest of the green’s squad patrolling toward him. Close enough together to watch each other’s backs, far enough apart not to make a single target. Just as a khaki squad would do it. He’d marked four of them before he found the one who wore badges of rank. He’d only get one shot before the rest of them took cover and he’d have to run before they outflanked him, so that shot was for the officer.

Crosshairs on centre mass.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Then the world exploded.

The sniper ducked behind the wall before he registered what had happened. A mortar bomb had landed between him and the officer, throwing up a curtain of dust and smoke between them as well as the debris that was pattering down on his helmet and battledress.

It was the beginning of a barrage, one bomb after another howling over the sniper and landing in front of him. Which meant they were khaki mortars firing from behind him at the green patrol, and not green mortars firing at him. He’d seen enough mortar barrages to know that whatever the target, some of the bombs always landed short and right now, that short meant on his head.

Time to move.

He shouldered his pack and took a look around, but the cat was long gone. It wouldn’t be the cat’s first mortar barrage either. He scooped up the tin of stew as he ran in the direction of the khaki lines. Best not to leave any sign that he’d been there in case he wanted to use that position again. He ducked for cover after a hundred metres, tipped away the stew and put the tin in his pack.

He took a moment to curse the green officer he’d have killed if that bomb had landed one single second later, and cursed again at having had to leave the best position he’d found for several days.

Now he thought about it, that house would be as good a position for a green as for a khaki. Which gave him an idea. Because he’d first seen it from another position he’d looked at and moved on from because there were too many houses between it and the green lines. The one thing he’d seen clearly from it had been the position he’d just vacated, which would look very attractive to the green patrol. He didn’t think the mortars would persuade them to retreat. Greens were like cockroaches: they kept coming no matter what you did to put them off.

The barrage would keep even a green’s thick head down so he dashed for the position he had in mind while it lasted. The last bomb landed before he made it, but there was still enough dust in the air that they’d have to be within a few metres before they’d see him.

Now he just had to watch and wait. The sniper could watch and wait all day. That was why he was a sniper.

He didn’t have to wait long. The greens must have started moving again as soon as the barrage lifted because the sniper could already see the silhouette of a helmeted man with an assault rifle heading for the exact position he’d left. The greens must have seen its potential before the barrage came down.

The silhouette emerged into three dimensions and climbed through the window frame that the sniper had nearly killed his officer from, covered in so much dust that the sniper wouldn’t have known he was a green if he hadn’t been coming from the green lines. The grey-covered green assumed the mirror image of the position the sniper had taken a few minutes earlier, his rifle levelled in the direction of the khaki lines.

Crosshairs on centre mass.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

A movement caught the sniper’s attention, earning the green a moment’s reprieve. The sniper lowered the cross-hairs to see what it was.

The black and white cat was rubbing its head against the green’s boots.

The sniper raised the crosshairs again, anxious to kill the green before he killed the cat for fresh meat. Eating cats was the sort of thing that greens did.

The green earned himself another moment by swinging his pack off his back, placing it in the way of the shot. A bullet would go through a pack, but it might get deflected in the process. Better to wait until he could be sure the shot would count.

The green kept the pack on one shoulder as he reached into it and pulled out a tin. He ripped off the lid and put it down for the cat.

The cat buried its face in the tin while the green stroked its back a couple of times. Then he swung his pack back on and resumed his position, facing the khaki lines.

Crosshairs on centre mass.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

The sniper’s finger froze on the trigger. He could still see the cat in the bottom of the scope. The cat looked happy. The green in the cross-hairs was the man who had made the cat happy.

The sniper ducked behind the wall, shouldered his pack and headed for the khaki lines.

Holding his rifle ahead of him, he saw his sleeves were covered in grey dust thrown up by the mortar barrage. He’d have to shake out his jacket before he got too close to his own lines. Otherwise the sentries might not be able to tell the difference between him and a green.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
2 comments on “The Cat and the Crosshairs
  1. What a tense, atmospheric piece, David.

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