The sliver of a new moon in the night sky over the Afghanistan mountains offered only a modest challenge to the billions of stars begging to touch the hot, desert sand. Framed against the jagged foothills marked only as ‘Zone Seven’ on intelligence maps, thundered the silhouette of a C-130J Hercules turboprop. It was one of the most versatile airplane weapon systems deployed in aviation history. The Hercules’ one hundred thirty-three foot wingspan roared toward its designated target. While it could deploy from a two thousand foot dirt runway with a forty-four thousand pound payload, this mission began on a concrete runway in Pakistan.

The four Rolls-Royce AE engines, each capable of delivering almost forty-six hundred horsepower to a six-blade GE Dowty propeller, were in nap mode with the lightweight, precious cargo of a dozen Marine paratroopers. An earlier Hercules had dropped the four Humvees and drivers critical to the mission. While the turboprop engines might have been relaxing on this mission, the roar in the cargo bay was deafening. Air pockets rattled spines. Two rows of paratroopers faced each other. One Marine fingered a rosary. Others checked gear. Marine Squad Leader Murphy and his crack team of eleven waited to be dropped into the Taliban-infested foothills below.

The C-130J Hercules leveled to ten thousand feet. A red light signaled zero hour. Murphy’s unit rose as one, shuffled to the door over the drop zone. No words were needed–hand signals, looks of confidence, and resolve were enough. Sgt. Murphy flashed a crooked little grin; this leader could be followed barefooted across hot coals. The dull red light was replaced by the pierce of a flashing green light. It was time. The paratroopers plummeted through a pre-dawn sky.

The C-130J Hercules banked hard back toward base operations in Pakistan. The engine roar that had conjured up memories of a Harley-Davidson rumble was replaced with the calm rush of wind as parachutes burst open. Sgt. Murphy’s chute deployed. His green, night-vision goggle view of Afghanistan faded into childhood memories of daredevil jumps from a swing lashed in the front yard oak tree of his Ohio farm home. The little boy left the wooden swing seat at its highest peak. In slow motion, he flew through the air, cape fluttering behind him. He arched his back, nailed an Olympic ten-pointer as his sneakers hit lush, green grass in the shadow of the mighty oak. He shot a silly, crooked grin to his adoring parents. Eleven other daydreams abruptly ended as boots hit rocky, Afghanistan soil.

The previously-dropped Humvees bounced over rutted terrain and scaled a steep ridge to their precise rendezvous. Sunrise over mountains created long shadows as the newly inserted Marines swiftly loaded their Humvees. Sgt. Murphy, last to board, pounded the hoods, assuring each Marine buddy with a thumbs-up–and that crooked little grin. The expedition dusted its way over a ridge, into the Afghanistan dawn.

Sunrise signaled the start of another routine day for one insignificant teenage Taliban recruit. His perch on the cliff overlooking the valley below provided the necessary vantage point to complete his cell phone call. Dirty, crusted fingers hurriedly touched numbers on a keypad built in China. Software developed in the Silicon Valley encoded the communication to the IED handcrafted in Iran that it was time for a Navy Chaplain to pay a visit to the parents of Sgt. Murphy in Ohio.

Chapter One

Two years later.

A rooster crowed to announce the dawn of a new day. The Ohio cornfield was shrouded in a sunrise fog. Unless someone has actually fought his way through the narrow rows, dodging the sharp leaves, wiping the dew from a forehead, it’s nearly impossible to describe the fresh smell of a late-spring cornfield. Dead baseball players amble out of cornfields only in Hollywood. Or maybe Iowa. A rejuvenated farmer smiles his way from a cornfield every day. Almost as good.

Gertrude Murphy, empty milk bucket in hand, stood on the front porch of her old white farmhouse. In need of paint, shutters somewhat askew and random in their attachment, a paint brush hadn’t kissed these weathered boards in a number of years.

Mrs. Murphy had taken a short detour from her morning stroll to the barn to pause for a moment in her front yard. Revered as Gerty to everyone in Highland County, this spunky wisp of a seventy-year-old farm widow was trying to hold it together to prevent losing her farm to a pending foreclosure. The dew in the overgrown grass under the mighty oak tree in the front yard beaded on the top of her well-worn work boots. She gently pushed back the brim of her floppy straw hat and looked at a sturdy branch twenty feet above her head. A single tattered rope dangled, attached to one side of a splintered wooden swing seat. The seat swayed as her fingers touched the solitary rope. As she closed her eyes, she could almost see her young son jumping from the swing, cape fluttering as he landed at her feet. As the youngster flashed a crooked little grin, she bowed her head.

The morning fog had lifted under the warm June sun. A Holstein cow chewed her cud. Responding to a distant noise, her neck chain number rattled as she raised her head. Cow number forty-seven looked skyward toward the large red bird. The bird exploded from the puffy white clouds through the blue sky. As the bird dive-bombed directly at Mrs. Forty-seven, the peace and quiet of the early morning was shattered.

This was no bird. The startled cow bolted to find safe retreat under a nearby dying ash tree. In a deep dive, the crop-dusting plane swooped close to the ground. The Air Tractor AT-501 sported a Pratt & Whitney prop package that delivered almost six hundred horsepower, far more horsepower than needed for such a small plane.

The plane leveled off barely over knee-high corn. White clouds of powder caressed the corn. As the end of the field rapidly approached, the logic of its excess horsepower was revealed. The plane climbed vertically, defying gravity. A hard bank and another pass lightened the load.

The pilot buzzed treetops and hot-rodded home for another ton of insecticide. Stubby in length, the extended wingspan and pounding horsepower made the trip home, empty of any cargo other than the pilot’s ego, a blood rush for even the most experienced pilot. As the ex-Air Force pilot zipped to home base, a few barrel rolls proved that he still had it. On the country road below he spotted his green pickup truck making its final turn toward the small county airstrip he called home. He swooped low and gave his employee driver a full exhaust blast.

As the airstrip handyman, Trip Morgan was used to this kind of treatment. Nice guy, late twenties, but not blessed with anything outstanding. His birth certificate name was Steven Craig Morgan. His overwhelming propensity of falling and tripping earned him the nickname ‘Trip’ before he entered kindergarten. It stuck. It stuck better than the cowlick sprig of hair that never seemed to lay flat on the top of Trip’s head. Most mothers use a kid’s full given name when angry or frustrated. But Mrs. Morgan grew tired of constantly yelling, “Steven Craig Morgan, get out of that mud puddle.” Mrs. Morgan found it easier to just yell, “Trip!” and be done with it.

Every finger displayed a Band-Aid connoting above average clumsiness. Gangly beyond measure. Trip swerved a bit, but maintained control of the truck. Screeching to a halt in the middle of the not-so-well traveled country road, some of the groceries and supplies behind his cab slid around in the truck bed. He opened his door and stood in the middle of the road. He shifted his ‘Buzz’s Crop Service’ logo ball cap back on his head and shaded his eyes as he admired one last barrel roll as Buzz disappeared over the treetops. “Someday,” he murmured. “Someday, I’ll be that pilot.” Getting struck by lightning or throwing a perfect game in the World Series had lower odds.

Trip re-entered the truck, slammed his fingers as he closed the door. He shook his hand in pain, fingers in his mouth, and mumbled, “Stupid klutz.”