“You weren’t there.” Sonny’s eyes locked onto the General seated behind the long table next to the window. The General squinted. The late afternoon sun bathed the right side of his face and made him uncomfortable. The left half of his face felt cold. This side faced Sonny. The General hated court martials. He hated being in this stifling room. The day would have been otherwise perfect for golf.
The ceiling fan beat the air without effect. Its slow `whoosh’, `whoosh’, the only sound in the room until Major Crenshaw shuffled some papers. Without looking up he said, “Private, I fail to see what relevance that fact has to these proceedings. The issue is not that we were not there, but that you were.”
Sonny did not take his pale blue eyes off of the General. “You…were…not…there,” Sonny repeated in rhythm with the hypnotic fan. The General cleared his throat, but said nothing. From somewhere outside, a strain of shapeless music leaked through the thinly paneled walls and was gone.
Two choppers inserted the Team into their reconnaissance zone just after dawn. Their radio call sign was Hot Bat. The deafening staccato pulse of the engines raised a turbulent veil around them. The heavy air pushed against the backs of the marines as they knelt in a ring around the machines. No one watched the slicks rise from the clearing, pirouette with perfect mechanical grace on an invisible axis and return into the morning sun. Thrust from the womb, seven silent silhouettes crouched low to the ground and pressed quickly into the undergrowth.
They began probing the land, searching for a site to lay their ambush. Choco decided on one at the base of a high ridge about four kilometers west of their landing zone. Dense vegetation covered the ridge except for the weathered boulders lining the crest.
Narrow trails ran north and south on both sides of the ridge, then looped around and joined at the north end. A larger trail wound away to the west for about two kilometers. It ended at a stream flowing down from the north. The other side of the stream belonged to the Enemy.
Hot Bat made camp shortly after nightfall. Each man ate cold food in silence. There could be no fire, no joking around. Not now. Their camouflaged faces felt conspicuous in the moonless starlight. Even the greasepaint could not hide their open eyes. They moved little and spoke less. Doc took the first watch. The pungent bitterness of bug juice invaded every nostril. Its petroleum base burned their skin, but it was the lesser of two evils. Boomer’s whispered, “Fucking mosquitoes!” was taps.
Choco woke the others before dawn. They broke camp in the early morning darkness. After moving the short distance to the ambush site they carefully concealed themselves. The location offered them a clear field of fire for about 30 yards down each trail. Kills would be almost certain if only the Enemy would cooperate and appear. This thought raised their spirits after a night of restless sleep.
For several hours they waited in the lingering coolness. The ridge was fending off the heat that would inevitably come. The sunlight was still only halfway down the trunks of the trees in front of them. Doc had seen these trees in a college textbook, but could not remember their names now.
Nothing moved on either trail. Occasionally they would hear movement in the undergrowth. They saw nothing. Once, they heard the distinctive cry of a rock ape above them. Boomer wished he could shoot it. He had killed wild turkeys in Greenville. They were hard to call in, but easy to shoot. Boomer liked shooting things. The rock ape took no notice of the men. It made a little gurgling noise and knocked some small stones loose on the hillside as it scampered away.
The sun continued its ascent, finally breaking over the ridge. Shafts of light pierced the triple canopy and came to rest on the forest floor. The junction of the trails became a tiny stage illuminated by sweltering spotlights. A mute audience awaited the performance, growing impatient and hot with the passing minutes. The muscles in their necks and shoulders tightened. Sweat formed on their foreheads and fell into the dust at their feet.
Just after noon, Choco motioned to Frank and Sonny. They moved to his side. “Get up to the top of the ridge and see if anything’s shakin’. But, keep your asses off the rocks. Up to the tree line, then back. Copy?” He handed the binoculars to Sonny.
“That’s an affirmative, bro,” Frank grinned. Sonny took off his pack and slung his M-16 on his back. The binoculars hung from his neck. Frank removed his pack and left the “Blooper” with the Team. He and Sonny would not be launching grenades. He took Bony’s rifle instead.
“Take care of Mama,” Bony implored in a feigned paternal tone.
“Shit, man. Your mama never had it as good as this is gonna be,” Frank taunted. “Man, this piece is too fine for a honky surf fool,” he added, slowly caressing the length of the rifle.
“Put a sock in it!” X-Man’s voice was tense; his glare chilly. He had been in country longer than any of them. He’d seen little things foul up missions before. Somebody too stoned to shoot straight. Somebody talking when they should have been listening. Somebody 19 who didn’t give a shit if they made it to 20. He would soon rotate back to the world. He didn’t want some comedian coming between him and his 25th birthday party. He’d already gone home once. It didn’t work out and he came back here. Now, he was going to try again.
“Easy, man,” Sonny intervened. “We’re outta here.” Frank shook his head and laughed through his nose as he and Sonny started up the hillside.
“X got the fever, bro. He can smell those steaks cookin’. Eighteen days and the man be home!”
“I could dig that, man. It’d be great to see Jan.”
Sonny and Frank worked their way up the hillside, careful to stay under cover and out of sight. In 45 minutes they reached the base of the ridge’s stony crest. As they turned to survey the horizon to the west, a buzzard floated down off the rocks. It screeched twice and drifted on invisible currents down the side of the ridge to the north. Neither man took notice.
Sonny lifted the binoculars. Bringing them into focus, he scanned from south to north. Frank cupped his hands over his eyes. From this height, the stream that separated them from the Enemy was a slender string of shimmering silver weaving through the ocean of trees and vines. Frank could see some sections of it clearly. “Holy shit! Let me see those,” he said as he grabbed at the binoculars.
“What, man?” Sonny’s head snapped toward Frank as he responded. The strap was tight against his neck as Frank continued to pull. Sonny reached up with his left hand and, bending his head still further toward Frank, slid the strap over his ear with his thumb. “What?” Sonny repeated impatiently.
“Damn!” Frank lowered the binoculars. He handed them back to Sonny and pointed toward the stream. “Look, man. Right where that trail runs into the stream. You see what’s on the other side?”
Sonny lifted the binoculars again. His pulse quickened as he saw two dozen water buffalo along the western shore of the stream. Most were drinking. Piled near them on the ground were many large bundles. Several hundred Enemy troops were visible by the stream. He could see other vague shapes in the dark shadows beyond.
“Whatcha think, Frank? A battalion?”
“At least one, man. Maybe two or three. Shit, we gotta get down and tell Choc.” Frank’s words were coming more rapidly now.
Their dash down the ridge was a clamorous combination of sliding, stumbling and jumping. Concealment was not now their priority. Speed was. But, in spite of their best efforts, they were too late. When they were just a hundred feet above their comrades, the noise of their descent was overshadowed by the sudden outburst of small arms fire. The heavier thumping of Boomer’s M-60 was unmistakable. Simultaneously, the yells and screams of young men who were killing and young men who were dying filled the glade where the trails came together. As Sonny and Frank slid the last several feet, they heard Boomer yelling, “Get some!! Come on you stupid bastard sonsabitches! Get some!!” He always performed his work with enthusiastic ferocity.
Thirty seconds after it began, the firefight was over. All four of the Enemy soldiers who had moments before been moving eastward now lay in grotesquely twisted poses on the ground. A bluish gray cloud hung in the air and clung to the trees. The smell of cordite almost made Doc sick to his stomach. He fought back the urge to puke. “Anybody hit?” he asked.
“Hell, no,” said Bony. “We’re some bad boys. Ain’t nobody mess with our shit, man.” Doc looked around at each of the men. No one had been harmed. It was then that he noticed Frank and Sonny.
“You missed the show, guys. The play’s the thing, and you missed it.”
“Maybe only the First Act, Doc. Those guys had a lot of friends,” said Sonny, moving over to where Choco still had his rifle trained on the lifeless bodies in the clearing.
“X. You, Boomer and Bony check those guys out.” Choco reached for the radio. Extending the antennae, he depressed the transmitter. “Dugout, this is Hot Bat. Dugout, this is Hot Bat, over.” There was only static in response. “Dugout. Dugout. This is Hot Bat. Do you copy, over?” Again, his efforts were met with only static. “Must be this ridge blocking us out. We’ll have to hump around the north end and call ’em again.”
“Choc, listen, man. This could be some radical shit. Me and Sonny spotted what looks like a thousand guys just on the other side of that stream over there. And it looks like they’re gettin’ ready to do some serious humpin’ of their own.” Frank’s expressive face did not conceal his growing fear. The shafts of light faded from the clearing. A low rumbling like thunder rolled through. Sonny and Frank told Choco what they had seen from the ridge.
“Everybody over here. Now!” Choco’s voice did not quiver. The men quickly responded to his command as they had been trained. Even Boomer’s prejudice could not overcome the grudging respect he had for this young black man’s ability to lead. “Frank and Sonny spotted a whole shitload of those bastards on the other side of the stream we saw yesterday. They must have heard our little party for their buddies. I figure we got fifteen, maybe twenty minutes before they get here. We can’t make radio contact from here so we’ve got to move back around to the east side of this ridge. Fast. We’ll call for the choppers from there and let HQ know about the buildup. OK?”
Each marine searched the face of the man-boy who had just spoken. It was excited, but composed. He was their quarterback. They would run the play he called. But, their hearts were beating harder now. Only Bony spoke. “Right, man. Let’s go.”
Sonny had already reclaimed his pack. The others grabbed their gear, Frank picking up the radio. Normally, he did not like its extra weight, but now he wanted to stay close to Choco. Within moments they were crouched in the clearing, ready to move. “Sonny, take the point. Boomer, you’re the caboose. Let’s move out.” Choco’s voice remained steady. The trail to the west was still quiet as they hurried north from the clearing in single file. Choco and Frank followed Sonny. Behind them were Bony and X-Man. Doc was in front of Boomer. No one spoke. The sound of their boots pounding the earth and the dull rattle of their equipment against their bodies were all they heard.
Sometimes, they turned their heads to look into the shadows of the forest. Mostly, they watched the legs and feet of the man five yards in front of them. The trail was very narrow and there were many roots. Sonny got the worst of it, but the wait-a-minute vines grabbed at all of them. Their hooked thorns caught and tore open tiny strips of exposed flesh. They endured the scourging silently. But, each man hated the vines.
They pressed on up the trail, sweating and breathing heavily in the thick afternoon air. Their pace quickened imperceptibly. They were now almost running. Frank stumbled. Bony waited uneasily while Frank got to his feet.
“We’re in the shit now, boy,” Bony said, half laughing. Frank did not reply. He wanted very much to give the radio to Bony for a while, but did not. He drew a couple of deep breaths and continued up the trail.
They had been on the move for about an hour when Choco said, “Hold it, Sonny,” and turning back, “Frank.” Sonny went down on one knee. Frank moved to Choco’s side. Boomer turned around and listened hard for any sound of pursuit. They had come to a kind of summit. From here the trail began a rapid descent that would bring them to the north end of the ridge in 15-20 minutes. Choco wanted to try the radio again before they started down.
“Dugout, this is Hot Bat. Dugout, this is Hot Bat, over.”
“Dugout, this is Hot Bat. Dugout, this is Hot Bat. Do you copy, over?”
“Any station this net, please respond.”
“X, let’s try the other battery.” X-Man moved forward and took off his pack. He opened it and, after digging around for a moment, took out a plastic-wrapped package the size of a brick and handed it to Choco. He removed the old battery from the radio and replaced it with the new one. He tried transmitting again. There was still no response.
“OK, let’s move out. We’ll try again when we get around on the other side.” Choco’s voice took on a frustrated tone. No one could hear him whisper to himself, “damn!” as he motioned to Sonny to move forward.
As the men rose, Doc felt the first few drops of water on his face. By the time Boomer passed the spot where Sonny had knelt, it was raining hard. Sheets of water driven by the rising wind penetrated the protective canopy of trees. Within minutes their clothing was saturated and heavy. The trail became a slippery downhill undulation of water, earth and fern leaves. They fell often, suppressing many muffled yells, and were covered with mud and blood when they tumbled off the last steep decline onto level ground.
“Keep going!” Choco hollered first at Sonny and then, turning, to the men following him. Their legs churned furiously in the thickening mud which sucked at their boots. The land held them captive even as it drove them out. They plunged along almost blindly. They had stopped thinking about the Enemy now.
The sudden violence of the storm had compressed the range of their senses. They were well trained, so there was still external order. But, they were men, so there was also terror. Concealed well by another fear, the terror was still there. Inside, where they dared not look, they were tiny animals fleeing before the advance of a great consuming flame. “Keep going!”
They continued north until the trail widened and then gradually turned east. A copse of thick-trunked trees stood menacingly between them and the ridge. Impenetrable shadows waited within for their resurrection in the sunless afternoon.
Without warning, the rain subsided as quickly as it had begun. A light mist filled the air. Dense clouds ran on overhead as if swept along in an inexorable current. Rivulets of water cascaded from the upper reaches of the trees onto the broad lower leaves. The sound was like kindling tossed into a bonfire. The men slowed as they rounded the terminus of the ridge. Each one thought about the radio. Surely now they would get an answer when they called. The slicks would come. They would eat hot food and hear music before nightfall.
The trail turned sharply to the right as it passed a closely spaced row of the thick trees guarding the edge of the trail. Sonny had just passed the last of the trees when his ears exploded from a sudden volley of automatic weapons fire. He dove forward and to his left. Enemy bullets ripped branches and leaves from the small trees around him as he crawled away from the trail into the thicket seeking cover. Three seconds had passed. He turned and fired his rifle at the big trees on the other side of the trail. Chunks of bark and green wood flew into the air. He saw no one. Five seconds gone. Enemy fire continued to rake the trail. There was Boomer’s 60. Someone screamed. Ten seconds. Sonny put in a new clip and continued firing. Where was Boomer now? Why wasn’t Frank using the Bloop? Twenty seconds. The torrent of spitting explosions persisted for a moment more and then stopped. Sonny waited.
While Sonny was diving into the bush, a single Enemy round shattered Choco’s skull above the right temple. The impact lifted him off the ground and blew half his brain twenty feet into the woods. For him, there had not been time for his face to register even surprise.
Bony heard a sharp crack. For a moment he could smell the taco strips and ocean air at Huntington Beach. He opened his eyes and saw the mist hanging above the trail. It faded into the foam of a great long-breaking wave rolling endlessly to a shore he never reached.
Frank’s new corpse thrashed about convulsively in the mud for a few seconds and then was quiet. His hand came to rest on the radio which had been knocked from his back. It had been shot dead, too. Three seconds had passed.
Doc and Boomer were only a few feet apart when the gunfire erupted. Both were hit immediately. Boomer caught a slug in the right arm and almost dropped his weapon as he buckled to the ground. Doc took one in his left leg and was spun to his knees. Sensing the bursts came from the trees, they instinctively sought the protection of the far side of the trail. Few rounds followed them. The Enemy was focusing their attack on the four targets directly in front of them.
As Doc rolled off the trail he saw X-Man’s face for a brief instant. His mouth was opened as if to cry out. His eyes were wide with astonishment. Then a round hit the ground in front of Doc’s face, kicking mud into his eyes and he could see nothing. He continued crawling away from the terrible noise behind him.
Boomer stumbled off the trail, bellowing profanities. His eyes were squeezed shut momentarily and he struck his head on a branch. He dropped to the ground. He was clutching the 60 with only his left hand. It took him a couple of seconds to clear his head. He couldn’t see a target but he, too, began blasting bark from the wide trees on the other side of the trail.
His arm burned as he held the trigger down and emptied the ammo belt. Not until then did he notice the blood shooting from the wound in his arm. He howled in fearful rage and dropped his weapon. He thought that if he did not stop the flow of blood very quickly he would die. Several rounds ripped the branches above where he sat with his back against a tree. The tree shielded him as he twisted the tourniquet on just above his elbow. His pain was consuming.
Doc crawled some distance into the undergrowth and then turned. Raising his weapon, he returned the Enemy’s fire. At first he did not see a target. Then he saw the barrel of a weapon protruding from between two of the thick trees. He fired toward it and the weapon withdrew. He saw X-Man, motionless, on the trail directly in front of the same two trees. Doc waited, not taking his eyes off X-Man until he heard Boomer’s yell to his right. He was not far off. “Boom!” Doc tried to yell. “Boom!!” he repeated, but could not make himself heard above the clamor. He put in a fresh clip and edged toward where Boomer must be, keeping his eyes on the two trees.
The three Enemy snipers had been waiting since dawn. They were still recovering from the downpour when Sonny rounded the bend. Their place of concealment hid them from his view. At his approach they were instantly alert, weapons poised. Patiently they waited as first one, then two, three and finally all six of the other members of Hot Bat were in view. The leader signaled and they opened fire.
They were able to direct only a few rounds at those in the front and rear of the line. The trees that concealed them also partially obstructed their targets. But, for the four men directly in front of them, their aim was deadly. After twenty seconds their weapons became silent. There was no answering fire. Three of their prey were motionless on the trail. One lay next to the rifle he had been carrying, moving only his lips. His head was just inches from the base of one of the thick trees. The other three vermin had escaped into the bush.
After conversing heatedly with his comrades for a few moments, the leader opened his pack and removed an object the size of a transistor radio. It was a mine. One of the others inched his weapon out a short distance between the trees. There was no response. The third swiftly reached out and, grabbing X-Man by the collar, pulled him between the trees until only his feet were still in the trail. They looked at him and laughed derisively. The leader held the mine on the ground. The third soldier lowered X-Man’s back onto the mine. The leader set the pressure-sensitive detonator. His hand was bloody when he withdrew it. He put his mouth down close to X-Man’s ear. X-Man felt the heat in his rancid breath as the leader whispered, “You move, you die.” The three of them laughed again and disappeared quickly into the darkness of the grove.
Sonny waited for a few seconds more. Still no firing. Cautiously, he began moving through the trees to his right. He could see parts of the trail, but nothing was clear. Then he saw Choco. Sonny dropped his head and squeezed his eyes. He felt like crying, puking and screaming. He remained silent. He started moving again. He heard muffled voices, but still could not see clearly. When he saw Frank and Bony he did not react much. The shock of seeing Choco had dulled his capacity to feel. But, he remained mentally alert. `You are alive. Stay that way!’ he told himself.
`What was that’? He had seen movement near the trees. He paused. He saw a hand pulling the unresisting body of X-Man toward the trees. He did not know if he should cry out or remain silent. He said nothing and watched. `Laughter? About what? What are they doing to X?’ Sonny’s thoughts were colliding with themselves like derailed train cars. He fought back a tyrannous urge to shout “Stop!” or “Wait!” It was at this moment that he very nearly despaired. He took a deep breath and exhaled deliberately. Another, slowly in, slowly out. `There’s still Doc and Boomer’, he reminded himself. He continued moving.
He worked his way slowly through the tangle of roots, vines and branches, checking the trail after nearly every step. He reached a place where he could see back up the trail several yards. There were no bodies on it. His hopes soared when he saw several spent shell casings at his feet. He saw blotches of blood, too; but, no bodies. “Doc? Boomer?” the words were out of his mouth before he knew he was speaking. He was emboldened by the sound of his own voice. “Doc! Boomer!” he repeated insistently.
“Sonny! Over here!” Doc’s voice was not far off. Sonny felt weightless with relief. He quickened his pace, following very nearly the same path to Boomer that Doc had taken only moments before. This time he did not look at the trail.
Reaching Boomer’s tree, Sonny realized that both of his buddies had been hit. Doc was helping Boomer with his wound. Boomer grimaced, but the situation was already not as perilous as he had first imagined it to be. He would live. “You guys OK?”
“We’ll make it. You?” Doc spoke as he wrapped Boomer’s arm.
“I don’t think I’m hit. Choco and Frank…” Sonny paused for a moment as the image of Choco’s head returned, “Bony, too. I don’t think they made it, man. I saw X getting pulled into the trees. I don’t know, Doc. It looked pretty bad.” Sonny was scared, but speaking helped to slow his racing heart.
The initial shock of his injury was fading. Boomer picked up his weapon as Doc finished with his arm. “Did you see any of ’em go down?” he asked Sonny.
“No, Boom. The shooting started and I just hit the bush. I didn’t see shit until I started back your way. But, they looked bad, man. Half of Choc’s fucking head is gone.”
“Shit. What about the radio?”
“I don’t know, Boom. It’s on the trail next to Frank.”
Doc had started attending to his own wound. The bullet had passed through the fleshy part of his calf. It was not bleeding very much, but the pain was increasing. It felt like someone had hit him with a hammer. Sonny moved toward him. “Doc, you gonna be OK?”
“Yeah, it’s just a flesh wound. The slug went right through. I’ll be OK.”, and then, following a short pause, “What are we gonna do, Sonny?”
“We damn sure can’t stay here,” Boomer interjected. “Those guys from the river will be on our ass any time now.”
“We can’t just leave Choco and them lying in the mud,” Doc protested.
“We can’t stay here and have a fucking memorial service for ’em either, can we Doc.” Boomer’s voice was agitated.
“Easy, Boom. We’re not stayin’, but we can’t leave without checking X and the others.” Sonny spoke softly.
“How do we know those bastards aren’t just waiting behind those trees for us to do just that, Mr. Paulson?” Since Boomer was angry and scared, and since he couldn’t shoot anything at the moment, he was venting his growing frustration on Sonny.
“We don’t know, Boomer. But, we owe it to those guys to find out. Doc?”
“We gotta at least check ’em out, Boom. We gotta at least do that. Come on, Boom,” Doc spoke as if trying to get a small child to eat peas.
Boomer was still sitting with his back to the tree. He looked up and opened his mouth, his tongue stuck between his teeth and lower lip. Nodding his head slightly he said, “OK. OK, we’ll go check ’em out. Doc, take the left flank. Sonny, you take the middle. Me and Bertha will go right. Come on.”
The men fanned out a few yards from one another and made their way cautiously toward the trail. They paused often to listen for any sign that their movements were being observed. They were nearly to the trail when each stopped short. There had been a heavy groan from the thick trees. Each one had heard it. Boomer motioned to Doc and Sonny to remain where they were. He indicated to them with hand signals that he would circle around to the right. He made his way to the edge of the trail. He took a couple of quick breaths and darted across. He stood with his back against one of the trees. After two or three more short, quick breaths of air he swung to his left around the side of the tree with his M-60 leveled and ready. From this position he could see some distance down the back side of the line of trees. There was no sign of the Enemy.
After several seconds he moved back onto the trail and motioned Doc and Sonny forward. Boomer moved down the back of the line of trees toward the place where X-Man lie. The air was humid and oppressive. There was little light. He walked for the moment in a fog of invulnerability.
Sonny was the first to reach X-Man. He had been only ten yards from him when X-Man had groaned. Sonny saw that X was on his back, his legs perfectly still. X-Man’s head rolled slowly from side to side. There was blood on the ground around his waist. As Sonny approached him, X-Man uttered a heavy guttural, “No!”, and, when Sonny did not stop, “Stay back!!”
“X. What is it?”, Sonny’s voice rang with urgent compassion.
“Booby trap.” X breathed heavily. Boomer appeared from behind the trees near X-Man’s head.
“Hold it, Boom. Booby trap!” Sonny’s tone commanded obedience. The fog around Boomer disappeared. Looking back down at X-Man, Sonny said, “How, X?”
“Mine. Under my back. Can’t move,” X-Man’s words came in labored bursts. “Can’t feel my legs. Spine…,” his eyes closed and he was silent. Sonny and Boomer looked at each other, shaking their heads. Boomer whispered an almost inaudible, “Fuck.”
Doc came up carrying three ID tags and the dead men’s weapons. “They’re history and the radio is shot. How’s X?”
“It’s bad, Doc. He’s got a live mine under him. If we move him, it’ll blow.” Sonny’s voice assumed a journalistic coolness. Not quite matter-of-fact, but almost.
“So, what do we do?” Doc asked no one in particular. The impossibility of the situation was immediately evident to him. Doc was a soldier because he loved his country. He was a corpsman because he loved people. He was immobilized at the moment because he also loved rationality.
X-Man regained consciousness. He felt the pressure of the mine between his shoulder blades. He could not feel his legs because his spinal cord had been severed near the middle of his back. He had wanted to roll over minutes ago, but could not bring himself to do it. Maybe he did not have the strength. He didn’t know. He did know that he didn’t mind if his guts got blown out after he was dead. But, he damn sure didn’t want to be alive to see it happen. In this, he thought himself both brave and sensible. “Help me, you guys. Please.” Struggling for strength, he reached up with his right hand and removed his own ID tag. He held it up toward Sonny. “Please. You’ve got to. I’m gone already. Boomer? Please. Somebody do it.”
The three young men looked intently at one another. Each one now understood. X was dead, but he needed help dying. “This is crazy! We can’t be thinking about actually doing this. What the hell are we thinking about,” Doc was nearly overcome now with the insanity he perceived in the drama they were playing out.
Boomer’s face was rigid. He hated X-Man. He wished he were dead. But, the irony in his revulsion at the thought of shooting X-Man himself totally escaped Boomer. He was as confused by the situation as Doc. He clothed his confusion with the madness of hatred and said, “I told you guys we should have left before. But, no. You two had to check ’em out. Well, we checked ’em out, didn’t we. We really checked ’em out. And they’re all dead, aren’t they. We got four tags for four dead guys. Now let’s go. If that fuckin’ radio ain’t workin’ we got some serious humpin’ to do. Come on.” He gave one last look of disdain to X-Man, squeezing between Doc and Sonny on his way to the trail. When he saw the radio was useless, he kicked it and spewed out a stream of rabid profanities.
Sonny paid no attention to Boomer. He found it difficult to take his eyes off of X-Man’s muddy face. He bent down to him. He took a gauze bandage from its wrapper. Pouring some water from his canteen onto the bandage, he wiped X-Man’s forehead and eyes gently. For a moment, X-Man became a car and his face a windshield. Sonny had always liked cleaning windshields at his father’s service station. He got to really see the faces of the people inside the cars. X-Man didn’t speak, but he reached up and squeezed Sonny’s arm.
“No, Sonny. We can’t do this. We can’t!” Doc had become almost hysterical as he realized that the covenant between Sonny and X had been sealed.
“It’s OK, Doc. You don’t have to do anything. Go take care of Boomer. I’ll be there in a little bit.” Sonny was now kneeling at X-Man’s side.
“Sonny…”, but Doc couldn’t think of anything more to say.
“Doc, what else is there? It’s what he wants. And, Boomer’s right about one thing; we gotta get outta here and we gotta do it soon. Please, go.”
Doc tried one final time to dissuade Sonny. “The brass won’t like this, Sonny. They won’t buy it.”
“The brass aren’t here, Doc. We are.”
Doc shook his head, mumbling to himself, and went to find Boomer. Sonny turned again to look at X-Man. He held his face tenderly. “Tom, are you sure?”
Tom looked up at Sonny and nodded. “What about you? Will you be OK?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out. So long, Morton.”
“So long, Paulson. Kick some ass for me.”
“Will do, bro. Adios.” Sonny turned and bit his upper lip hard, fighting the tears that were filling his eyes and sliding down his cheek. He moved to the far side of the trail, shielding himself beside a tree. He raised his rifle. X-Man lifted his head. He was trying to smile. Sonny blinked hard, took aim and fired one round. The impact caused X-Man’s body to arch reflexively. Down the trail Doc and Boomer heard the explosion.
Major Crenshaw was speaking. The General was tapping his fingers together impatiently. The window was dark now. “…Private James Stephen Paulson, in the matter of the death of Corporal Thomas Xavier Morton on 23 June of this year, this court by unanimous consent finds you…”
But, Sonny was not there. He was back home standing on a dirt road with his arm around Jan. Combines crawled back and forth across ripe fields on both sides of the road. The rising wind whipped clouds of chaff into the darkening August evening. Heat lightning flashed dully behind the somber sky. Jan looked into his face with a smile of deep contentment. Over the rumble of approaching thunder, Sonny could hear the loaded grain trucks shifting gears as they pulled onto Highway 160 to make the short trip west to the co-op elevator in Ulysses.
“Daddy said he’s worried it might really rain hard before the wheat’s all in,” Jan almost purred.
Sonny looked up for a moment, turning his head slightly from side to side. “I don’t know, babe. It doesn’t really smell much like a hard rain to me. But, we’ll see.” He pulled Jan closer. One by one the combines turned on their headlights. They continued reaping long into the brooding night.