Late at night all kinds of things were crawling around out in the razor grass and mahogany trees. Cornell shifted the helmet back on his head, slung his rifle on his shoulder and continued to walk. A hundred yards, down and back. Down the red dirt road and back again. Up the road and down the road. Panama, man. All kinds of stuff living out here.
Cornell was as tired as tired gets. His feet ached from the hard mesh liners glued inside his boots that were meant to keep his feet dry. Water was supposed to drain out through little screened holes in the side, but the holes were clogged with shoe polish, and his feet had been wet for two weeks. Now they were soaked with dew from walking along the side of the road, and the itchy wool socks the army issued never dried out. The soles of his feet resembled soft cheese, spongy and white, with deep red cracks that would soon begin to bleed. He slapped at mosquitoes that whined in his ears. It was hard to see twenty more years of this.
Twenty years of guard duty, picking cigarette butts off the ground, going on hyped camping trips they called field exercises. Pretending rocks were landmines because the army couldn't afford real ones for training; stumbling blind and burning through red dust that had been sprinkled with powdered tear gas and having it billow up around his face to get sucked into the lungs. Walking guard duty in the middle of the night while the "enemy" stalked around in the dark and the mud, looking for him, maybe watching him. He forced himself not to stare into the wait-a-minute vines and tropical trees lining both sides of the road as he walked his post. It was too dark out to see, even though the sky was solid stars.
As if there was anything to guard, he thought, just a few trucks, tents and hand tools. His rifle held only blanks, and if he fired it he would have hours of cleanup once they got back from the field. The opposing force's attackers would just yell and throw teargas grenades into camp, and most of the men in his company would sleep through it, wherever they happened to be, even curled up fast asleep in rolls of concertina wire waiting to be loaded on the trucks. Still, it was frightening, shapes running in from the mist, the chugging of machine guns, the hiss of parachute flares before they popped overhead and lighted the camp with a hideous, shifting white glare.
"You never hear them coming," Captain Addle had said in the briefing about the opposing force in the wargame. "Choppers drop them in the jungle a mile away. They form up side by side within arm's reach of each other, and take one step every five seconds. Takes them three hours to cover that mile, but all of a sudden they're standing next to you, and there's not a thing you can do."
His friends who'd been in Panama a while told him Special Forces, the legendary Green Berets, played the role of the bad guys and captured guys like him for their prisoner of war camps, so they could practice interrogation and handling prisoners. You just disappear, they said, sometimes for weeks, gone as cleanly as if aliens had carried you up the ramp onto their motherfucking UFO.
"That's what I'm saying," Blango, his roommate, had said. "Bastards can't beat on other U.S. troops, so they devised some diabolical shit. Bury you neck-deep in wet sand, keep the water trickling over your head. Or they give you the chance to eat, but dump all the chow in a filthy trash can and mix it up with an oar. I'm talking about green beans, scrambled eggs, pears, ketchup and butterscotch pudding smeared together in the bottom of this filthy can, and maybe some white boy spits in it for good measure, and then you got to lick it out with your hands cuffed behind your back or you starve."
Blango knew somebody who'd been captured in one of these exercises. Beanies kept him awake for days, told him they were going to beat his ass, but this guy wouldn't crack. He was playing the hero, just for a game. Not that he knew anything; he was just a clerk like the rest of Cornell's company, and a big stupid six-cylinder-head motherfucker to boot. So the Green Berets got real nice and took him into a tent and told him to relax a while but left his hands strapped behind his back with a garbage-bag tie and said somebody would be with him in a minute.
"So my boy was sitting there and in walked this huge white motherfucker they call Brucie, pumped up like he just stepped out of Gold's Gym, stripped naked to the waist with his shaved chest shiny with baby oil. Brucie wasn't a young guy, you could tell he'd made rank, and he had a face like a non-com, not an officer. His head was bald, but he had a walrus mustache that hung down on either side of a wet red mouth. Brucie came up to Homes and unbuttoned the brother's shirt and played his big fatass white fingers over the brother's chest and belly, all across his nipples, man, and asked the same questions they'd been asking all along. And then his hand went south. Do you hear what I'm saying? They cracked the brother and got out of him where his company bivouacked that night, and the Beanies came and gassed everybody and kept them up all night with weird chants booming out from loudspeakers hidden in the jungle, and they stole a bunch of shit too and got them in trouble for letting it happen. My boy never knew any of this, because right after the field exercise they had to ship him home and put him in one of those vet's hospitals out in Fort Fiddlefuck, Kansas, up on the top floor where they keep the basket cases from World War II."
Cornell walked the length of his post on the dirt road, turned on the ball of his right foot, lost his balance and caught himself, and walked back.
Earlier in the day, six soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Special Forces Group, Panama, had cached their rucks and moved slowly through the bush, avoiding Cornell's camp. Petty, walking point, had no need for a map. All day the clerks' bivouac had been a circus of screaming power tools and dumptrucks grinding through the mud. As night came on, fires burned in the open and music drifted over the fields. Petty noted that people slouched around the mess tent like they were at Bible camp. Now, in the early morning darkness, the Special Forces circled at a safe distance inside the treeline and emerged 10 meters down the dirt road from the sentry. Dempsey got to play the role of the ghost, so he darted across the road and dropped flat. The weeds absorbed him completely. Lichner and Gilardi went out on flanks so the team couldn't be surprised by someone coming unexpectedly up the road, and the rest of them hunkered in the brush on the near side of the road.
Petty pressed the magazine release on his M-16 and slipped the magazine from the rifle, placed it quietly in his right pouch, fastened the top and began to clean the weapon. It had been 52 hours since he had slept or squared away his gear. He screwed together the three rods of the barrel cleaner, folded a cotton patch into a triangle, threaded it through the eye of the barrel rod, squeezed a few drops of oil on the cloth and rodded the barrel firmly.
Clean the weapon, he thought. Eat something, drink water, take a leak. Everything in pockets secure and won't rattle, button buttons, more camo on face and hands. Replace broken bootlace, check map one more time and memorize the route back.
No other exercises were planned for the rest of the year. Many in the battalion would fly home on leave for Christmas or New Year's, and Petty, with nowhere else to go, saw long slow days ahead full of pointless inspections and vehicle maintenance. He understood that he tended to get into trouble when things slowed down.
He sat up, stripped the bootlace from his right jungle boot, feeling vulnerable while he wasn't prepared to move, and replaced it with one in his pocket that he'd removed from his pack when the old one was so thin and fuzzy that it had snapped in his hand as he tied it. Laced up tightly, the new lace was too long, and he wrapped it twice around the top of his boot before tying it off in a square knot, then tucked it in the top of his boot and folded his athletic sock down twice to seal it off from dirt and to keep branches from snagging the lace and untying it as he ran.
Another hour and they would snatch the sentry. The clerks were lax, lazy, and Petty knew they ached to get back home, even though they'd bitch and moan once they got there. They were pogues and rooty-poots, and he despised them.
Petty poured water from his canteen into a pack of freeze-dried strawberries. He didn't care for strawberries, generally, but these tasted good once they rehydrated, sweet and mushy, like the ones on a McDonald's ice cream sundae. Survival was attitude and paying attention to the right things. He polished off a vacuum-packed bag of beans, stowed the empty bag in his pocket along with his plastic spoon, and drank more water.
When his gear was straight and tight, face repainted, a magazine back in his rifle, he rolled on his side, unbuttoned and pissed from a prone position, then covered it with leaves. He was ready. His eyes, he thought, would glow if someone shined a light on his face. He grinned and the fangs on his lower jaw scraped his lip. Nothing in the jungle was badder.
Petty stretched slowly to keep his muscles from cramping, and looked to his right where he knew Chief Boskin lay watching the clock and using a Starlight scope to keep an eye on the sentry. Next to him was the newbie right out of school who came from Engineers; Chief wanted him close to keep an eye on the newbie so he didn't fuck things up. "Help me out on this, Petty," Chief had said. "Let's teach this guy the right way."
Petty knew there was no way to fake it, you either learned and succeeded, or didn't learn well enough, and the jungle failed you from the course. His gear was now in order, shoelace replaced, camo applied, his belly full of fuel. He glanced at the topographical map, using a flashlight with a red lens. He was ready for anything. Any damn thing.
As pretty as diamond earrings nestled in a jeweller's case, the two live rounds waited in the extra magazine in his ammo pouch. He would get an Article 15 if somebody found he'd taken them from the range, maybe even be busted down again in rank. But the firing range had been a joke, just a dozen of them shooting wildly at a radio-controlled drone that flew up and down their line as they fired heedlessly past each other's faces. In the confusion and excitement, Petty pocketed two extra .223 rounds, intending to use them to plug a monkey or sloth later, maybe even shoot out a tire on one of those lumbering dumptrucks later if he could do it without getting caught.
Cornell walked and kept walking. The recruiters hadn't lied to him when they had said that the army, after basic training anyway, was a regular job. When his company was in garrison, Cornell rolled out of the rack at six-thirty, showered and pulled on a starched uniform and combat boots shined by a Panamanian. Formation in the parking lot was at seven-thirty, then breakfast: a three-egg omelette cooked to order, biscuits and gravy, coffee, milk. He typed up paperwork in the Brigade admin center at Fort Clayton, and was off exactly at five. Same deal, different days. He stayed in his room most nights, and sent his money home.
Twice this year he had packed his gear in an olive-drab duffel bag and rucksack, threw it in the back of a deuce-and-a-half truck with the rest of his company's stuff and went out to live in the jungle with the grunts and engineers. Field time was miserable anywhere, they said, but Panama was the worst.
Coming to the field here meant facing down a huge needle filled with cold, thick gamma globulin that left a hard lump under his skin that the medic told him to massage. Bruises didn't heal right in the field, and cuts festered, even the small painful ones like paper cuts from the long grass. Strange rashes appeared under his arms, around his neck where his collar rubbed him, on his back over the shoulder blades, and on his crotch.
Panama was supposed to have the deadliest pit viper in the world, and killer bees made nests on the ground that patrols could accidentally walk through. Bug juice and camo stick made his face bumpy, and then he couldn't shave and had to get an excuse from the medics so the platoon leader would keep off his back for looking untidy. And on top of all this, the army sent Green Beret goons to hunt him as a game. Twenty more years until retirement, if he stayed in. Mamaw wanted him to do what was right, and the army was a good, steady paycheck.
Cornell walked slowly down the road. Every five minutes or so he reached an end of his post, where there were other guards. Twenty minutes after the beginning of the shift, the sentry at one end of Cornell's post sat down with his back to a tree, put his head on his forearms and fell asleep; an hour after that the sentry at the motorpool disappeared and Cornell guessed he had crawled into a truck for a nap.
Cornell could have left the road and slept too, but he'd seen what happened to guys who fell asleep on watch in basic training. Cornell learned then he could sleep while standing propped against a wall or sitting on the edge of a truck fender; the sergeant of the guard woke him by hitting him on the top of his helmet with his ax handle.
Now he was so tired he felt as if he might pass out, and he thought maybe he should go sit down somewhere and just nap lightly, since he couldn't very well guard anything if he passed out, but just then something happened in the brush off to his left, more a whisper than a motion, and he was pulled back to his duty. Cornell stopped dead, frozen with his weapon slung uselessly on his shoulder. He breathed shallowly, straining to see clearly in the dark. A figure stood still a few feet away, just on the other side of one of the drainage ditches that paralleled the dirt road. Cornell's heart pounded. Should he yell? Verbally challenge the shape? Rush it? What would he do if he got there and the shape hadn't run away? The man must be using the slow-motion tactic his CO described; in fact he seemed not to move at all. Cornell looked back and forth to both sides of the man, remembering that if he wanted to see something in the dark, he couldn't look directly at it.
Together they stood as still and silent as statues, Cornell waiting for the other to say the first word. Could the Green Beret be so dumb that he thought Cornell didn't see him? Ten minutes later, they still stood there in the same positions. Cornell couldn't take it; mosquitoes had clustered in his ears and nose, and sweat was rolling in itching trails down his cheeks and forehead.
"Halt," he said softly, as he'd been taught, and swiped at his face. The shadow didn't move. "Who goes there?" He waited as long as he could, then again, "Who goes there?" louder, in a voice he was sure could have been heard all the way back in opposite directions to the other two sentries. He hoped they did hear, and would send someone to check on him, but he knew it was a slim chance, with the sarge asleep in his half-shelter, and both of the sentries asleep on duty. Damn it all. He would be ashamed if he fired his weapon to prove he'd "shot" an intruder, only to have the man run away and leave Cornell trying to explain to a hundred tired men that someone was really there.
He stepped forward slowly, craning forward and side-to-side in extreme slow motion. The man ahead of him didn't move. Cornell felt that if the figure shouted and charged suddenly, he might lose his mind.
It was only a sapling. Cornell stepped over the shallow ditch and shook the thing by one spindly branch. The trunk with the jutting branch looked like a man with his arm held out straight at shoulder level. I'll be damned, Cornell thought and stood on the wrong side of the ditch, feeling safer there than on the road where he could be seen by other things in the brush. It was hard to let go of the emotion.
"Ohh," a voice whispered at his heels. Cornell's spine tingled with such alarm that his legs were paralyzed and he couldn't jump away. He felt electrified, jolted by a current of fear. The voice was so soft he doubted the sanity of his mind, especially after facing down a tree.
"Help me," the voice said, still in a whisper, but plain and clear. Cornell leaped awkwardly over the ditch, web belt bunching up and canteen and canvas gas mask carrier slapping at his sides. His rifle's loose handguards and sling mounts clattered; his helmet slid over his eyes. Cornell dashed for the ditch on the other side of the dirt road and slid into it. He desperately wanted to run like hell, but fear rooted him to the floor of the wet ditch. Soldiers don't dump and run, he thought, and this gear, the heavy helmet, canvas, metal, his M-16A1 rifle, were there to keep him safe.
Cornell lay in the ditch with his head level to the road surface. Dew from the thick knots of grass soaked through his pants, and he shivered and caught his breath and tried to think. If only he had a radio, he could contact somebody. What would Captain Addle do? Shout for help? By the time it arrived, some bad guy could . . . Cornell didn't want to fight some Rambo asshole.
He stared in the direction of the sapling. No sound at all issued from the motor pool or the company area. A hundred men were within calling distance, but they wouldn't wake their tired asses up if a nuclear bomb went off. Cornell glanced to his right in the darkness and tried to measure if the ditch was deep enough to hide him if he crawled the length of it to safety.
A twig poked his side as he shifted his weight off his gas mask. He reached around to grab the stick and break it off, but his hand found nothing. He sat upright with his legs extended. A wall of green vegetation rose behind him, and Cornell wondered if he shouldn't play the Beanie's game and sneak off through the woods. Hell, he might scare a Beanie himself, or creep up on his own company in some way. He looked across the road. There was no sign of the man who had begged for help.
Jesus, the guy needed help. Cornell couldn't even be sure the voice was American. Maybe a Panamanian had been lying in the ditch for hours, hit by a military vehicle, or bitten by a fer-de-lance. Cornell realized he was playing their stupid games. Why play games if a man needed real help? The twig poked him again. He whirled in aggravation. It took a second or two for his eyes to adjust to the dark foliage after looking onto the lighter road; Cornell strained to focus on something, to judge a true shape. He saw leaves and branches and long vines; a face flashed in and out like an optical illusion and then reappeared. A man lay beside him with a square face smeared in greens and black, dirt rubbed on the low spots, eyebrows caked with mud and makeup and a green bandanna pulled tight over his skull in pirate fashion. The Beanie smiled. Before Cornell could scream, the man spoke.
"Don't make a noise, nig," the voice said in a whisper. "Else I'll cut you bad."
Cornell scrambled backward like a crab. The ditch wall prevented him from moving out onto the road. Hands grabbed at him from the tangle of green to his front, and before he could shout three Beanies leaped from the weeds and taped his mouth over with 100-mile-an-hour tape, wrapped it sloppily and completely around his head, over his eyes, around and around, layers deep, leaving only his nose open to the air. The men were heavy and bounced on his body, someone's full weight pressed on his right leg so hard he thought it would break, a knee pushed his neck into the dirt while they wrapped his wrists behind his back. Cornell struggled, but the tape held firmly, and the knee increased in weight until Cornell screamed in pain, a pitiful squeal through his nose that he could hear inside his head. He stopped screaming to suck in air through his nose. He breathed so hard he felt lightheaded. A burst of heat flashed through him, and he went limp, exhausted from the brief struggle. Someone punched his back over a kidney and he screamed again. "Stop it! Stop it!" he yelled, so muffled he doubted the men even understood. He wanted badly to tell them he'd cooperate, help them look good, join them, anything to be free. The knee on his neck slid across his face and mashed his nose. Two sets of arms jerked him to his feet, and when he stayed passive with his legs under him, someone slapped him on the side of the head.
"Stand up, fucker," a voice said softly. "Give me trouble and I'll slice your throat and leave you for the coatimundis to eat, I shit you not." Before Cornell could comply, he was hit in the stomach and bent double. His stomach heaved, and he feared he would vomit and choke to death. Nothing came up, but the ache made it nearly impossible to breathe.
Hands grabbed at his legs, arms, torso, it seemed like five or more men, but where could they have come from? They picked up Cornell the way kids did to each other on the playground in a game of "stretch," and started walking, heading off, he knew, into the jungle. The men didn't speak, and when Cornell swung into the side of a Black Palm and felt thick spines puncture and break off in his arm, he screamed again, but they only lifted him higher off the ground and moved faster.
They carried him for ten minutes or so then stopped and set him down. Cornell lay in the weeds on hard roots and rocks for a long time. Rumors made the Green Berets out to be supermen, ghosts, soldiers who had gone more native than the natives. They lived like packs of animals in the jungle where they ate, slept and patrolled. But the army wasn't going to let them seriously hurt another of its soldiers in a field exercise. They were on the same side. All Cornell had to remember was that their mind games didn't mean a thing. He couldn't hear anything and wondered if they'd left him as a joke. He stretched his legs as a test, and nothing happened. He pulled against the tape holding his wrists; that would be the first step to getting free. He jerked in alarm when fingers dug at the tape covering his ears. He heard cutting, like small scissors. With tugs that pulled his head up and slammed it back down, the Beanie uncovered Cornell's right ear.
"Lay right where you're at, boy," a southern voice said very softly. "Otherwise I might have to fuck you up. And you're too pretty for that." Cornell felt lips kiss his ear, and he winced.
"By the way, what's the doctor say?" the southerner said. Cornell lay still. "You best answer me, now. What's the doctor say?" Cornell shook his head. "Cough," the man said and slapped Cornell's testicles through his pants. Cornell howled with pain behind the tape. "Get it, boy? Cough!" The southerner laughed softly and pounded Cornell twice on the chest, like a man slaps his buddy for emphasis. Cornell heard him crawl away through leaves, but not far. Cornell took stock of where he was hurt. Neck, face, back, groin, arm. The palm spine punctures hurt worst.
Even as Petty had poked the kid with the twig, he had felt affection. He was helping to bring up the next wave. Doing his part to spread what it took to be a man in this world, passing on lessons that made better, more humble, people. He wouldn't hurt the kid, and fright never killed anybody. This was like the real thing but without bloodshed, and better the kid learned it from professionals like Petty and the Chief than from some Libyan.
The kid had put up a weak struggle, but Petty had him bound like a hog in a few seconds. The kid's face when he tuned in and saw Petty's face in the brush next to him was classic. God, Petty loved that feeling, seeing the little terror jerks come over somebody when they realized you were and had been next to them, where they thought there had been no one. His team had carried him off before anyone down the road knew the difference, and Petty fucked with the kid to make sure he knew he was involved and appreciated in the game. "What's the doctor say?" Petty had asked the kid, pulling that old shithouse joke. The kid moaned loudly through his gag, and Petty lay off. He didn't want Chief to hear.
Cornell found it hard to believe that the President, his commander-in-chief, knew everything going on down here, that the President of the United States tolerated this, knew about these things, as he stood on some grandstand with his wife and daughter, U.S. flags fluttering behind, senators and girl scouts, music by the Marine Band while the crowd in summer-dressy clothes sang along ("Be kind to your web-footed friends . . ."); the President was a good, decent white man who involved blacks in his election, and Mamaw had sent the candidate fifty dollars from her tiny stash in the back of her closet; the President of the United States, top leader of the most awesome military forces the world had ever known, but most importantly, a civilian, a regular man who was wiser and kinder in his leadership than the military would be, and showed them the limits of their power; this soft-spoken mid-southerner wouldn't condone a bunch of crazy asses running around in the dark like wild animals. Crazy bastards. Somebody would pay for this.
They grabbed his cuffs like handles and spirited him away. He hung in his uniform like in a hammock. There were three carries and three rests. He didn't hear the men speak again and there was no noise from their gear except the creak of canvas in their wet boots, which sounded like ropes on a sailboat. They panted as they swung along over slick hills and between the trees. Cornell didn't try to break free again. His right arm burned like fire where the palm needles had gone in above the elbow. Cornell shivered from early-morning chill and the wetness of the dew.
During the long forced-march with the kid, Petty's arms went from aching to numb. He and Gilardi relieved each other on the carry and together the team made good time. Petty daydreamed, looking for reasons to be glad the exercise was almost over. He'd get laid, get drunk, have a good meal. He liked that his Panamanian girlfriend couldn't speak English; he felt strong and sure around her. Many was the night he'd watched Gilardi slow-dance with her, the two of them grinding together on the small floor under the lightball at the club. The trick was not to get carried away, the way Gilardi did, falling in love with her and forgetting his place.
And if Gilardi was enough of a follower to break off his relationship just on Petty's comments, then he deserved to lose the girl. She was stronger than Gilardi anyway; she just wanted to be with somebody, and if he could take care of her all the better. Everybody tiptoeing around her race. So what? She was strong, not needy and clingy like the women in the States he'd hooked up with before he left for Panama. Jesus he couldn't stand it, the hurt and pleading coming up into their faces, the tears and pleas for attention.
Petty wanted a good time. At the club on Ft. Gulick, he would wade into a group of black soldiers, pushing in good-naturedly just for the daring of it, talking trash, "Shit, motherfucker, man, ya'll homies and brothers and shit. Sheeeiit, whassup, nigger?"
The blacks laughed and called him one crazy white motherfucker, and Petty felt he was immune to whatever they held against the other whites, maybe even held a position of honor. He was nuts, untouchable, but mingling in their closed society at the same time. Who else had the balls to pull it off?
Petty had gone to school with poor white trash, coal miners' kids, the kids of lawyers and doctors and factory workers. He thought of a map in his mind and placed his house among the niggers and wops and the one Jew family, the Vietnamese boat people and Catholics and WASPS who lived together in the shady town in the foothills of Tennessee. The kids found a way to get along, through sports and the like; the old women gossiped together in the front lawns; men bought and sold in town and at car dealerships springing up at the edges.
Petty remembered Aunt Bert, his Great-Aunt Bertha on his mother's mother's side, how she hitched up her skirt at her 90th birthday party and swung onto the back of Petty's bike, wearing Petty's leather half-helmet over her frail blue-white hair and cat-eye glasses. She yelled into his ear as he rode around the town square, relating the storyline from her a sitcom about a white family taking in a colored boy, she said, played by a midget much older than he appeared, who Aunt Bert called "my little nigger" with fondness. She—or Petty—was not one to talk unnecessary trash about "getting along." Call a spade a spade, Petty thought, but treat him like the man he made himself into.
When Petty had joined Special Forces he was still hyped on recruiters' literature, glossy pictures of soldiers skimming through a swamp in scuba gear, their black tanks and facemasks parting the sawgrass. Some of that romance got beat out of him over the years, and he wished they would do more covert work. Sometimes they humped for days up the isthmus, just so Dempsey could give a half-dozen kids in some village a shot and say their teeth were rotten. Hell yeah, they were rotten; send a chopper up there with a dentist. It was a waste. He and the rest of the team needed so little to do so much. He wanted it difficult, else what was the point?
Cornell had actually begun to fall asleep, though he had to hold his head off the ground as they carried him up and down the hills. He was set on the ground. A Beanie dug at the tape around his head with his fingernail, got an end loose enough to grab and started ripping it away. Cornell braced for the last turn. His eyelids stretched as the tape came off, and he feared his eyeballs would drop out of their sockets. Hair pulled from his head, eyebrows and eyelashes, and his lips were raw and sticky.
Tape with black hair stuck to it passed his face. A circle of six men stood around him in the dawn. They were filthy and wore uniforms rotting off their bodies. Their faces were painted, but the men's features were white. "You look like Joe Shit The Rag Man, son," one of them said.
"I got your son right here, motherfucker," Cornell said. The Green Berets, if that's what they were, laughed.
"You want to take it a little easy, boy, we might cut you loose, you can go eat some grits and watermelon and shit," the southerner said. He was a small man. He pulled the cap from his head. The camo makeup ended abruptly where the hat had covered his greasy blond hair.
"Belay that shit, Petty," the first man said to the southerner. Petty nodded and looked away. He spit snuff juice between his front teeth.
"Get on your feet, son," the first man said. Cornell lay still.
"Stand up, troop," the man said. Cornell lay staring at the red dirt under his nose. Fuck these guys and their bullshit games. He wanted to go home. "Persuade the young private," the man said, and one of the Beanies behind Cornell swiftly and fiercely kicked his ass with his combat boot, a football placekick that connected squarely with his tailbone. Cornell began to cry.
"Get up, you fucking pussy," one of them said. He took a handful of Cornell's hair and lifted him up. Cornell stood shivering in the circle of strange men. The man who spoke first came nearer. Cornell thought he might be an officer.
"This is your lucky day, hero." He pat-searched Cornell's jacket pockets. "You smoke?"
Cornell shook his head.
Cornell didn't understand.
"Snuff, curly. You got Skoal? Copenhagen?" Petty said.
Cornell shook his head.
"Fuckin' useless, boy."
"Son," the first man said, placing his hand on Cornell's shoulder, "you are in a unique position. Do you realize you have single-handedly captured an aggressor patrol of Special Forces warriors? We are America's best. Your unit has a lot to be thankful for."
"What for?" Cornell couldn't meet his eyes.
"This exercise is over. We've done what we came to do, and now we want to go home and fuck our dogs and kick our wives, and we can't get a ride home, according to the rules of this engagement, until we are compromised. You have compromised us, taken us prisoner, and now you will frog-march us into your company area and turn us over to your CO as prisoners of war. You'll be a hero, we'll go home, and in an hour or so we'll all be eating hot chow and washing the funk off our nasty asses."
Cornell shifted the weight off his right foot.
"So. Pick up your weapon, son. Give him his rifle. Lift it to my chest, and let's get it on. Now."
Cornell's arm and groin ached as he reached out to take the rifle from the smirking soldier they called Petty. Petty grinned at the kid in a friendly way. Cornell stepped one casual step toward him and booted him in the crotch with all his might. Petty went down without a sound and lay curled fetally in the mud, his eyes bugging whitely from his green face.
The other Beanies jumped Cornell and he fell under their weight. The first man pulled them away and hauled Cornell up by his shirt. "That was a stupid fucking deed, troop. I want you at attention. I am Chief Warrant Officer Bridges, Private. I want you at attention right now."
Cornell pulled himself slowly to position of attention. His rifle lay at his feet. He had to hold a laugh in. Oh man, he got that guy good. He hoped he wouldn't be court-martialed. What would Mamaw think? She didn't know how they were.
"Now let's start over, young private," the warrant officer said. "You are way out of line. We want to go home, you want to be out of the shit. Mutual advantage. Fuck with us, and we will fuck you up. Now pick up your rifle."
Cornell looked down at his filthy, worthless rifle lying in the mud. The men watched him, obviously ready to move in one way or another. The sun was up over the jungle, palms in the distance, and he could smell the salt and moisture from the Caribbean. These men had no honor, there was no telling what they wanted. For this game they beat him, could even kill him; and who would know the difference? Cornell turned to the officer and said, "No, sir."
"No sir what? Private, my order is for you to pick up that ragbag weapon, point it in our general direction and take us prisoner."
Cornell watched the faces of the men. Their expressions ranged from hostile to curious. "No, sir," he said. The Beanies looked at each other and laughed, and Cornell joined in, though he knew they were laughing meanly.
"In about one minute someone here is going to be a prisoner for the rest of this field exercise," the officer said. His green neck bulged with veins. "If we go with you, you get to kick back in that weakass girl scout camp for another few days and then go home. If we take you with us, you'll never go home. Do you want that? It's widely known we don't give a fuck. Gentlemen, do you give a rat's ass?"
The Beanies brayed and howled from deep in their chests. "Don't make me go home, Chief," one said. "I eat this shit up."
Cornell didn't buy it. These guys wanted something else, maybe to attack his fellow soldiers. They beat him and called him names. It was true: they were the enemy. He stared at the officer. None of the men wore rank insignia or unit patches. How did he even know if they were Americans? What did they call it when they stripped themselves of identity? Sanitized? The men stunk. Their forearm and neck muscles stood out under the greasepaint.
"Okay, sir, I get your point," Cornell said.
"Good. We will tie our bandannas around our eyes—loosely—and you will follow us into your camp. We will keep our weapons, but sling them on our backs. When your sentry challenges, tell him your password and hand us over to your CO."
Cornell watched the Beanies laugh and drape rags loosely over their eyes so they could still see to walk.
"Sir? There's one thing," Cornell said. The officer turned. "Ya'll are so pretty I was wondering if you'd bend over and let me drive you home." He laughed hysterically and turned to run for the treeline. He made at least twenty yards before he heard them move. "Ya'll the niggers," he yelled over his shoulder.
The kid bolted, and Petty stood up and raised his rifle in a rage. He began to squeeze off a blank round. At least the little shit might get hit with a wad of powder and paper. Gilardi yelled and moved partly into the shot. Petty held his breath and finished it, feeling what it was, in that act, not to know which magazine he had left in the rifle—live rounds or blanks? He stood frozen, with the whole cause and effect from start to finish in a flash of insight, as cartridge gases blew down the barrel. There was a shockwave in the still air, an inconsequential puff of smoke, and yet the possibility he'd been sloppy. He felt embarrassment in a great rush.
Cornell heard the shot and knew it meant he had won. Now he was just a target in a video game, something not worth chasing. The jungle could hide a black man as well as whites. He would circle and get back to camp sometime, it didn't matter when, and he thought he would take his own sweet time with it. He was on his own for the very first time, and it felt good.
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