by Ray McPadden
When the howitzer shells stopped, I did something I could never undo. I remember the day with brilliant clarity. The sun was two fingers right of Storm King Peak. The mountain was looking down on us, its summit horn towering over the surrounding peaks. I got to thinking it was angry-looking, as if still upset about the forest fire we had set on its shoulders. We were in camp, and by camp I mean a few GP medium tents ringed by razor wire ringed by a mess of rocky slopes. The squad boys were droning about, their steps made heavy by the tireless sun. Some said it was so hot the sand fleas got tired and quit the battlefield.
I was pulling guard inside bunker four on the camp perimeter. My battle buddy Robbins was with me. The chin strap on Robbins’ helmet dangled. His blond chin whiskers were the longest one could hope to get away with. He doodled with a stick on the bunker’s dirt floor. It took him a good ten minutes to sketch a pair of magnificent tits. I asked him if they were his mom’s. He spit tobacco on my boot.
We sat there for a time, watching heatshimmer off the slopes and spitting Redman out the slit in the bunker. We got to jawing about our surroundings. Our camp could be called remote, even lost. It sat in a bowl inside a mountain valley. Saw-tooth ridges rose sheer on three sides around us. The nearest road was a winding dirt track about 20 miles north. Out there in that battered camp, no one was looking. The black mountains were a canopy, of sorts, and one could get away with just about anything, and I’m talking anything.
My eyes were lost on the north face of Storm King when Robbins said, “So is it cool if I bang your ex when we get back?
I said, “Sure.”
Robbins said, “Seriously?”
“How ‘bout your sister? She’s been stalking me since the platoon barbeque.”
“You’re hung like a mouse – not her type, I’m thinking.”
Robbins tried to mount a counterattack. “You’re, you’re…” His comeback wasn’t coming. He spat and sat back. I chalked up the exchange as a win.
Moving on, he asked, “We playing Texas hold’em tonight?”
I said, “Squad tent after chow.”
“Is Sergeant Harris coming again?”
“Yep. Easiest mark I’ve ever seen.”
About 1700, the red star dipped behind the west wall of the valley. Inside the bunker, I pulled open my body armor and plucked at my shirt to let loose the heat. I switched on the thermal and checked the battery level. Damn thing was dead. The shitbags on duty last night hadn’t bothered to replace them. We were getting short and the squad boys were getting lazy.
I turned to Robbins. “Go get some batteries.”
Robbins glared at me. “Get ‘em yourself.”
I said, “You’re cute when you stand up for yourself. Go get the batteries.”
Robbins said, “I’m not your slave.”
Something in his tone sent me into a rage. I spat through my teeth. “I will fuck you up.” I guess it had been a long deployment, and today in the pounding heat, I wasn’t in the mood for his bullshit.
Just then bullets plunged in from the north ridge, then the west and east. RPG’s came in like comets. A train of 7.62 rounds zinged past. One bullet splintered the timber overhead. Without words, Robbins and I sprang to, with him scanning for targets while I readied the grenade launcher. I wheeled the barrel around, split the ridge and started rockin’ that frag thrower. Bump bump bump bump. My grenades touched up the west ridge, lagging just behind the sweep of the barrel. Bump bump bump bump. Robbins was minding the ammo belt, and when I ran out, he already had another belt in hand. Keeping his eyes on targets, he slapped the new belt across the feedtray. It was all automatic. We had ammo changes down to four seconds. No one could top it.
For a good 10 minutes, muzzle flashes sparkled all across the ridges. My grenades exploded white hot, kicking up mushrooms of dust. Then Howitzer shells whirled in from Blessing. The explosions jiggled my guts and felled trees and vaporized granite blocks. A couple salvos from the howitzers ended the attack. I let loose with one last burst of grenades, directly into a flock of goats, who had done nothing wrong, except being enemy goats.
We had an hour or so until the light died. The LT ordered a patrol to search for bodies. The squad scooped us up and out we went, passing silent through the razor wire. The western horizon turned copper. We raced across a patch of open ground and split into buddy teams. Robbins and I set off bashing through shrubs. All the while, Robbins was humming this Kelly Clarkson song, what’s it called…Since you’ve been gone. It’s fucking ridiculous, him singing that. And I let him know every time he sang it, but he kept on singing. I suppose it was his nerves.
We found the top of this gully. It was a rotten little thing that gashed all the way down to the mountain’s apron.
Pointing to a shelf a hundred feet below, Robbins says, “Could be some bodies down there.”
I said, “Mind the rocks,” and we got to it. Slowly, we down-climbed, leap frogging and such, looking for muj or blood or body parts. We were careful not to rain stones on each other. You get good with practice, so good you can tell a loose rock just by looking at it. The angle of the gully got steeper, almost vertical. My arms were shaking as I clung to anything and lowered myself from one hold to the next.
Robbins said, “Fuck it. What’s the point getting killed over a dead body.” He stopped right where he was and leaned into the rocks and sat breathing heavy.
He was right, but I kept going. I don’t know why. Something down there was calling me, or maybe just whispering. Robbins followed me. He always does.
Descending was tricky business. For another fify feet we went hand over hand, scrabbling and clawing. The rocks were letting loose and bouncing and gaining steam and cracking off other rocks and exploding into dust. We came to this little shelf, blackened by shells, and touched down with quivering legs. In front of me, there was a black slab with bands of white rock zigzagging about. The 155 shell had exposed a little crevice in the slab, about waist high.
Inside the crevice I saw this green stone the size of a soda can. I flashed my headlamp in the crevice and this stone shined back a brilliant green. It was translucent, and when I grabbed hold, I could clearly see the blisters on my dirty hand through the stone. Scribbled memories bubbled up just then. I recalled our springtime missions to the valley of emeralds, where mine tailings and old shafts pocked the slopes and the mujahedeen killed two of my friends with a recoilless rifle. And in the rocks where they died, there had been the feint green trace of emerald.
In front of me now, I knew it was an emerald. As for the size of it, well, it had to be worth millions. We both stood there looking dumb for what must have been a long time.
Robbins said, “You’ve gotta be shitting me,” and we both let loose. We jumped up and down, screaming inside our throats and grabbing each other and slapping each other’s backs so hard it stung. Then Robbins went into a fit of excitement. He started hitting himself, saying, “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck.” It looked like he’d start convulsing. His chest heaved up and down. He bounced around, and seemed to overwhelm himself, for he went quiet after a few moments and placed his hands on his knees. Once more, he spun in circles.
I said, “Let’s bag it.”
I gave the stone a tug. It didn’t budge. Right then, Robbins shoved me aside. There was strength in that push, strength I hadn’t felt before. There was violence in him, I guessed, something dark.
With edge in his voice, Robbins corrected me, “I’ll bag it.”
I grabbed hold of his shoulder and said, “Pipe down, buddy.”
He shrugged off my hand, saying, “Best I hold onto it.”
I said, “What’s up your ass?”
He pushed me away. “You’re not in charge.” He pointed at the emerald. “This here is outside the Army.”
I just about went nuclear. This little bastard, I’d brought him up as a trigger puller. I’d shown him how to survive, how to hit targets centermass when everything was chaos. We were best of friends, and here he was, silly motherfucker, getting lippy over something we could split.
I’d never had anything to be greedy about. In a way, I wasn’t prepared for the wave that rushed over me. I gave him a hard shove, punching his chest with the heels of my hands. He fell in a heap. His eyes flashed hate as he sprang to his feet.
I yelled, “I found it. We’d have quit if it was up to you. Now take a fuckin’ breather.”
“Tired of you saying what’s what.”
I thrust my chin into his face and said, “What’s what.”
That word hit me like a spear between the ribs. I wondered if he had seen what I did in the ambush above Balay, or if he was guessing.
I didn’t want an answer, but I said, “What do you mean?”
He was smiling now with what he knew. “I saw you hiding when Turner got shot. There’s a word for that – chickenshit.”
I launched a left hook and missed.
He rammed me with his shoulder. I sucked for lost air. We jostled back and forth, tilting and spinning and grunting. His hot breath brushed my face. A rock caught my heel and I went down with arms windmilling. I hit my head when I landed. Even with my helmet on, there was a rush of pain. I closed my eyes and saw starclusters and opened them. He had both hands on his piece. There was something wild in his eyes. He brought it to the low ready and fingered the trigger. I could hear the blood coursing in my head. Sorry way to go out, I thought. Robbins hesitated and lowered the gun. I regained my feet, swaying a little with dizziness. His eyes said he’d found himself again. His fury had passed.
Mine had not.
With one hard shove, I sent him over the edge and down the vertical gully. I don’t know if I knew he’d fall when I shoved him. Down he went, his eyes staying on mine. He was asking me why? I didn’t have an answer, not just then. He bounced off rocks and turned end over end and fell faster. When he hit a ledge at the bottom, there was a sick thud and little cracks and pings as rocks fell down after him. His gun lay at his side. His skull leaked red all over the black rocks.
For a while, I sat there thinking what to do. Panic screamed inside me. I sucked in a few breaths and the solution came. I pried out the emerald and ascended and told the others that Robbins had fallen accidentally. I marched back to camp with that emerald in my assault pack and no one the wiser. I could feel its weight among my grenades and extra mags and batteries. When we got in, the Cap’n called Robbins a terrain casualty. We took a litter out after dark and got his body and no one asked questions.
The tour was over 3 weeks later. I took that emerald home and buried it in my bedroom closet, not sure what I might bring on myself in revealing it. The first year back I tried to push it all from my mind. Some nights, I took the gem out and held it and saw Robbins falling down the gully. His eyes kept asking me why? I didn’t have an answer.
The second year back, I convinced myself it was self-defense.
The third year, I convinced myself it wasn’t me at all that had done it. The culprit was the war itself.
The fourth year, I remembered his mom lived in Cincinnati.
I flew to Cincinnati with a churning gut. I took a cab and sat with the emerald boxed in my lap for the half hour ride. I got out of the cab a block away from his mom’s house. She lived in an old one-story badly in need of paint. The stacks of closed steel mills cast long shadows on the house. I set the box on her porch and rang the doorbell and ran like hell. I was hiding in the bushes when she opened the door and took the box inside. Then I walked down the block, whistling Since you been gone, and got in the cab and left.