Short fiction by Rod Nordland
The trail was steep and exposed but smooth and well packed and, now that they were just beyond the limit of the hemlock forest, Hiram Walker marvelled at how nakedly it followed the curve of the mountain. A few twisted ponderosa pines decorated the path, and granite boulders heaved partly above the soil and scree, like small whales with mottled humps trying to crest the surface. The whole Troop 512 was on this hike, twelve of them including Mr Brown, the scoutmaster, and his son Alan. The Browns had only recently moved from out East and they were Quakers, which struck him as vaguely suspicious. He wasn’t really sure what a Quaker was, though both father and son had pink complexions and smooth soft skin and were just a little plump and for years he would associate those physical traits with that religion although he realized even back then how foolish that was.
Hiram was glad that they were high on the mountain and that it was hard going in the thinner air, because the boys had mostly stopped talking as they huffed their way up and that was a relief. Yesterday he had gotten his hair cut. He let the barber take more and more off, watching with dread but unable to object, while he kept persuading himself it wasn’t really that much and he had told the barber not too short but then afterwards when he stood up somehow that brought his image in all the mirrors into sharper focus and he was horrified. That night he barely slept, sitting up worrying that the next day they would be on the hike and he might run into girls.
He was at that age when he thought of little else even though he actually had little experience to inform his thinking. The last time the 512th went on a hike there had been a group of girls on the trail, and they made a camp together, and now there was always the possibility such a situation could occur again. But that had been back in the Valley; on this wilderness hike they hadn’t run into anyone, let alone females. He wondered if his hair might grow out a bit by the end of the five days. He would forget about it for a while but then they would crest a rise and he’d imagine they would somehow run into a group of girls down below and he could think of little else, even though he knew how silly such thinking was but that made it even worse.
They reached the wilderness campground at Muir Ridge well before nightfall after a long day’s climb, whooping with pleasure and invigorated by the crisp mountain air scented with hemlock. No one else was there except two old men with two walking sticks each. One walking stick, as a fashion accessory, Hiram understood; two made no sense at all, especially in a campground.
Hiram unshouldered his pack as Mr Brown lay down the bear rules for a wilderness camp in the high Sierra. He seemed to know what he was talking about. No open packets of food in their tents or even their pockets. Garbage they would carry out after bagging and binning it; overnight, all their food and waste went into bear lockers at the campsite. If bears came into the campsite at night they were to shout out but stay in their tents; Mr Brown would handle it.
Hiram was sceptical. The thought of Mr Brown facing down a bear just seemed comical. He didn’t have a gun – Hiram was pretty sure that Quakers weren’t allowed to have guns because they were pacifists – so what was he going to do?
“My dad can handle bears,” Alan had said. “I’ve seen him do it.” Like the other boys, Hiram scoffed, but hoped he was right. He found it hard to warm to Alan. For one thing he had too many merit badges (Genealogy? Please.) He was nearly an Eagle Scout, at age 15.
Long after midnight a black bear came foraging through their camp, and the boys were all soon awake listening to it scraping its long claws on the bear-proof locker, trying to slash it open. Something must have spilled on the outside that attracted it.
“Mr Brown,” they called out in stage whispers.
“Stay in your tents, it’ll be fine,” he said in a normal tone. But when the bear began pawing at one of the boys’ tents, standing on its hind legs, and the boys screamed, Mr Brown popped out of his own tent fully dressed down to his shoes, brandishing two stainless steel cook pots that he banged together repeatedly. The tinny noise startled the bear and then Mr Brown began shouting; the bear looked back at him over its shoulder and returned to all fours and slouched away. “It’s okay now,” Mr Brown called out, and then ducked in the tent that had been the object of the bear’s intentions, confiscating the food the boys had been hiding inside. Chastened, the boys crowded into Mr Brown’s tent for the rest of the night.
In the morning the troop resumed the hike and Hiram was the only one of them who wasn’t talking incessantly about the bear encounter. “We need to make up time, boys,” Mr Brown said. “It’s a long way to the next camp and we’re late starting.” Hiram paid little attention, still obsessing about the possibility of girls on the trail. Alan fell in with him and Hiram asked him if they might run into that group from last year.
“Why, afraid they’ll see your haircut?”
Hiram had no idea where that insight came from; he had only once spent time alone with Alan. They had played chess, which Alan won at with infuriating ease.
“You’re making fun of me.”
“No I’m not.”
Hiram shoved him. “You are.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Hiram shoved him again. “Put your hands up so I can punch you in the face.”
Alan had been backing away from him with each shove. “I don’t fight.”
“Pacifist is just another word for coward, put up your hands.”
Hiram hit him in the face and at almost that same moment saw in the corner of his eye that Mr Brown was watching them from a ways off, down the slope with the tail of their little troop. The scoutmaster made no immediate move. Alan just stood his ground after the blow, and folded his arms across his chest. “I hope that made you feel better.”
After a while Mr Brown walked up to the boys and to Hiram’s astonishment put his arm around Hiram’s shoulder and gave him a little sideways hug.
“I’m proud of you Hiram. You stopped because you understood that what you did was wrong. That’s what really matters,” Mr Brown said.
Then Mr Brown did the same with Alan; the bruise on his son’s right cheek was crimson. “You did the brave thing, son. I’m proud of you too.” He made them shake hands. Hiram was glad he wasn’t Alan just then. “Now let’s all get going, we have to reach camp by night,” Mr Brown said.
Perhaps it was the sparse eucalyptus trees that reminded Hiram of that incident, 15 years later; they were the only trees he recognized in this other land; their strong aroma was comfortably familiar. They had moved above the tree line such as it was and even the brush was sparse up there; little would grow in that scree. The earth had turned a golden brown, a colour that didn’t seem real. They trudged, heavily laden, in single file along the rocky path.
“Walker, what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home?” Murphy said.
“Forget I ever came to this place,” Hiram said.
“Me, I’m getting laid,” Murphy said. “You can’t even look at the girls around here.” Murphy had become his best buddy; they knew everything about one another’s families, even though they had never met them.
“What girls? Girls are rare as trees around here. I haven’t even seen a burqa.” They were both master sergeants in a special operations unit, and wore their hair and beards long like the rest of the men with them.
Just then they heard the swish as a round cut through the air above their heads and a moment later came the crack of gunfire. The near simultaneity worried Hiram because it meant the shooter was nearby; high velocity rounds travel far faster than the sound of their discharge. Hiram Walker was their team leader, but he issued no order to take cover; he could see that the men, all experienced operators, had already done so. Murphy wordlessly took his fire team and worked at an angle up and across the slope above them; the shooter probably had the high ground and they meant to get above him.
The cloud cover was so low that there were no drones up; they were on their own. It was August and the intense heat lowered the operating range for helicopters, and they were above that elevation now, which meant neither close air support nor medevac could reach them. The gunshots stopped and the men resumed their march. Hiram sent Murphy’s team higher up the slopes on goat trails that paralleled his own team on the main path. The shots had come singly, carefully spaced, so probably from a single shooter. Combat Outpost Jackson was a tense two hours away in the Korengal Valley, but they would soon descend enough to reach the comfort of air cover.
These mountains were nothing like the Sierras of Hiram’s youth, where the trees were thick everywhere and so tall they seemed like sentinels of the gods, and they were green and moist and full of strong smells that would stay with Hiram for many years: eucalyptus, balsam fir, pine needle mulch and hemlock. Until Afghanistan he hadn’t really appreciated that even high mountains could be deserts. Here and there were patches of forest, reminders of what he had read once, that Alexander the Great’s chroniclers talked of this being a heavily wooded land, but it was later shorn by centuries of deforestation that eroded the country into its present barrenness. Even now those few trees that remained, not on the upper slopes but down in valleys like the Korengal, were in mortal peril, since wood remained the locals’ only fuel for cooking and heating; he marvelled that they ever managed to find enough of it.
Another shot sang out from high up on the ridge and Murphy was hit. Hiram heard it on the tac radio and ran up to join the other team; this time they had swiftly spotted the shooter and shot him. Murphy’s leg was shattered; a lot of bone and muscle was missing. He would live, but would probably never walk right again. Not like in the movies, Hiram thought, not for the first time. The men rigged a stretcher for Murphy and the medic dosed him with morphine; Hiram cringed to hear his friend crying from the pain. The medic tended to the Talib too; he was shot in three places, including the gut, but the medic thought he would live. No one wanted to carry him, though; Murphy was popular with the men.
“We bring him,” Hiram Walker said in a tone that forbade dissent. “Intel will want him, and he’ll talk.” He poked the prisoner in the abdomen, provoking a scream. “Yeah, he’ll talk. Rig a drag stretcher.” The Talib was lashed to a stretcher, with one end dragging the ground, easier for the men who lugged him, rough on the patient. Four men carried Murphy on a real stretcher. By mid-afternoon the patrol were all back in COP Jackson, but the weather was bad and medevac wasn’t available until morning.
At the combat outpost the Talib, whose name was Ahmed Walid, talked all right. Dosed for the pain and handcuffed to a metal bed, he talked out of gratitude, he talked like his life was at stake, he talked like he thought as long as he was still talking he was alive. The interrogators scarcely even needed to probe his wounds. Ahmed Walid named the shadow governor of the district and the guys in the village, near the COP, who were theirs and he named the policemen they had infiltrated into the police station; the SOF guys would be kicking down a lot of doors in the nights to come. It was a new COP and the Taliban plan, the prisoner told them, was to wait a couple more weeks until the Americans felt comfortable there, and then when the moon was new ambush them in the dark of the night and overrun the place. They could summon a hundred, maybe two hundred men; the U.S. Army contingent there was 50 guys, most of them not SOF, so mostly useless. The terps reckoned Ahmed Walid was telling the truth.
“You should leave before they come,” Ahmed Walid confided to them. The terps looked nervous.
“Well, I knew we were in Indian country, but I didn’t know we were staying on the fucking res,” one of the interrogators said. His name was Rogers and he was also a sergeant; most of the operators were sergeants of one stripe or other. “Fuck these people.”
That night they doubled the guard and those not on sentry duty sacked down uneasily. There were two kinds of soldiers: those who slept with their boots on when trouble threatened, and those who thought that the comfort of shoeless sleep was worth the extra risk if something happened fast. Hiram kept his boots on so he was on his feet and outside in moments when the attack came late that night, when the moon was full and high and the Taliban could see who they were shooting – Ahmed Walid had lied with the truth. Hiram silently cursed the military genius who had sited this COP at the bottom of a valley; the village was on the slopes above it, everything was above it. Heavy weapons fire was pouring down on the COP from all sides, even from the local Afghan police station. Sgt Rogers had stopped to pull his boots on and when he stepped outside the hooch he was shot in the face. The Taliban were all over the COP, inside the wire, the firing heavy and non-stop.
Amid the shouting and confusion and everyone firing at everyone else, Hiram and a few of the others retreated to the safety of the TOC, the headquarters, in a sandbagged container, where the little infirmary was too. Those who didn’t make it to the TOC were on their own and were quickly shot down by marauders inside the wire, or sometimes by their own guys retreating. Shouts of Allahu Akbar mingled with goddamn, fuck, motherfucker and random screams. In desperation the American commander called in airstrikes to beat back further attacks on the TOC; after it was over only ten Americans were left who weren’t dead or wounded, many grievously. It was hard to tell how many of the casualties were friendly fire and how many hostile, but after the airstrikes not much moved inside the perimeter wire.
Afterwards Hiram, unhurt, checked on Walker, who was so dosed on morphine that he had fallen heavily asleep. A bone protruded from his leg, splinted in place. In the very next bed was Ahmed Walid, and this time Hiram needed no terp to translate for him. Ahmed Walid’s look said it all: that he had had the last word, that he hadn’t betrayed his side, that the Taliban were better than them, that he was better than him. Hiram unholstered his sidearm and pointed it at Ahmed Walid’s head, but the Talib grinned back at him, expecting that too. Of course his abjectness under questioning had been all pose. And of course it made no sense for the Taliban to attack on a moonless night; the Americans were the ones with night vision gear. The full moon was on the enemy’s side.
“You are so dead you lying piece of shit,” Hiram said, and pulled the slide back on his weapon to chamber a round.
“You are the dead man,” the prisoner croaked back at him, mockingly. The English was a surprise.
The prisoner’s eyes locked on Hiram’s with an unabashed look that reminded him of Alan, back on Muir Ridge, after he hit him. Hiram had dropped his hands after that punch and hadn’t known what to do next. He had just stood there his arms at his sides for what had seemed like forever, staring into Alan’s eyes. They had said nothing more to one another. The smells of the forest that day, of pine and eucalyptus and wild sage, had stayed with Hiram over the years and when the memory of that aroma came back to him even amid the cordite stench of the Korengal, he felt a short sharp pang of shame just before he pulled the trigger.