Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Chapter 11

“Damn woman, I can’t seem to shake you,” Jacob puffed through breaths, over his shoulder.

      “Oh, are you trying to lose me?” Stella called, digging her heels into the sides of her horse and squeezing her thighs. She caught up to the rump of the palomino mare ahead of her. “Maybe you’re not trying hard enough,” she called out.

      Jacob reined in his horse three quarters of the way across the meadow and turned to face Stella. Her reaction time was too slow. She over shot him and had to double back. “You know Jake,” she said as she approached him, “the Beatton is just as beautiful as the first time I saw it.” She took in the breeze coming off the water. “I think I could come here one hundred years from now and it would still take my breath away.”

      Jacob laughed, “Yeah, but one hundred years from now we’ll all be worm food.”

      She reached out and playfully slapped his arm. “Jake, you’re disgusting. Can’t you just enjoy a moment?”
      He guided his horse in near to her and leaned from the saddle, pressing his lips tightly to hers. There was nothing he took for granted in the kiss. It was dreams of that kiss that sustained his dying heart through a million miles of traversing swamp and jungle. It was one of the few things he really could still feel the warmth in.

      They pulled apart and exchanged a smile. “You know Jake, you’re such a sweet guy. How come you never found yourself a wife?”

      And the cold.

      He looked away from her. “Guess there just weren’t any takers.”

      “Maybe you were just blind,” she said.

      He moved the palomino on at a walk. “Yeah, and maybe there was that too.”

      “It’s not too late, you know,” she said following him.

      His posture straightened like an excited boy. “For us?”

      “Ah, Jake, I’ve spent my whole life doing what some man told me and being what he wanted. After the Colonel died, I swore I wasn’t going back to that again.”

      They turned up the road at the far end of the pasture and began the ascent up the river hills. “Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said with a forced deepness in his voice that was meant to keep it from cracking.

      “What about Charlie,” Stella asked, “I’ve seen how she fawns over you.”

      Jacob waved a hand dismissively, “Gypsy? She’s just a kid.”

      “And so was I when I took up with the Colonel.”

      Jacob reached up and snapped a twig off of a tree that hung over the road. She’s not the settling kind. She’s going to spend her whole life running around looking for herself, and she’ll never find what she’s looking for, because she’d have to stay in one place for that. And then one day, if she lives to be old enough, she’ll realize she never really wanted to find herself in the first place.” He sent the dry branch sailing into the bush.

      “Like you? You don’t know she doesn’t want to settle down now and find herself. Love can change a lot in a person. Go ahead, take a chance.”

      “Is this your way of saying we’re over?” He reined his horse to a stop.

      Stella paused beside him. “No Jake, this is my way of saying, don’t hold yourself back on my account. We are what we are. Sometimes we are, and sometimes we aren’t. It’s nothing to set your watch by. I just want you to be happy. She brings out something in you. I’ve known you most of my life. I see it. I know.”

      “If you want me to be happy then stay here with me.” He moved the palomino on again, staring straight ahead at the road.

      “It’s not you. I just love my freedom too much.” She sat unmoving in the saddle, watching the gap grow between them. “I’m worried about you Jacob Barnes.” She raised her voice after him. “I saw your door.”

      “So what of it?” he shouted without looking back.

      “Love heals everything.”

      “What do you know about love that doesn’t have zeros after it?”

      “Fuck you, Jake. I don’t want love the way you want it, so I can’t know anything about it?”

      Jacob drew his horse to a stop again. The silence grew long between them. They’d both gone too far, and just as they knew the argument rising between them was something they ultimately would get through, they also knew if they kept hurling stones at each other’s vulnerable parts, it was going to take them some place that would be hard to come back from. They’d done that journey too many times to kid themselves, or allow themselves the luxury of a passionate fight.

      A crack shattered the air and echoed through the coulee.

      Jacob slid his right hand to the bit and yanked his arm outward and up, tipping the palomino’s head. She dropped to her side, as he swung his legs from the saddle. He was on her neck, his Colt .45 drawn, before the echoes faded.

      “Jake, Christ! What’re you doing?” Stella screamed. “It’s hunters, Jake. Jake! It’s just hunters.”

      His eyes were steel hard. Her voice faded somewhere in the air between her lips and his ears. His breaths had been heavy and erratic when he hit the ground, but had now slowed to a marksman’s rate. A leaf fluttered to the ground in front of him, and for a moment, his right hand tensed, as though it was going to squeeze the trigger.

      “Jake! Jake!” Stella shouted, backing her horse even further away from him. “Jake!”

      His own traumas had left him with a theatre of horror movies rolling in his own mind. Now the reel was flashing images he couldn’t shut off. Gypsy, slammed against the wall gasping for breath, before her blue eyes gave themselves to him. A shiver ran up his spine and he shook his head to free himself of it.


      He moved off the mare’s neck, allowing her to rise, and turned to Stella. He had nothing to say. He holstered the hand gun and remounted.

      Stella was shaking, barely able to hold the reins in her manicured hands. He saw it and still he offered no apology. If she’d made different choices, he wouldn’t be like this. They’d have grandchildren by now. “See, this is what I’m saying. It’s getting worse again and I’m worried about you.”

      “See, you want me to bring a kid into this world of mine? Are you fucking serious?”

They made their way back to the farmyard at a silent walk. When they reached the barn, he began instructing her like she was some sort of greenhorn.

      “What’s up your ass?” she asked.

      “Damn it Stella, just get out of my fucking sight. Dismount and get very far away from me.” It crossed his mind that he might snap her neck and it scared him. He didn’t trust himself. When he got like this, he would do just about anything for solitude. He didn’t understand it. He loved her, but right now he needed her to be very far from him.

      “Talk to me Jake, what’s going on?”

      “I don’t want to talk. I want you to get the hell out of my face.”

      “Did I do something wrong?”

      “No,” he said, “I just need to be alone right now. It’s not you. Just please, go.”

      “Are you mad because I brought up Charlie?”

      “Fuck you,” he spat between his teeth. “Don’t you see me?”

      She knew what was happening. She’d found him again by some crazy stroke of fate years ago when she was volunteering in a veteran’s hospital. Not even close to the boy she’d left behind only a few years before. And somewhere through the distance of then and now most of that had faded away. Or if it hadn’t, she rarely saw it anymore. But she knew these cues. It had nothing to do with what she said. It was the gunshot. That was all. “Can I trust you not to harm yourself? You can promise me that, can’t you?”

      “Stella, if I had the guts to kill myself, I would have done it a long time ago.”

      “You tried, remember? Just promise me that—“

      “Here’s the keys,” he said fishing them from his pocket and throwing them at her, “now please, go the fuck away.”

      She knew it was the pain talking, but that didn’t stop the tears from forming. “Fine. I’ll be across the river at Beauregard’s if you need me.” She waited for her words to sting.

      Though he’d never raised a hand to Stella, Jacob tensed to keep himself from slapping her now.

      It was a relief when he finally heard the truck start up. He turned the horses out into the back corral and went up to the house. He locked his gun in a safe and grabbed a bottle of Wiser’s and a jar of tranquilizers from the cupboard. Then he retreated into the cave of his room. From habit he reached to latch the door. “Fuck,” he said looking at it mangled and dangling. “Whatever.” He stuck a blank tape in the cassette recorder. There weren’t second chances. You got one. If fate slipped through your hands, that was it. He was too old and too fucked up to believe in anything else. He popped a few of the tranquilizers in his mouth and washed them down with the Wiser’s. Everything was too late now. He reached for his guitar and hit record.

      As the notes ascended from his fingers, green bodies rose from out of the jungle foliage like fog from a river. He played harder, faster, more intricate notes. He had to put them back to sleep, but the lieutenant waved them on. The air was calm, too calm. Absent of noise. He slid his fingers up and down the neck. But the music was fading from his own ears. A nervous sweat ran down Jake’s chafed ass crack. Silence wasn’t golden in this shit hole. When the world went quiet, it was a sign that phantoms lurked out there somewhere—the boogiemen they called Charlie.

      The point man moved his hand in a motion, as if he were patting a dog. The gesture rippled through the formation and the men sank their bodies back into the earth, one by one. The platoon sergeant tapped his head several times and the soldiers scurried to his position. “Cowboy, you and Johnson go scout the far side of that river.” Jake nodded and rose with his rifle at the ready.

      Through the dense brush, Jake could see a slow and lazy river. The water was warm and murky. He closed his eyes and dug deep for strength. It didn’t make sense for a grown man to be so scared of leeches, but ever since his uncle had thrown him in the slough when he was seven... He could still remember his uncle’s laughing face as he had tried to claw his way up the crumbling bank, terrified the life was being sucked out of him right then and there. It took a moment before Jake could step in with his other foot, knowing that those fat black fuckers were in there. It never got easier, and they were the least of his worries.

      His boots were laced tight, and still the water seeped in through the tops of them. He felt as though his legs were two trolling hunks of bait. He needed to put it out of his mind, because Charlie was out there just waiting to take a bead on his ass and end him for good in that river. The water floated up into his olive drab tunic and it billowed out. His skin tingled with vulnerability. With his rifle above his head, he scanned the shore. The leeches were latching on to him, draining the humanity from him. Or maybe humanity was just a dream and it was the shit stinking truth that these leeches were pulling out of him.

      His foot came out of the water and pressed into the soft shore. Then the mouth of the jungle swallowed him again.

      He swept the ground with a wet boot. First the edge, then the toes, the ball, the heel. He did so holding his rifle in one hand and prying at the leeches with the other. The eerie silence followed him into the bush. He cut in an arc to the left and Johnson to the right, until they met back up some distance in. Jake nodded to his buddy, and headed in a straight line toward the river, leaving Johnson in his position.

      He broke through the trees and waved his arm in a large swoop, before stepping back under cover and hunkering down. A machine gunner and his AG ran from the jungle and set up in a position of support.

      The first soldier set out across the murky river, and the rest followed at intervals, strung out like ducks. One of them, a kid from Illinois who was the son of a butcher, flashed a look of panic in Jake’s direction. Jake could make out the tension in his face, and averted his eyes. That sort of thing was contagious.

      A shot split the silence and the tensed eyes went dead. The kid from Illinois slumped into the dark ominous water.

      Zapazazapazazap... zazap.

      It was an explosion of sound. They were under fire! Jacob cowered back under the cover of the jungle. Bullets danced across the river like angry hornets smoked out of their nests. The Sergeant shouted something, and then...

      Everything was silent, like a silent movie, but a different silence than before that first shot. It was an asphyxiating silence.

      The film skipped. There were pieces missing. But the climax—it was in clear focus. The details between changed so often over the year, but the climax was always clear. It was strange the way an experience like that could fill your whole body, even when viewed with the volume turned off.

      He didn’t remember making the call for artillery. He knew it was he who made it, because when the reel stopped skipping, he had the mic in his hand. And that’s where real time began again. Sometime after the call was made. There was the skipping, and then the sharp images of men tearing off their clothes, trying to wash their bodies, as the life drained from them. They picked and rubbed frantically at their stinging flesh, only to further spread the infestation. Those who had reached the bank ran back to the water, hoping to wash away the flaming gobs of tissue burning leeches, known as white phosphorous. The stinking water wasn’t going to stop that shit from burning. A baptism of fire— that’s what had run through Jakes mind. This scene would be called A Baptism of Fire.

      The kid from Illinois floated and bobbed between the smouldering half-corpses like a discarded prop. Looking back on the scene, Jacob wished he could have played the part of the kid from Illinois. That was the lucky role, he thought, as he washed down a few more diazepam with a swig of Wiser’s. But he was the director. He was sure he’d called this shot to be done differently. Not white phosphorous. Why was it that? He knew the most logical reason it fell short was because someone made a mistake in the round they loaded. Not him. Not the coordinates he called. But without being able to see the radio scene, he couldn’t know for sure. He couldn’t erase the doubt from his mind.

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