by Gary Inbinder
Sergeant Joe Wheeler crept stealthily through the tall, dry grass. It was August; a fiery orange sun blazed in a cloudless, cerulean sky. Overhead, a noisy flock of crows cawed, circled the plain, and then flew southward toward the cane-break bordering the tiny village. With the crows’ departure, the only sounds were the incessant chirping and buzzing of myriad insects, and the swooshing, southerly wind stirring the blanched meadow.
Joe peered above the shielding grass-blades, reached down with his right hand, opened a shabby leather case hanging from a frayed shoulder strap, and took out his binoculars. Wiping his sweaty forehead on his tattered, soiled khaki sleeve, he lifted the glasses to his eyes; scanning the perimeter, he could see no trace of humanity. He also noticed no telltale signs of violence or destruction.
‘That’s odd,’ Joe thought. ‘If the Loyalists or the Rebels had been through here, there’d be unburied bodies, hungry scavengers, burned buildings, and the stench of death in the wind.’ The village seemed abandoned, yet it also appeared untouched by the depredations of civil war. Experience and his gut told him there was something dubious about the apparent tranquility.
Joe crouched out of sight, put away his binoculars and checked his blaster. Enough charge remained for three shots at close range. His only other weapons were his twelve-inch hunting knife and his skillful fists and feet backed by years of military training, cunning and a will to survive.
Suddenly, a small blue-green iridescent-skinned snake slithered by his face. With swift reflexes Joe grasped the snake’s tail, whipped out his knife, and decapitated the struggling creature. He quickly skinned the still wriggling serpent, and then greedily devoured its nacreous innards. Joe opened his almost empty canteen; taking a small swig of water to wash down the snake, he decided to remain hidden until sunset.
A cinnabar sun set in the blood-streaked sky. The moon was a wan, semi-circular scar; the stars, innumerable pale white pox, spreading across the sky’s ebony face. Joe scurried beetle-like through the grass and the cane to the village outskirts. Squatting in the shadows near an apparently abandoned hut, he pricked up his ears and sniffed the air. He heard nothing but the chirruping of insects, the rustling of wind-blown stalks and leaves; his nostrils filled with the pungent tang of fertile earth and rank vegetation.
Sensing no signs of habitation, Joe skirted the wattle-and-daub wall, knife at the ready, furtively moving toward the open entrance. His gut tightened as he gingerly peered into the murky interior. Seeing and hearing nothing, he cautiously entered the small, primitive dwelling.
Once inside, Joe saw no furnishings or any other evidence of recent occupancy. However, he did notice some boxes on the floor next to one of the walls. Joe examined the boxes with the aid of a small flashlight; to his great surprise and delight, he discovered cartons filled with government rations and supplies. He smiled, whispering, “Well, I’ll be damned.”
Joe continued exploring the village. In each hut and outbuilding, he found a similar cache, enough, he estimated, to supply a platoon for weeks. Finally, after almost an hour of careful investigation, and satisfied he was safe for the time being, Joe sat down in a hut, opened a ration box and water bag, and ate his first decent meal in days.
Relaxing on the dirt floor, his back propped against a precious supply container, satiated, and smiling contentedly, Joe remarked to himself, ‘Joe Wheeler, you lucky son-of-a-bitch, it looks like you found the mother lode.’
Joe awoke with a start; he had no idea how long he’d been sleeping. The hut was dark and permeated with the musty smell of mold, rot, damp soil and Joe’s acrid, unwashed body. It was raining; heavy drops splattered the thatched roof, penetrating cracks here and there, and dripping into tiny puddles on the earthen floor.
Grabbing his flashlight and knife, Joe scanned the hut’s interior. Satisfied he was secure, he checked his wristwatch; it was four a.m. He reached for some water in a nearby puddle, splashing his drowsy face. Joe had been on the run for days, and he hadn’t slept in more than twenty-four hours. Now rested, he planned to gather as much food and water as he could carry, and continue in the direction of the nearest Loyalist base, which he calculated was no more than two days’ walk from the village.
Ten days earlier, Joe had led a squad of Loyalist rangers scouting Rebel positions in the interior. Caught in an ambush, Joe’s squad fought desperately; only two survived. Joe and a young private managed to escape, however the private had taken some shrapnel in the hip. Joe administered first aid, but it was hopeless. On the second day, the kid couldn’t go any further; Joe finished him with his blaster.
Relying on a map, his compass, the terrain and his knowledge of the region, Joe moved southwest in the direction of a swamp on the edge of a tributary feeding into a large river. His ultimate destination, a Loyalist base camp, lay at the intersection of the two waterways. The village sat at the northern border of the swamp.
Joe opened the boxes, loading his pack with sufficient provisions for a two-day journey. As he prepared to leave, Joe thought of his wife and two children. He’d been married for eighteen years. His son was seventeen and already serving in the Loyalist army; his daughter twelve and still in school. He hadn’t seen his family in almost two years. The last time they were together, he’d promised his wife this was his last hitch. He’d retire, take a half-pay pension, and find a safe, civilian job, assuming, of course, that the government remained in power.
As he finished packing, the rain intensified. ‘Maybe I should stay until it lets up,’ he thought. He sat down on the floor, resting his back on the supply boxes. To remain awake, he kept shaking his head and slapping his face with water.
Joe sensed something moving near the edge of his right boot; pointing the flashlight, he saw a beetle flipped over on its back. The insect twitched spasmodically, frantically kicking its legs, as swarming ants devoured it.
Outside the hut, hunkering in the shadows, naked and hungry, a man and a woman armed with clubs and a knife, watched and waited silently as Joe, lulled by the pattering raindrops, slowly drifted into sleep.
Copyright © 2006 by Gary Inbinder