Thursday, August 25, 2011
Swish! Lt. Thom Brady ducked as a bullet nearly grazed his helmet. These damned Congs are using infra-red, he mused to himself as he gazed at the stark darkness which provided visibility to a five-foot maximum distance. He fumbled for the radio mouthpiece that dangled at the shoulder of the slumped Sergeant beside him.
"Homebase, homebase, this is Suicide Platoon," Lt. Brady broke in while adjusting the radio headset in position. With his quivering voice he sounded very much like a little child about to be manhandled by a bully. "Request permission to abort activity. I repeat, request permission to..."
Swish! Swish! Ping! A bullet finally hit its target - Thom's helmet. Shaken but unhurt, he clutched the radio headset tightly to his ear but the familiar humming sound was drowned by the drone of a moving object in the air. Thom's hand relaxed on the headset as he noticed the ray of light sweeping the cogonal plains.
"Air raid! Air raid!" It was Drexler's voice and Thom unconsciously heard his own, "Hit the dirt, take cover." It was evident from the movements in the knee-length grass that he had around 5 men left from the 20 that he commanded and the realization was a jolt to his shaking body, manifesting his greatest fear, not fear itself but anger. Laying prostrate to spy on the air vehicle, Thom's hand moved from the headset into the trigger casing of his rifle.
The rough terrain of the tropical jungles, with the deadly snakes and the pesky mosquitoes, proved to be the nemesis of the American troops. But the Suicide Platoon dared to be different for they risked sneaking out from the safety of the trees and lay claim to the swampy cogonal area just to make a dent in the solid defense of the wily Congs.
The air vehicle hovered and a glaring light directly hit Lt. Brady's eyes. By reflex, he let go of the rifle and covered his eyes with both hands while a tingling sensation coupled with a comforting warmth enveloped his whole being. Thom felt somewhat paralyzed, totally losing his senses, for some seconds or minutes, Thom could not say.
Silence and darkness reigned when he came to. "Retreat to the jungle," he commanded with a slur as if his tongue was still asleep. It was a practical reaction to the situation but Lt. Brady's main intention was to make a head count as his men started to crawl towards him. Only six came forth.
"Retreat to the jungle," Lt. Brady repeated but no one beside him seemed to move. "Where is the jungle, Sir?" And Lt. Brady realized that he, too, was disoriented. As common sense dictated, Lt. Brady decided to stay put until dawn and assigned Willis and Frome to act as night watch.
Laying prostrate on the ground, Thom's aching body and fatigued mind relaxed at the sight of a few stars. He pressed the small button on his hunting knife that doubled as flashlight and stared at his wristwatch which said 2:00 am. Yes, it's a good time to sleep, he thought to himself.
As was his wont, Lt. Brady started counting his remaining resources instead of sheep. Drexler, Frome, Willis, Jamieson, Richards, Monroe. Seven AK-47, two 45-pistols, fourteen grenades, one launcher, five rockets, one flare gun, four flares, half-a-crate of ammo... And he was lulled to sleep.
It seemed a long slumber for Thom felt rested enough. He gazed around and noticed the bright stars decorating the heavens with a faint quarter moon at the end of the horizon. It was like
a scene from "Silent Night" where the shepherds were sleeping in the prairie while waiting for the birth of the king. Thom felt extreme inner peace and failed to notice the sleeping nightwatch nor the surprising presence of the prairie for he savored the luxury of another peaceful slumber.
* * *
Kumala held his sword up high as the signal for his troop, consisting of a hundred Maroni warriors on horses, to prepare for the offensive. The opposing tribe, less than half a mile away, were neatly positioned in the frontline like cavalry men but with bows and arrows instead of rifles. The smooth terrain of the prairie provided a perfect arena for the gory battle.
Kumala sliced the air with the shining sword and his warriors responded with a deafening roar as horses galloped on the grassy plain, seemingly matched by the big strides of the opposing archers on the other side. The half-mile distance was consumed in less than a minute. Bodies fell when arrows rained on Kumala's men and in return, some archers literally lost their heads when the mounted warriors caught up with them. As always, the bloody encounter progressed with no interruption until it was time for the leaders to call it quits. It was a test, more of guts than of strength.
The blue sky seemed to envy the cool green hue of the landscape which was enhanced by the purplish color of spattered blood. Multi-colored clumps of rolling human heads dotted the area like bingo markers and sprawled horses appeared like chess pieces of a temperamental player.
Many died, mortally wounded or simply injured on both sides and the signal of retreat came from the more prudent leader. The unscathed body served as a fitting trophy of the deadly contest.
The weak ones were left to die from their injuries or thirst as if it was the punishment for their being unfit. But each tribe will just bide the time to rearm for another skirmish. And their warriors are getting younger each day.
"Will end, this, when?" inquired a weeping mother. The witch doctor shook his head in disgust over the weakness being shown by the woman and it took him a great effort to control his urge to smirk. "My husband, my three sons, lost them all, I have. Oh holy sage, will end, this, when?"
"End, it will," the witch doctor's voice lent comfort to the
grieving mother. He cleared his throat before continuing with further assurance, "To you, this, I say: A great war, there, will be, all wars, to end, will do. Believe, woman, believe. Soon, great war, will be."
Kumala's voice was getting hoarse in giving out commands for a quick reorganization. As for him, the battle was not over yet and his Maroni warriors were more than willing for another encounter. "Tomorrow, attack, we do." Kumala had calculated that the Zawilis will be surprised with their follow-up assault.
Ramasen clenched his fist upon seeing the terrible damage they sustained from the onslaught. The Maronis were quite successful this time, he said to himself. After separating the grain from the chaff and taking stock of what he still have, Ramasen loudly declared, "Prepare, tomorrow, attack, we will."
* * *
"Lt. Brady!" there was urgency in Drexler's voice. Thom was aroused in the wrong manner and the lingering shell shock compelled him to grab his rifle and press the trigger, producing a short burst. It was already light and he was momentarily confused in seeing his six men, all staring at him.
But he was more confused upon realizing that the jungle was nowhere in sight and the clear view of the panorama, the rough and reedy cogon grass was now soft and trimmed like a green carpeting, failed to show the fortress of the Congs either. Lt. Brady's hair seemed to stand at attention when he followed Drexler's gaze.
* * *
Kumala raised his sword and waved it in the chilly air to spark another rally. He needed morale more than anything else for his own was nearly sagging from the previous encounter. His tribe looked decimated but still willing to fight and he had to exploit that willingness.
The Zawilis turned into statues and the Maronis looked like marionettes suspended on a carousel. Except for the whining of the horses, nothing could be heard and no one dared make a move.
All eyes were focused in one direction - the small hill where the weird sound originated. The confrontation, for the very first time, was interrupted and everything seemed to be at a standstill.
"What's that?" was the apparent question in everyone's eyes for no one could utter a single word. The bizarre noise was like a spray of liquid nitrogen that froze the scene.
Lt. Brady was the first one to regain his composure. He stood up, with rifle in hand, and, with the aid of the early morning sun, visually scoured the field. A battalion, mounted on horses, with lances and swords greeted his sight. Not far beyond was another battalion on foot with bows and arrows. Thom felt his head spin and his stomach wanted to throw up. He slowly knelt on the cool grass to fight off the budding nausea.
Kumala raised his sword again but in a different direction this time. Horses galloped and the Maroni warriors gave out their patented menacing roar when Kumala slashed the air. Not to be outdone, a contingent of Zawilis, on foot, hastily executed their own assault on the unidentified enemy.
"What's that?" Drexler's voice ended the deafening silence.
"Prepare to fire," Thom's command was out of instinct for his mind was deeply mired in the enigma of the phenomenon. Where are the Congs? Who are these red-skinned guys dressed in a funny outfit and riding horses? And their weapons, oh my God, where are we? His vision remained locked on the approaching warriors with that ready-to-kill look but Thom's sensibilities remained impeded for he couldn't move even a finger.
It was Monroe who delivered the first salvo which provided a distraction to their confused state. Recovering his senses, Lt. Brady pulled the trigger of his automatic rifle, felling several warriors from their horses. The bursts of gunfire from the seven rifles made it a one-sided affair and the aggression was instantly quelled.
"Sir," it was Drexler again who broke the ice. But Lt. Brady was quick to reply, "Don't dare ask me for an explanation. Let's just leave it at that and I don't want to hear any talks about what's happening, okay?" Thom was quite surprised with his declaration and he wanted to add "mind the battle" but his tongue did not cooperate.
"Sir," it was Frome this time. "When do we eat?" It was out of context but it served the much needed breather. By reflex, everyone looked at his watch only to find that it had stopped at 2:00 am. Again, Lt. Brady displayed that threatening look to avert any reference to the dreaded subject. Give me time to think, he heard his mind holler.
"Let's have brunch, there," Lt. Brady pointed to the sprawled horse as he tried his best to sound cool but sensible. The hungry stomach was an ideal diversion for the moment and he was hoping that it was just the hungry stomach that caused it all. "Prepare for a barbecue party," he added with forced humor as he handed his hunting knife to Drexler.
The witch doctor was shaking his head when Kumala was relating the event while all the other warriors were busy with their own story-telling. The scenario was quite the same in the Zawili camp. All conversations centered on the ruthless strangers and their mystical weapons.
It was a foregone conclusion, although Kumala wouldn't openly admit, that those strangers were far better warriors than the Maronis or Zawilis. On the other side of the fence, Ramasen was hatching a plot - they could defeat any tribe, no matter what weapons they have, if they join forces with the gutsy Maronis. The only problem is the long-standing animosity between the two warring tribes.
After the hearty brunch, Lt. Brady opened up his long prepared speech, "Everybody, listen. I think it's about time to talk about this puzzling situation. But before anything else, I want each and everyone to have an open mind and no foolish ideas, okay?" All the six nodded in silent agreement.
"I don't believe we are still in Vietnam," Lt. Brady slowly said which made everyone astir. But Drexler was quick to the draw, "Sir, have you heard of Camelot?" Lt. Brady felt insulted and instead of answering, he waved a hand to excuse himself. There was no point in discussing serious matters with these unworthy convicts, he thought.
Thom sat himself on a small mound, a good fifty feet away where he couldn't hear the crazy ideas of his men who seemed to be talking all at the same time. He stared hard at the vast expanse of the prairie as if looking for something. It appeared to him like an ocean of grass which has no boundaries. "This is madness," he uttered aloud, "but why does it need to happen to me?" The query reverberated in his head.
Thom had himself convinced, at an early age, to follow what they call the straight path. A clean conscience, according to his mother, is the best pillow to use at night. Really? But the straight path appeared to be a long and winding road. Good guys always finish last, his father used to say. And Thom wanted to believe his no-good Dad who abandoned them for a rich matron. Perhaps he was right. Thom had known a lot of bad guys getting rich and famous. Politicians, vice lords, swindlers and schemers, opportunists, all presently living in comfort and convenience while the righteous was striving and suffering.
A good pupil he was, always punctual. But the cheaters and those with connections got the honors. He was meek and mild, afraid to enter into a mischief. But the bullies and the gutsy got the recognitions. He tried his best to be a good son, an obedient one. But his bum of a brother, who never made it to college, remained his Mom's favorite. And of all the luck in the world, his worthless brother won the local lottery then moved to another state.
Thom quit college and entered the army to alter his passive fate. It was wrong to be good all the time and in the army he could be bad, at least, in a good way. He began to like being called a grouch and a cheapskate during their cadet training days. He enjoyed picking up fights with his peers for petty arguments. That triggered a metamorphosis: from the meek Thom into a brashy Lt. Brady.
There was bravado in his personality that did not escape his superiors. His valiant, although sometimes senseless, manner earned him his first rank and was eventually sent to Vietnam where he was branded a daredevil with the Congs. But his war exploits was quickly aborted when his superiors recalled him back to the homeland.
"We need to innovate, Lt. Brady, lest we lose the war. And only your guts is missing in our formula." He could still remember the words of Col. Ramsey who pinned the second button on his lapel, making him a full-fledged First Lieutenant. He will be back in Vietnam after two months of training his experimental platoon, also known as the Suicide Platoon.
Using a different approach, Sgt. Sanders acted only as consultant and Lt. Brady was given a direct hand in turning out good soldiers from the 19 convicts. Thom had expected the worst but his expectations did not run true to form for his reputation preceded him. Aside from displaying raw intelligence, the convicts were submissive and very cooperative. The rigid training went on smoothly and Thom implemented his own innovation with the war games.
There was that nagging fear about professional cavalry men attacking their superiors in the battle field. What more can the officer expect from these convicted criminals. And that officer happened to be him.
The last week consisted of the nightly war game. Sgt. Sanders and the cadets would crawl in the golf course, trying their best to elude the spotlights, for a neat rendezvous with Lt. Brady who was comfortably waiting inside a big tent at the far corner of the 18th hole. When everyone had safely reached the tent, the command to attack was given and the cadets were delighted to find that the opposing team was a carton full of brandy bottles.
The illegal practice paid off when the spirit of brandy gave birth to a good one - team spirit. Unknown to many, Lt. Brady had earned the respect of the disrespectful, in the truest sense of the word.
"Sir, are we going to spend the night here in the open?" It was Drexler who interrupted his reverie. The soldier with a double murder conviction was standing erect as if he wanted to execute a present-arms-salute. Lt. Brady noticed the different glow of the setting sun as reflected on Drexler's helmet.
"Yes," was his curt reply. There was no point in asking Drexler where he intended to go. Every place is an open space, no trees, no hills nor mountains, just flat grassy land. But he added, "Ah, pick two men as night watch and you get going with the meat. We'll have another barbecue party tonight."
Thom glanced at the direction of the water puddle which added to his amazement. He marveled at the clear and nice-tasting water. The puddle was only a foot in diameter and about two inches deep but there was no indication that it will run out of water.
When Ramasen's first courier did not return before dawn, his head throbbed. How could he ally himself with a mortal enemy? It was a rule to kill an intruder sighted in one's territory and the slaying of his courier was the most logical thing for the Maroni guards to do. That's probably the death knoll of his plan and Ramasen sighed in disgust.
"Not logical," Kumala sounded worried, "unarmed, this Zawili, is. Enter our territory, why would he?" The witch doctor glanced at the mangled body of Ramasen's courier and shook his head in disgust. "Perhaps, to tell a message, he had."
"Perhaps, but know, we do not," Kumala replied in a low voice. He was toying with the idea of joining forces with the Zawilis to eliminate the strangers. But how could he do it? How could he talk with Ramasen whose very image makes his blood boil? How could any Maroni face a tribal enemy in peace when it was his moral duty to kill a Zawili?
Lt. Brady savored the delicious aroma of the barbecued horse meat and glanced at his men before making the first bite. It was indeed a party with the witty Drexler grabbing stellar billing in the conversation. Thom was able to free his mind of the riddles by focusing on the past. He was acting like a hopeless neurotic but he knew that it was what he needed for the meantime.
"This steak is delicious, Prince Valiant." Drexler said with a mouthful. "Yea, I say. Why don't you try the brandy, Arn?" seconded Frome. "Careful with your words, fellas, King Arthur might hear ya!" butted in Richards. "C'mon you blokes, he's thinking of Lady Enid and his golf game tomorrow," Willis added. But the camaraderie failed to contaminate Lt. Brady who was seriously devouring his burnt steak.
Kumala gathered his best riders for a suicide mission. It was apparent that the best time to attack is at night for they had already memorized the position of the strangers. As the holy sage said, the quarter moon will provide them with just enough light and there's no reason why they won't succeed.
Ramasen tapped the shoulder of his right hand man who was to act as leader of a sneak attack. He had enlisted only five warriors, the best ones, who could shoot with precision even in the darkest of the night. Ramasen smiled at the thought that the Maronis have no choice but to admire his cunning.
"Enemy sighted," there was excitement in Frome's voice. Everyone took their usual prone position on the ground, five feet apart, with cocked guns and ready to fire. Lt. Brady checked his 45-pistol. He had intended to use it for practice with the mounted savages as his target. But he could see no horses around, only crawling warriors.
Rat-ta-tat, rat-ta-tat! Bang! Bang!
Ramasen slapped the log table with an open fist upon hearing the sad report that only the leader of the mission survived. He had miscalculated the skills of the strangers and it dawned on him that it will always be a massacre, with them on the losing end, if he won't innovate.
Kumala spat on the ground not in disgust but in disbelief. His horsemen were spared of certain annihilation by the punctuality of Ramasen's warriors. With a tinge of irony, Kumala felt indebted to the dead Zawilis and momentarily forgot the shame of being one step behind in the planning game.
"Do you think they will come back?" Lt. Brady felt he couldn't trust himself anymore and was ashamed in displaying utter dependence on his men. Drexler, still in the prone position and appearing ready for another skirmish, replied, "I don't think so, Sir, but we're better off alert."
"Near the border area, in the daytime, stray, you do" the witch doctor advised as his hand touched Kumala's forlorn shoulder. "What then?" Kumala was firm in his retort to bluff his way out although excitement is slowly creeping in his veins.
He knew how to play with the wise witch doctor. "My good warriors, for nothing in return, I risk?"
"The Zawili's plans, to know, we need." It was the witch doctor's ploy for he could see in Kumala's eyes the color of surrender but the great leader wouldn't risk his reputation by suggesting an outrageous idea. The witch doctor seized the initiative upon seeing the glow in Kumala's face, "Maste, send, let us do. How to ride, Maste knows. How to ride fast, Maste sure knows."
Ramasen gathered his men for a small talk. "That tribe of strangers, now, our primary enemy. But the Maronis, we forget, must not do. Yet, seeing a Maroni, anyone of you, within our territory, to shoot the intruder, must not do. Wait. Signs of aggression, find, you must." The crowd stirred and some others made snide remarks just to show their machismo.
Ramasen raised both his hands. "Listen. The strangers and their weapons, by the Maronis, are dreaded. The Maronis, our help, seek, they will. To defeat the strangers, the Maronis cannot. To defeat the strangers, the Zawilis, only can do." The warriors cheered.
It was a long night for Lt. Brady and his men but the day proved longer. The smooth terrain provided a clear view of the warriors on horses afar as if conducting a reconnoiter mission. Thom's bruised body was aching and his head was throbbing but his constant silence was a perfect shield to hide his weakness and preserve the morale of his soldiers.
"Sir, I think you're right," broke in Drexler which served as a salve for his deflating ego. The mere mention of "Sir" injects a gallon of adrenaline in Lt. Brady's veins. "It is stupid to move out of this area." You should have said impossible, muttered Thom to himself.
"This is a perfect arena for us, an open field where there are no covers, you know." Lt. Brady replied half-mindedly. "If you can't read the terrain, just stay put. If you feel lost, just stay put. That's the time-tested rule." Drexler nodded with ambivalence to signify his understanding. The small conversation was just his alibi to check on Lt. Brady's sanity.
Ramasen sighed in relief upon spotting a Maroni horseman being led to his hut. With his forehead up high and his braided long hair dangling on his shoulder, Ramasen looked the perfect strategist. "Maste," shouted the Maroni with a respectful tone as he came down from his stallion. Ramasen waved a hand for the unarmed Maroni to approach him.
Kumala let out a wide grin. The mere fact that Maste had entered the Zawili territory alive, as reported by his spies, confirmed his calculations. My plan of exploiting the Zawilis is in the can, he told himself. All he needed was Maste's safe return and the agony of waiting commenced.
"Why don't we launch our own offensive?" Monroe, the trigger-happy lunatic with multiple manslaughter convictions behind him asked. "King Arthur won't approve of it." Drexler's stale humor had no effect on his apprehensive comrades anymore. Desperation is slowly hitting the surface in the face of the impending darkness.
"No harm," declared Maste which made the witch doctor smiled. Kumala tried to hide his elation, "Now, rest, we do. Tomorrow, talk to Zawili, I will." The hope of annihilating the strangers lingered in his mind and Kumala was certain that sleep won't come easy. Containing his excitement, he motioned to the witch doctor for a private meeting.
"Tomorrow, attack, we do." Ramasen's command was firm. He had explained that the strangers seemed to have night vision and the only way to have a fair fight is during the daytime. Ramasen appeared confident with his pronouncements and he smiled at the thought that there would be no need for a merger with the Maronis. He had to try, at least, one more time.
"Pick out your targets, men," hollered Lt. Brady as the menacing roar of the approaching savages filled the air. It was a scattered attack and Thom knew that a lot of shots will be wasted. The bully inside a circle of determined weaklings could be overwhelmed by fear alone, Thom recalled the words of his martial arts instructor. Strategy coupled with good timing is required, concentration, focus...
Rat-ta-tat, rat-ta-tat, rat-ta-tat, rat-ta-tat!
Lt. Brady was jolted from his unscheduled reverie by the blazing guns of his men. He could see several arrows in the air, landing a few feet away from their post. The fear he didn't know suddenly crept in his veins and on impulse, Thom unhooked the grenade from his belt.
Kumala's mind was groping for the answer why the Zawilis launched an attack when they were supposed to meet for a talk. Perhaps the Zawilis were just playing with them and their objective was really to reign supreme in the land. Pride took control and Kumala proclaimed, "The Zawilis, ignore, we must!"
Ramasen's stolid posture among the dead and the wounded showed a picture of a true soldier. Thirty men against one hit wasn't bad considering that there were only seven strangers all in all. He would have continued until the last warrior but his right hand man was forced to signal a retreat upon seeing Ramasen's bleeding right leg from a stray shrapnel. The great leader's sharp eyes noticed that the strangers don't shoot on the retreating enemies and another plan was hatching in his mind.
"Lt. Brady was hurt real bad, I think the arrow is poisoned. How's Jamieson?" Monroe gave out a shrug as both he and Drexler glanced at Jamieson's lifeless body, an arrow deeply mired on the dead soldier's breast. Drexler sat beside Monroe and checked on Jamieson. "We cannot remain sitting ducks here, Man," Drexler's voice showed a lot of contempt.
Kumala kept inside his hut the rest of the day. No food, no drink as if to punish himself for putting a string of trust on the Zawilis. Realizing that he was duped, guilt overwhelmed him and the only recourse left was to get even with the Zawilis. He went out of his hut in time for the retiring warriors. After positioning himself beside the flickering bonfire, Kumala announced the planned offensive against the Zawilis first thing in the morning.
Ramasen was feeling himself on top of a previously captured horse. Although he wouldn't openly admit, using a horse, a brainchild of the Maronis, adds a lot of power in encounters. With his right foot out of service, Ramasen saw nothing wrong in riding the beast. They have to mount their last offensive against the strangers early the next morning.
With the aid of Thom's hunting knife, Monroe plucked out the arrow from Lt. Brady's leg and Drexler applied the dressing of torn cloth from Jamieson's soiled uniform. "You'll be all right for the moment, Sir," pronounced Drexler. He smiled when Lt. Brady forced a nod and licked his lips. Drexler stood up to attend the interment rites for Jamieson. With the Lieutenant out of commission, there was no more hindrance to his plan of an early morning attack!
Rat-ta-tat, rat-ta-tat, rat-ta-tat! Twing, twing! Tsak! Rat-ta-tat! Tsak! Twing!
The tumultuous encounter did not escape Lt. Brady's ears. He gathered all his strength just to sit up. He was alone and he could discern by the sounds that his men were a little farther away. He was perplexed and totally confused for the nth time. It did not occur to him that Drexler had led an unauthorized aggression. Neither was he aware of the early morning offensive by the red-skinned savages and that the mounted tribe was trapped in the crossfire.
The Zawilis flung their arrows in the direction of the approaching strangers and the strangers in turn trained their guns on the scattered warriors. The surprised Maronis abandoned their original objective upon seeing the confrontation. Kumala's terrible fear for the strangers overshadowed his anger with the Zawilis, forcing him to make a hasty decision. He had resolved to join the melee in favor of Ramasen and his warriors.
The chaos lasted for only a few minutes. Half of both tribes, Zawilis and Maronis, survived and only two heavily wounded soldiers of the U.S. army emerged. Lt. Brady rued at the sight of Drexler's and Monroe's bloody faces, apparently lacerated by sharp blades. But Drexler was walking erect with forehead up high and Monroe was trailing with a limp. The sight of the three rifles being dragged by Drexler confirmed the loss of the rest of his soldiers.
In the confusion, Ramasen suffered utmost frustration in controlling his horse which joined the pack of retreating Maronis. It was a surprise for all when Kumala helped him dismount the beast. The witch doctor, with his widest grin, felt the realization of a long impending truce. Or maybe a long lasting friendship of the two tribes could bloom from that gesture alone. The wise man could see the overflowing humility painted on Ramasen's face.
From his sitting position, Lt. Brady heaved himself with the help of his rifle but was unsuccessful to stand. Drexler motioned for him to relax as he attended to Monroe's injuries, unmindful of an arrow perched on his back. Lt. Brady crawled, ignoring the excruciating pain, and reached his remaining men only to see Monroe breath his last. And Lt. Brady lost all the color in his face when Drexler collapsed on the grass.
Ramasen raised a hand to which Kumala did the same and the witch doctor seemed very pleased to see the final rites of the summit talks. Cheering filled the camp and Ramasen, on top of Kumala's horse this time, was escorted by a bunch of mounted Maronis with Kumala at the head of the convoy. The two leaders have agreed to finish the job before the end of the day.
Lt. Brady sensed genuine fear spreading in his whole body. He knew he got to think fast but the pulsating pain in his leg prevented him from thinking clearly. The clouding sky seemed to be in harmony with his clouded mind and the whirlpool of past events dimmed his rationality. And Lt. Brady accepted the inevitable: PANIC!
Kumala, feeling like a different person, mounted his stallion after a civil farewell from the Zawili tribe. The Maroni escorts admired the gallantry of the Zawilis and the latter praised the former for their bravery. Fighting a battle together, although accidentally, brought about a fraternal atmosphere among them.
Thom placed the three rifles near Drexler who lay beside Monroe and hummed TAPS many times. He had wanted a decent burial for his dead compatriots but that's the best that he could manage. And instead of a gun salute, Thom tossed his hunting knife as far as he could. The ceremony done, Thom started making plans for a sensible defense.
The high noon provided enough warmth to fight off the still chilly air. With two rifles, cocked and ready, Lt. Brady took his position beside the corpses which served as sandbags for cover. He was staring at the hunting knife, pinned on the ground, erect and proud as if imitating Drexler's poise, which was his safety marker. He was determined to defend that hunting knife no matter what because he will be fighting for a lost cause once an enemy crosses that point.
The siege began by the swift movement of the Zawilis on foot with the Maronis astride on their horses. Kumala accepted Ramasen's suggestion that the horses could be used as shields to deflect the "blazing arrows" of the strangers. It was also agreed, as per Kumala's proposal, that they should wait for the strangers to make their move. No matter how slim the chance is, they should not discount a peaceful surrender.
A bead of sweat treaded the smooth cheeks of Lt. Brady in consonance with the slow moving warriors up ahead just a few feet away from his safety marker. As a true soldier, he sat up and trained his rifle at the enemy line. He squinted as the glaring light of the high noon sun spoiled his aim. As a warrior passed by the hunting knife, Lt. Brady felt the temperature uncomfortably rise.
The siege went smoothly and Kumala felt comfortable at the sight of the enemy's camp. He had calculated that there were only two or three of them and Kumala's confidence overflowed when Ramasen, closely astride with him, voiced out the same opinion. Kumala had always hoped for a capture and the silence of the "blazing arrow" pointed to it.
Lt. Brady couldn't move as he saw the approaching savages, about fifty of them and maybe another fifty more crawling on the ground. The heat was getting unbearable and he was sort of blinded when he glanced at the glowing sun. The thundering shrieks of the noisy savages slowly faded to a comfortable volume as if he was being lulled to sleep. And the drone of a moving object in the air filled his head.
Leaving Ramasen behind, Kumala rushed to the scene before the frontliners could touch anything. It was an evident surrender and he should be the first one to get hold of the strangers. But he was greatly disappointed to see a pair of tree trunks instead. He quickly dismounted and saw nothing else.
Ramasen was likewise dumbfounded. The strangers were gone without a trace although dried blood were all over the place and some markings like giant footprints could be discerned on the trampled grass. A Zawili warrior called his attention on the hunting knife but before he could get near it, a sly Maroni picked it up and tossed it to Kumala.
* * *
"He's coming to. Hand me another hypo, we couldn't afford to let him go berserk again." The voice was alien to Thom's ears but he didn't mind. His eyelids seemed very heavy and he felt drunk but fairly comfortable. "This ugly gangrene could have cost him his life. I wonder how he survived."
* * *
"Light, see?" announced the witch doctor as he accidentally pressed the button of Lt. Brady's hunting knife. "This, good, bring us. This, peace, bring us." Everyone nodded in response and no one, not even Kumala nor Ramasen, challenged the sage's dogma that the gods have descended on them. They both agreed that a new age is forthcoming, an era of peace with friendship and fraternity.
* * *
It was customary for traumatized soldiers suffering from shell shock to be incarcerated for some period of time but Lt. Brady felt very sad to mark his one year inside the asylum. In spite of constantly passing the psychological examinations and the psychiatric tests with flying colors, there was no indication that he would be released. His mind was filled with remorse upon realizing that he had tried his best to tread the straight and narrow path only to end in a cold and damp place like his cell.
According to the specialists, Lt. Brady seemed to be of sound mind and spirit. But there's one thing that's holding his release papers - Lt. Brady's account of his war exploits in Camelot.