Heart pounding. The shooting comes out of nowhere. No time to think, only dive for cover. The heat and dust are suffocating. The refugees are going crazy. The gunfire is coming hard and fast. Scrambling for cover, I find a makeshift ditch the Sudanese dug for such occasions. I glance up over the dirt hill as a bullet blasts into the dirt, causing me to take cover for the second time. My mouth is as dry as the dirt ditch I’m hiding in. I try hard to swallow, but my tongue just gets caught on the roof of my mouth. Delaney yells for the refugees to get to the border as quickly as possible. He needs help, I can see it. I just need to get my legs moving. Michael comes over the comm, yelling for Beck to take out a Gatling. A damn Gatling! What the hell. How are we supposed to compete with three Gatling guns?
A piercing sound rings out about twenty yards to my right. My eyes dart in the direction of the sound. The muzzle from Beck’s gun is still smoking as he holds it tight against his shoulder. Turning, I look in the direction of where he’s shooting. The Humvee is concealed behind a wall of dust from the tires suddenly coming to a halt. I can vaguely see the silhouette of four men running from the Humvee before more dust kicks up again as the Humvee gets going. I look back in the direction of where I saw Beck, but he’s no longer there. I take a deep breath of dust and hot air before taking off, running in the direction of Delaney and the refugees. Helping to get as many of the refugees across the border, I lay down cover fire in the direction of the foot soldiers, who escaped the Humvee. Staying low, I keep firing, not sure if I’m hitting anyone. The sweat burns my eyes, but I can’t take my focus off the refugees. Even if it’s only for a split second to wipe my brow. My adrenaline keeps me going, but it doesn’t take away from how scared I am. My breathing comes in short quick bursts, and I’m starting to feel a little lightheaded. Oh, God, I’m hyperventilating. I get control of my breathing as I head toward the back of the pack, covering whatever might be coming from behind. We’re almost there. Just a few more feet and they’ll be across the border. The chain-link fence slams closed, rattling the metal. The refugees pile into an armored transport to take them to safety. The Ethiopian soldiers line the armored convoy until every last refugee is on board.
“Split into two-man units if you can. We need those vehicles out of commission.” Michael says over the comm. Delaney is already with me. He looks to me and I nod. Together we head back into the fire fight. Delaney signals for me to take cover behind an old rusty abandoned vehicle. He lays down cover fire as I head over. From here, I have a clean shot of the driver of the lead Humvee. I stay low, creeping toward the end of the dilapidated vehicle. Peering around the corner of the bumper, I squeeze the trigger, emptying what remains of my magazine into the front of the Humvee. I see the driver slumped over the wheel as the Humvee swerves to the left. I quickly eject my mag, pushing in the next. I hear Delaney engage the two left in the Humvee. The Humvee slowly comes to a stop. Loud bursts of rounds come from behind me, and I quickly sink to the ground. I see Michael standing, staring at a downed enemy combatant. He’s not engaging, why?
I quickly get to my feet, running a few feet to take cover behind a big broken piece of cement. Two louder bursts hit the ground not two feet from Michael. His reaction is slow, almost non-existent. I stand from behind my cement barricade, letting loose my rounds until there is no one standing, except Michael. My heart is racing. What would’ve happened if I wasn’t here? I’m hoping he would’ve snapped out of whatever trance had a grip on him. Has he done this before, or did seeing Echo again have that much of an effect on him. He looks at me and nods. My automatic reaction is to nod back, but I’m unsure of his state. My nod comes, but it comes slowly as I search his eyes. I have to believe he’s okay because there is still work to be done here. He turns his head, looking down at the man before him. I see him raise his M4 before I take off, sprinting toward the unmanned Humvee Delaney and I just took out. Halfway there, I hear Michael’s gun go off. Relief floods me, knowing Michael shook loose whatever had a grip on him.
Getting to the Humvee, I grab the dead militant from behind the wheel, letting the weight of his dead body and gravity do the rest. His body hits the dirt with a thud. Jumping in, I start the engine and put it in gear. I’m picking up speed as I hear Michael in my ear.
“Hold up, Shy. I’m heading your way.”
I slow, but don’t come to a stop. The last Humvee is getting away and I don’t want them gaining too much ground. Michael runs, grabbing onto the handle and hoists himself up onto the Humvee with ease. Stepping over the body of the man who was behind the Gatling gun, Michael assumes his position. He swings the gun, pointing it at the vehicle in front of us, and opens fire. The vehicle swerves erratically as their gunman swirls the Gatling toward us. Easing on the gas pedal, I swerve, hoping to miss the incoming barrage of bullets heading our way. I duck low, keeping the wheel straight while holding my head below the dash. I hear the loud cutting sound of metal on metal as the bullets penetrate the bumper and hood of the Humvee. Michael takes cover behind the Gatling, crouching down. Still low, he squeezes the trigger again, and when he hears nothing coming from their end he stands, aims for the tires and fires another volley of bullets their way. Their tires explode and the driver loses control of the vehicle. It swerves hard and sharp before flipping over, crushing the Gatling and throwing bodies from the vehicle. I smash on the brakes and the tires skid in the dirt, kicking up more dust. Michael and I jump out of the vehicle and head toward the bodies lying on the ground. Michael stops at the first body, while I continue on to the second. I hear Michael’s round before I reach my man. He’s barely clinging to life, but finds the strength to try and escape. I never understood that. Why not just act like you’re dead until whoever is trying to kill you leaves?
He’s in terrible pain, that much I get from the sounds coming from him. His AK-47 lay next to him. My first thought is to kick it away. That’s basic training from the FBI. Get any weapon as far away from the enemy as quickly as possible. Maybe if we take him alive we can question him about Artoli. He’s pretty banged up, though. We don’t have time, or resources to waste on him. I don’t want to assume. I look over my shoulder to Michael for confirmation. His answer is definitive. I look back at the man on the ground as he bleeds profusely from his mouth, coughing and choking on it. I’m sure he’s bleeding internally and doesn’t have much time left. I make it quick, aiming for his head. Pulling the trigger, I put one round through his forehead. I turn towards Michael and he’s already heading to the Humvee. I jog to catch up as he jumps into the driver’s seat. I hop in the passenger’s seat as Michael speeds off back toward our team. We scoop up the rest of the group to make rounds, making sure none are left alive. We’re not the only ones. The Sudanese soldiers get in groups of three and jump in their Jeeps to make sure there are no stragglers.
I look around at my team. Everyone’s still amped from the fight. We won this round, but this isn’t the end of it. Until we find Artoli there will still be unrest at this border. Each side doing their damnedest to intimidate the other. The murders of defenseless farmers, the kidnap-for-ransom demands, and the torching of crops will escalate. Being here really makes me appreciate what we’ve built at home. It’s not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s vastly better than this.
Michael stops the Humvee and we all jump out. I glance down at the dark red mud on the ground where the dirt has soaked up the blood. Bodies lay scattered everywhere. It’s a grave site. The only way I can tell the enemy from the friendlies is their uniforms. My stomach feels queasy. I turn away, covering my nose and mouth with the sleeve of my shirt to mask the smell, and to keep from heaving. Beck pats me on the back.
“It’s okay, Chandler. The first time is always the hardest.”
I nod, unable to speak. They haven’t been dead that long, but with the heat, the smell is already present. Open wounds. Their insides being cooked by the blistering heat only intensifies the smell. The flies are multiplying by the minute. The team disperses, walking through the mass grave, seemingly unaffected. Their faces contort slightly as a breeze kicks up, lifting the smells. They each hold their phones in their hands as they scan the dead, looking for Artoli. Squaring my shoulders, careful not to take a deep breath--which is what I’d usually do to calm myself--I take out my phone and follow suit. I try carefully to focus only on their faces. Using my foot, I roll over the next body only to discover his face is no longer there. In moving the body, the right side of his face splits open. His gray matter is little more than worms in red water. His eye hangs out of socket by its optic nerve. The entire top right side of his head is gone. Bone mixed with brain. I lose it, no longer able to keep the vomit down. Things are getting darker. I look up to see if the sun is setting, but it remains high in the sky. I bend over placing my head between my knees, breathing slowly through my mouth. I feel a nudge on my arm. Looking up, I see Laci standing over me, her arm extended.
“Here, inhale this. It’ll help.”
I take the bottle without question and inhale deeply. The smell almost knocks me out, but surprisingly it works. Looking in the bottle, I see a paste like substance packed in there. I’m finally able to stand up straight. The nausea is gone. I look at Laci, handing her the bottle back. “What is that?”
“Vick’s Vapor Rub.”
“That really helped.” I will never go into another battlefield without it.
“You learn a lot doing this job,” she says, walking away.
We continue to clear the border one sector at a time. Artoli isn’t among the dead. The housekeeping is done, and glad to say we didn’t lose anyone this go around. All the refugees are accounted for, and safely across the border. We continue our patrol up and down the border until the fall of night.