Chapter One (August)
Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by.
At three a.m., Bravo Company piled into three CH-47D Chinook helicopters and lifted off from the tarmac of Montrose Regional Airport and beyond the confines of the forward operating base known as Camp Constantine. It was a short flight covering less than twenty miles, barely enough time for the pimply-faced conscripts of the Domestic Security Force to pray.
This predawn mission signaled the beginning of Operation Uncompahgre III, the third official attempt by the Domestic Security Force and I Corps to capture and or degrade the leadership of the insurgency in the Uncompahgre Sector.
It was moonless and the ground below was as black as a dream, the void broken only by the reflection of starlight on the waters of spindly creeks and a lonely reservoir. Domestic combatants, known as Doc for short, were down there. They controlled the wilderness. In the minds of the nineteen and twenty year old privates fulfilling their national service requirements, Doc was an inhuman wight–a mysterious living thing, lurking in the woods and caves, living off air and dirt, existing only to hunt and kill soldiers. Many conscripts had made it through an entire one year tour and never seen one in the wild, but they would have certainly experienced their wrath, manifested in the form of roadside bombings, sniper fire, and sabotage. Rushed through an abbreviated, four week boot camp, the recruits were inculcated with a heavy dose of fear and hatred of him.
They landed in darkness, on a hastily constructed sand-bag firebase called Camp Grit, sitting atop Hill 301, otherwise known as High Mesa. The mission was to advance into the wilderness and locate, engage and annihilate the enemy. They were delayed by the dangers of traversing the rugged terrain in darkness. They waited for sufficient light and embarked at 05:00. 2nd platoon, also known as “The Skullcrushers,” marched south-southeast along the ridgeline that rose towards Sheep Mountain bursting upwards through the tree line eight clicks away.
The march was arduous and slow-paced with the platoon taking great care not to bunch up at the obstacles or spread themselves too thin. The barely discernible trail meandered and climbed, flanked by firs and spruce and aspen. The ridge occasionally gave a vantage of the turbulent lands they invaded. Spires of tawny granite formed into ridgelines and thrust skyward in all directions. Some were still patched with snow that would not melt before winter. Patches of evergreens clung to the high shelves of rock. The gulches and valleys were a Mirkwood of forest. The summer sun climbed and the temperature rose as they patrol pushed on. By mid morning, the ruckus of chirping birds that had accompanied them before daybreak had subsided into a din of breezes sweeping through the tree tops. The succulent, waxy aspen leaves flickered and danced.
The advance was halted briefly when the point spotted four objects in the cliffs across the valley which, from a thousand yards, could not be ruled out as combatants. The conscripts crouched and took cover, their wide, fearful eyes staring. The sergeant examined the target with his field glasses. “Is it Doc?” asked the lieutenant. Sarge rolled the focusing wheel as he searched. The conscript faces whitened. “Sarge?”
The conscripts sighed.
“What is it?”
“Big horn sheep.”
2nd platoon continued on, under a canopy of blue sky and slow-moving splashes of white cloud. By nine a.m. they reached the point where Sheep Mountain rose upwards through the tree line just before them. They stopped to rest and hydrate and it was there that a specialist discovered a cairn of piled stones. Sarge examined the pile up close and began carefully removing the stones that did not appear to be concealing or holding or levering down wires or triggers of any kind. When he had removed about half the pile he discovered a canvas surface. He stopped at that point to consult with the lieutenant.
“What do you think it is?” the Sarge asked.
“Dunno. Ammo cache. RPGs. Rifles. Frags. Have a private check it out.”
“Maybe we just go ahead blow that fucker up and move on.”
“Was I not clear?”
“Lieutenant, we ain’t got any techs and we got no blast suit.”
“We’re not debating this, sergeant. We’re deep in Doc’s turf and I got half a platoon filled with boy scouts. I won’t be drawing any extra attention to us. Get it checked out.”
“Yes Sir.” Sergeant muttered as he turned and pointed to a specialist named Rogers. “Get over here.” Rogers approached. “I need you to go check out that pile a rocks over there. Tell me what’s under that canvas.”
“Fuck that, Sarge. That’s a booby trap if I’ve ever seen one.”
“It ain’t no booby trap, Rogers.”
“It sure enough looks like one to me.”
“The only booby trap that’s ever gonna get you is one that’s stuffed inside a basketball.”
“Man, you’re a racist mother fucker. There ain’t no way I’m poking around in that. It’s a trap.”
“That’s an order.”
“I’ll deal with you back at base.”
“I got something you can deal with…” answered Rogers as he grabbed his crotch.
“Get lost.” Sarge turned back to the other men. “Fouts! Where’s Fouts?”
“Right here, Sarge. And it’s Faust, Sir.”
“Fouts, I need you to go check out that pile of rocks over there and tell me what’s under that canvas.”
“No way, Sarge. I’m single digit midget. I got seven more days of this shit.”
“You get over there and check it out. That’s a direct order.”
“What kind of fucking army is this?” grumbled the exasperated sergeant.
The lieutenant grabbed Sarge by the shoulder and turned him around. “Do not give orders that won’t be obeyed. These guys see that and they’ll lose respect.”
“You learn that at OCS school?” Sarge asked.
“Get one of them cherries to do it.”
Sarge turned back to the platoon and called one of the conscripts forward. “Honey Tits, I need you to go over to that pile of rocks and check it out. Let me know what you find.”
Honey Tits, a private whose legal name was Ochs, was a pasty-faced and fleshy draftee recently plucked from the melodramatic, Madison Wisconsin Emo subculture. He had sulked into his induction with his fingernails still polished black.
“Yes Sir,” he gulped, already panting.
“You see that pile of rocks, there?”
“Good. Now I need you to drag your fat ass over there and check it out. Tell me what’s buried in there. And don’t get blowed up.”
Ochs tiptoed towards the cairn, setting his rifle down once he had reached it. He carefully examined the pile for protruding wires or anything that might look IEDish. He had no clue what that might be, but he scoured the pile, anyway. Once he was satisfied that there was no evidence indicating a buried bomb, he took a seat, criss-cross-applesauce style. He wiped the sweat off his palms, then looked back once more at Sarge and the others some twenty yards off, as if to say “good bye and nice knowing you.” He turned back to the pile and gulped in fixated anticipation. He reached his hand down and touched a stone. He moved it carefully, and when he realized that he had not been blowed up, he set it on the ground to the side. He sighed, deeply. Then Ochs reached down and took another stone off. And when he found himself still intact after that, he took off another, and another, and another. Each stone came off quicker than the previous and after a couple dozen, he had most of the canvas exposed. He took out his knife and carefully poked a hole and looked in. He looked back at the platoon. All their eyes were on him. He widened the hole and pulled it open and looked in again. He froze.
“What is it?” Sarge shouted.
Ochs didn’t respond.
“Hey, Honey Tits, what the fuck is it?”
Ochs looked back towards Sarge. His face was grim.
The soldiers watching raised their rifles and crouched lower behind cover.
“What the fuck is it, Ochs?” barked the sergeant.
Ochs’ lip quivered.
“Go check it out,” ordered the lieutenant.
Sarge growled, then jogged up to Ochs who was catatonic.
“What’s wrong?” he asked
“Look,” Ochs mumbled as he pointed into the hole in the canvas.
Sarge looked in and saw what Ochs saw.
“Is that a face?” he asked.
“What is it?” shouted the lieutenant from the cover of a tree trunk.
“It looks like a corpse,” shouted the sergeant. “Doc must have buried him here.” He turned back to Ochs. “Dig him out.”
“Sarge?” he asked, looking scared.
“Don’t be a pussy. It’s just a dead body. Dig him out.”
The lieutenant ordered Rogers and Faust to the pile of stones to assist. Ochs sat with sweat rolling off his forehead and down his blotchy face and into his collar while the other two men removed the remaining stones and tore open the bag revealing the complete, decomposing body.
“Who do you think he is?” asked the sergeant.
“Dead Doc,” answered Faust.
“That’s what they look like?” asked Ochs.
“What’d you think they looked like? Fucking leprechauns or something?”
“Check him for tags. Find his wallet,” Sarge ordered.
Rogers knelt down and rolled the stiff body only its side exposing the moist, decomposing underside. The smell knocked them back and they pulled their t-shirts up and over their noses. Rogers gagged as he reached into the corpse’s back pocket and found his soggy wallet. He let the body fall back and held the wallet out for the sergeant who snatched it from him and thumbed through it. He took out an ID.
“It says here this is…holy shit…,” Sarge continued. “It says: Captain Alan A. Rick, U.S. Army.” He turned and shouted. “Hey lieutenant, we found us the infamous Captain Rick. He got himself dead.”
The lieutenant scrambled up to the grave arriving just as Faust had begun to urinate on the corpse.
“Knock that shit off,” Sarge ordered.
Faust aimed in the other direction. “What’s the big deal, Sarge?”
“Shut up, Fouts,” Sarge ordered. “Show some respect.”
“You mind if I go back to the unit, Sir?” Ochs mumbled.
Ochs sulked back to the platoon while the four remaining men stared down at the sunken eye sockets and brown, mummified face of the dead man.
“What do you want to do with it?” asked the sergeant. “Want us to bag him”
“No. Leave him. I’ll call in the coordinates.” The lieutenant knelt down and set the dead man’s hand on a rock. He took out his knife and, with a succession of chops, he removed the dead man’s index finger at the second joint and put it in his pocket. “For DNA ID,” he explained. “We’re moving out in five.”
“Captain Rick’s dead,” Sarge commented. “Guess we can all head back to Camp Grit. Mission accomplished.”
“You’re a funny guy, Sarge.”
More to come…