Ranch Dressing – 11

The shot hit Steve’s left shoulder, spinning him around and throwing the rifle six feet away. Steve staggered, fell, got to his knees and lunged for the rifle. Boone fired again into the sand near where the rifle lay.

The next one goes in your heart, fuck head, he shouted.

Steve slumped down and sat with a leg folded under him trying to stop the bleeding with his right hand.

You always were a shit-hot sniper, dude. You win, said Steve. Just finish it. I’m not spending the rest of my life in prison. Finish it or I’ll make you finish it.

First tell me why you are trying to kill me, said Boone. Then I’ll decide if your sorry ass is worth killing. Maybe you don’t deserve the easy way out. Maybe you need to spend a few years as a quad in a VA hospital first.

Steve sat down fully, gasping at the pain in his shoulder.

Do remember that shithole position about thirty clicks outside of Kabul? Remember the girl in the village below us, asked Steve.

The worst scene of his whole tour was never far from Boone’s mind. He woke reliving it constantly. A Pashtun girl had apparently broken tribal law–probably by having an affair–and was to be subjected to an honor killing. They watched through binoculars from their camoflaged position in the mountains as the village men below stood in a circle around a wood chipper. The girl had her head covered and was kneeling on the ground in the middle of the circle while an angry village elder excoriated her. Steve and Boone had called Centcom and asked, begged, pleaded to intervene. A few well placed shots or a nearby air strike would have broken up the party. Centcom said no. This was tribal justice. Local custom. Do not reveal your position and do not intervene.

The next scene was burned into the synapses of Boone’s brain. Nothing could dislodge it. No amount of alcohol or blind rage took away the slightest detail.

Yea, of course I remember. So what, said Boone.

The girl. I–I knew her, said Steve, his voice on the edge of furious tears.

Boone let that statement sink in for a long minute. What do you mean you knew her, he asked.

She came to our camp with some friends when we were getting ready to deploy, Steve said. We had some laughs and then things took a turn, you know? She was going to meet me when we rotated back. Steve’s voice trailed off. His body shook with silent sobs that had turned the gears of his soul backwards on himself grinding everything in his life to dust.

You were senior officer, Boone. You could have done something and no one would have known. We could have moved our position later. Remember, I begged you but you were fucking regular Army. When I tried to stop them you threatened to shoot me.

We were going to get married, said Steve.

Boone put the Ruger down. He pulled himself to a sitting position, eased himself down onto the hillside and hobbled over to Steve. He picked up the rifle, pulled the firing pin out and threw it as far as he could. He sat down beside Steve.

Steve, I am sorry. I am so fucking sorry, said Boone. I am so fucking sorry. Why didn’t you say something.

I couldn’t. The words weren’t there.

Here. Boone handed Steve the Ruger. You always were better with a pistol, he said. Last chance.

Boone had calculated his odds and believed he knew Steve better than he knew himself. But he would not blame him if he took the opportunity. If he didn’t, maybe there was hope for both of them. Maybe the VA hospital in White City could help them both.

Steve took the Ruger and aimed it at Boone’s forehead. You fucking asshole, he said, taking the Ruger and throwing it as hard as he could down the hill. Help me up.

Boone and Steve helped each other up and stood until both were steady enough on their feet to walk by holding onto each other.

They hobbled to the top of the hill. Boone took out his cell phone, found a weak but steady signal and called 911. The operator in Bend told them it would take two hours to get an emergency vehicle to them. Keep the cell phone on so they could triangulate.

They found shade behind a boulder, sat down saying little, and watched in silence as heat as dazzling waves shimmered across the desert.

Steve, why the dead coyote?

Steve shifted his back against the rock to try and find a position that eased the pain in his shoulder.

When I was out of my mind, everything I saw that was a good hunter reminded me of you. That one came around our place a lot outside of Medford–taking house cats, mainly. After a while it became you, I guess, or at least your stand in until I found you. I put it there to distract you–like the Hajis used to put stuff out to distract us, even for a minute. I regret it now. Worked though, didn’t it?

Yea, I guess it did.

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