Tammy Setzer Denton, Author
St. Charles, MO
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Man of the House
“To write this story you’d already have to be dead;
only the dead can properly write their story”
Bosnia, 1994- Two Years into the War
Each shot must count. Alaga sighted carefully along the barrel of the rusty rifle. Bullets were scarce, more valuable than money. Still more important was the meat he hoped to bring home. His vision blurred, he rubbed a grimy hand across his eyes, forcing them to focus. Hunger, fatigue or hatred caused his target, a large, brown rat to morph into the face of the soldier who had changed his life forever. Steadying himself, he sighted again and squeezed the trigger.
The wasted bullet ricocheted off the concrete spillway scattering jagged, cement shards into a group of fleeing rodents.
“Damn.” He quickly twisted his torso and rolled from where he’d taken the shot. Snipers would mark the spot and return fire. Curled tight behind a hummock of winter weeds, he pressed himself into the ground, striving to become invisible.
He listened, waiting for the sound of return fire. Silence answered. Rising with caution, he scanned the landscape a second time. Twenty meters away, near the spillway, a rat twitched on the ground, mortally wounded.
Da! Yes! Tonight they would have meat to celebrate Zlata’s birthday.
Still cautious, he scurried around patches of snow and ice that peppered the early spring landscape. Although the calendar read April, Mother Nature clung to winter and all the deprivation it brought.
If Alaga didn’t claim the rat quickly, more of its kind would chew its plump carcass. Scavengers gorged on each other as well as the bodies of the ethnically cleansed. Humans suffered and died, and the rats thrived. Refusing to think of what or who had fattened the main course of his sister’s birthday feast, he seized the animal’s ropey tail.
A concrete shard nearly severed its neck. A lucky break. One twist separated its head from the body, and ended its misery. Warm blood drained from its neck, leaving a line of red, melting snow as he walked toward the river to gut and clean his kill. Squatting on the sloped riverbank, he checked the opposite tree line for movement. Finding it deserted, he scooped intestines from the body, flinging them into the icy water. His gaze followed the looped strands of red, blue and gray until they sank out of sight before raising his eyes to watch the bloated, blackened bodies of fellow countrymen drift past, quickly outpacing the stringy discards of his dinner. The cloying sweet smell of decaying flesh filled his nostrils as each corpse passed.
Last year, the same scene caused him to vomit. Now, he watched with dispassionate eyes. The sight was commonplace, his only sentiment a hardened appreciation that his remaining family still survived. He had learned not to look too closely at the floating corpses. More than once, he had recognized the faces of friends from school, boys and girls who had disappeared overnight only to have their tortured bodies float downstream in the days or weeks that followed.
Returning to the task at hand, he peeled back the dark brown, silky fur of the Norwegian rat tugging hard to sever the feet down low. He set the pelt aside for the moment and busied himself trying to camouflage the rat-like characteristics of dinner. Mama would not be fooled, but Zlata, at only six years of age, would believe it was a squirrel if he told her so.
At half his age, Zlata trusted him completely. In her eyes, he was a twelve year old god. He would do anything, everything within his power to protect her innocence and ensure her survival. This gave meaning to his life, and fulfilled his promise to their dying father, a promise that had stolen his childhood just as surely as the war.
Laying aside both the carcass and pelt, he washed blood from his hands in the icy water. He stared at his rippling reflection, searching for the man within the boy.
As always, only a boy returned his gaze. If the man existed, he couldn’t see him.
Most of the time, he felt crushed beneath the yoke of responsibility. Sometimes, he wanted nothing more than to escape back into the mirage of childhood, but never, ever did he feel competent of carrying out his father’s wishes.Why, Papa? Why did you make me promise?
He sighed deeply, purging his thoughts and burying his despair in the farthest corner of his heart. It did no good to dwell on what could not be. He couldn’t change the past, and he was the man of the house whether or not he wanted to be. Whether or not he was prepared.
He retrieved the silky pelt, stroking its smoothness with delicate fingertips. He placed it gently into the bag, next to its former body. The dual entities reminded him of separated Siamese twins he’d seen in newspapers before the war.
Picking up the rifle and game bag, he glanced a final time toward the river. Its surface sparkled in the sunlight, its ghastly cargo now only silhouettes in the distance; more food for the fish he would catch come summer. Beautiful.
Shrugging the bag onto his shoulder, he headed toward home.
“Gentlemen, this is Lieutenant Henson. He will be under our guidance during his stay in Bosnia. He’s to observe our operations and make a full report to UN Headquarters and the Senate Subcommittee upon his return stateside. I expect your full and immediate cooperation with whatever he should ask of you.”
Sergeant Ray Burton sized up the newest addition to the squad. Red hair. The newly-acquired, NATO-issued, blue helmet contrasted against the man’s pasty skin.The skin of a desk jockey. Henson’s coloring, in combination with a lanky frame, reminded Burton of a barber pole.
Major Bradshaw, the commanding officer, spoke with the genteel manner of a well-educated Southern gentleman, his white hair and accent reminiscent of former President, Jimmy Carter. Both, men Burton respected and admired. Barely pausing for breath, Bradshaw continued expounding the merits of the new guy.
With nearly twenty years of duty under his belt, Burton had learned the more elaborate the introduction, the more troublesome the person. By all estimates, Henson was going to be a major pain in the ass.
Standing six feet, four inches tall, Burton used his vantage point to glance over the heads of the new recruits to Corporal Cooper and Private Jackson, the only other seasoned men on this patrol of rookies. Cooper’s eyes held the glaze of boredom, focusing on a point somewhere over the right shoulder of the droning commanding officer. Burton smiled. It was an old trick the newbies had yet to learn. Jackson, not quite as seasoned as Cooper, met Burton’s ice blue eyes briefly before resuming feigned interest in the C.O.’s words.
Burton mentally calculated; nine raw recruits, three seasoned soldiers, an aging C.O. and a desk jockey from D.C. All we need now is a partridge in a pear tree.
Fourteen was a larger group than he preferred for a patrol, but not nearly large enough for an escort vehicle and two truckloads of supplies to travel halfway across a war-torn country.
With the exception of Henson, the rookies looked able-bodied enough, the entire bunch bearing a strong resemblance to the offensive line of a high school football team. Henson looked like their water boy. Burton doubted if any of the new recruits shaved more than twice a week, and he would wager that none of them had volunteered for duty in a hot zone. That particular brand of insanity was reserved for men like him.
Between checkpoints, flat tires and rough roads, Burton estimated two days getting to the drop site, and one to distribute supplies and make observations. With empty trucks, the return trip would take a little less than two. Five days total if ops went as planned, six with problems. Remembering Murphy’s Law, he tacked on one more day, rounding it out to a week.
Major Bradshaw finished his speech, and Burton gave the order to fall out and load up. His men moved to their assigned vehicles.
Burton approached the Major and saluted, “Permission to speak freely, Sir?”
“Permission granted, soldier.” Major Bradshaw glanced around before adding, “What’s on your mind, Burton?” The two men shared a mutual respect for the army and each other.
Burton verified the privacy of their conversation. “Sir, in a convoy, there’s strength in numbers. Two trucks and an escort vehicle is not a convoy. Sir, we’re nothing more than a slow moving target.”
“I see,” said the Major.
Major Bradshaw pulled on his chin and adjusted his blue beret, both signs that
Burton knew well. It meant more information was forthcoming, but not here.
“Walk with me, soldier.”
The two men strolled past the vehicles as the new recruits stowed gear and prepared to move out. When out of audible range, the Major explained. “I understand and I agree. Two trucks and an escort is not a convoy. It is dangerous, but it’s a calculated risk for a greater gain.”
“A greater gain? How, Sir?” Burton wanted all the information. In his experience, having all the intel made the difference between living and dying, and he considered the safety of his men to be a sacred oath.
“This convoy is a test. If we can make it there and back in one piece, Henson reports to his uncle—”
“Uncle? Sorry, Sir, I didn’t mean to interrupt.” Burton raked a worried hand through the stubble of a military haircut.
“Yes, Henson’s uncle is Senator Henson.”
“That would explain a lot,” said Burton. Fuckin’ rich kid.
Major Bradshaw ignored the comment and continued, “Senator Henson has connections with deep pockets to the UN. We make a successful trip, young Henson reports to his uncle, more aid comes in the form of a real convoy and UN mandates regarding our position in Bosnia change.”
“Change? In what way?”
“In a way that will let us fight this war instead of babysitting it.” Bradshaw’s eyes locked onto Burton’s, “I don’t know about you, son, but I’m tired of getting my ass shot at and not being able to shoot back with prejudice. Do you want to win or do you want to lose, soldier?”
Burton snapped a salute, “Win, Sir, win.”
Major Bradshaw insisted on riding in the lead vehicle, a white, reinforced steel GMC. Burton pointed out that by leading the way, the Major created a perfect target for snipers. While the Major brushed aside Burton’s well-founded concerns, Henson’s already pasty face paled to the color of ash.
They reached the first checkpoint in less than an hour’s time. The armored GMC rolled to a halt in front of a wooden roadblock entwined with razor wire and guarded by a ridiculously large number of well-armed JNA (Yugoslav National Army) soldiers.
Burton, riding shotgun in the first truck, watched as a man with hollowed eyes and a hardset jaw took his time approaching the lead vehicle. At the side of the truck, the guard clicked off the safety on his rifle in a show of intimidation.
“State your business,” the guard growled in heavily accented English.
Major Bradshaw leveled a piercing gaze at the man before replying. “United Nations, Humanitarian Aid.” His voice maintained a steady, don’t-give-me-any-shit tone that matched his stare.
“Where are your papers?”
Bradshaw pulled a sheaf of documents from a coat pocket and held them toward the guard.
Snatching the papers from Bradshaw’s hand, the guard flipped through the pages before striding away and disappearing into a small building situated a few meters from the roadblock.
Minutes passed. No sign of progress came from the guardhouse. Ten minutes turned to twenty. After half an hour, they cut the engines and waited.
Major Bradshaw seemed unaffected by the delay, his blue beret pulled low across his eyes, acting as a shield against the morning sun. Burton couldn’t help but admire his cool demeanor.
Henson fidgeted in the seat next to the Major. The Lieutenant looked around and waved his hands with increasing animation as time ticked away. His whine carried back to the truck where Burton waited.
“What’s the hold up? This shouldn’t take so long. I’m definitely going to make note of this in my report.”
More minutes passed. Henson’s fuming increased in decibels, drawing unwanted attention.
Burton listened with growing apprehension as jeers and taunts from a group of off duty soldiers filtered through the air. He wasn’t fluent but, he knew the language well enough to know their remarks weren’t complimentary. Several of the soldiers had been drinking, resulting in alcohol-induced courage and stupidity. They eyed the lead vehicle with a menacing stare before picking up their rifles.
Burton sensed a situation about to go horribly wrong. As the angry group neared, he reached for the door handle. Before he could exit, an officer from the guardhouse returned, thrust the papers at Major Bradshaw, and waved them through the first checkpoint. Burton sighed his relief through gritted teeth, and hoped Henson didn’t create a disturbance at every stop.
* * *
Tired and needing sleep at the end of a long day, Burton swung himself up to the canvas top of the truck. The metal framework holding the canvas in place created a perfect hammock, making it the most comfortable bed in camp. It was also the safest, high above the line of fire.
Jackson swung up to his side, settling into the canvas. Cooper and his crew had first watch. He and Jackson would follow in turn.
Burton grimaced and rubbed a hand across his chest.
“You okay, Sarge?” Mild concern tinged Jackson’s voice.
“Yeah, it’s just indigestion.”
Burton adjusted his position and reclined. “You’d think I’d be used to the food after twenty years.”
“You’d think,” Jackson replied.
Burton looked starward, amazed by the beauty of a perfectly blackened night sky, free from city lights and smog. He watched as stars emerged one by one evoking a deep sense of familiarity and comfort. They soothed him. From his boyhood home in Texas, he had gazed upon the very same stars, constellations creating twinkling maps upon the velvety darkness.
“I got a letter from my wife today.”Jackson patted his breast pocket as if to verify the letter was still there.
Burton detected a quiver of excitement in his voice. In his prime and in love with his wife, Jackson was a man to be envied. “Everything all right at home?” he asked.
“More than all right. She’s pregnant. It’s a boy! I’m going to be a dad.” He jostled the canvas in parental ecstasy.
Burton paused, a moment longer than comfortable, “Congratulations. Be sure to save me a cigar when the time comes.”
“You bet. You got any kids?”
It was an innocent question. Jackson had no way of knowing the abyss he had opened. The stars above winked out of existence, eclipsed by a blackness that descended upon Burton and had nothing to do with the night.
Do I have any kids? He didn’t know how to answer.
“Burton? You all right?”
Burton hesitated, “I’m fine. And, no. I don’t have any kids.”
“It’s our first. She waited until she knew if it was a boy or girl to tell me.” The canvas rustled again in his shrug, “You know, she didn’t want me to worry about not being there.”
Silence filled the air, each man deep in thought.
“She wants me to pick out a name. It’s important having a good name. Something solid, manly. A name a boy can grow into and be proud of.”
Burton did know. He remembered feeling the same way more than a decade ago.
Jackson let out a contented sigh. “A son. A man can’t ask for any better than that. What would you name your son? I mean, if you had one.
Burton swallowed emotions that threatened to seal his throat, “I don’t know.” Irritation cracked his voice. He fought for control and softened his response, “Let me think on it. You better get some shuteye, guard duty comes quick.”
Jackson settled into the makeshift hammock, seemingly a contented man destined for happy dreams.
Sleep, which had seemed so eminent moments earlier, now eluded Burton like foxfire. His mind refused to relax; instead racing to replay nightmares he’d rather forget. Memories pulled, threatening to swallow him. He willed himself to leave the past in the past. He steeled himself against an unwanted invasion. He failed.
Memories bombarded him with relentless accuracy, ripping at and disrupting his heart. Destroying his fragile peace.
How could I have known? Our first father and son campout. Christine had said he was too young, but I insisted. Two men on our own, fishing for dinner, sleeping under the stars. He was fine when I put him to bed, worn out from the day, nearly asleep before his head touched the pillow, but somehow . . . sometime . . . in the night. . .
Minutes passed that seemed like hours. Overhead, the stars slowly re-emerged, this time their tiny points of light mocked him. Their beauty stolen by merciless memory.
Finding it useless to pretend sleep, his body straining from exhaustion, his heart pounding. He lowered himself over the side of the truck.
Jackson stirred. “Is it time?”
“No. Go back to sleep.”
Jackson lay back down, sinking deeper into the canvas top without
Burton’s weight to act as a counterbalance.
“Yeah?” He raised his head.
“Joshua is a good name. If I had a son, I would name him Joshua.”
Without waiting for a response, Burton dropped to the ground, but his heart dropped much further. He landed lightly on the balls of his feet, his heart hiccupping back to a regular beat. Immediately, he reached for his shirt pocket. He needed a cigarette—bad.
Zlata ran to greet Alaga as he neared the house. “Did you get one, Alaga? Did you get one?”
“How many times have I told you not to run out into the open? He grabbed her arm and thrust her behind him for protection. His eyes searched the nearby woods. Incoming mortar fire sounded in the distance. “It’s dangerous. You’re six years old now. You know better.”
“Don’t be angry with me, Alaga. It—it’s my birthday!”
“Birthday or not, it’s still dangerous. Listen.” A whistle warned of another mortar strike. “Hear that? That can kill you.” Half a mile away, the impact still shook the ground. He released her arm and knelt before her, “Promise me, you won’t run outside again.”
Solemn sincerity wiped the smile from her face, “I promise.”
She looked at him with adoring eyes, and Alaga knew he would forgive her anything. He grinned despite trying not to.
Happiness flooded her face, her smile reappearing as quickly as it had vanished.
“Well? Did you get one?” She hopped from foot to foot. “Did you?”
“Have I ever let you down?” he asked while regaining his feet.
“Then, I still have a perfect record.” He patted the game bag with his free hand.
“I’ve got a fine, fat squirrel.” He scanned the tree line again. “Let’s get inside.”
“I knew you would.”
Distracted by another mortar strike, he only half listened, “Would what?”
“Get a squirrel. I told Mama so.” She wriggled like a puppy wagged by its own tail. Guess what?”
He smiled at her unabashed enthusiasm. “What?”
“Mama found a turnip and a carrot!”
“Well, it really is going to be a birthday feast.”
Zlata placed her hand in his and skipped her way back to the crumbling house they used to call home.
Inwardly, Alaga reminisced about birthday feasts of the past, back to a time of plentiful food and sweet cake, to a time when peace was more than a longed-for ideal. Zlata had no memory of those times. She had been too young. Alaga regretted that her birthday memories would consist of rat stew and mortar strikes.
It’s not fair! But then, all fairness had ceased when the war came.
Entering through the back door, Alaga’s boot heels echoed in the empty expanse of their former living room. It used to be a home, but now…? Now it was shelter, and barely that. Soldiers had pillaged anything of value long ago.
With the woods filled with snipers, trip wires and landmines, his family burned anything the soldiers didn’t take. It pained him to hack their furniture into firewood, but tables and chairs were replaceable, people were not. He’d learned that the hard way. Now, little remained to stave off the relentless cold of winter.
Discolored outlines punctuated by bullet holes lined the walls where family photos had once hung. Gouges mutilated the floor, and in the center where it couldn’t be avoided, a large rust-colored stain demanded attention. It sickened him each time he saw it, yet he couldn’t look away. It drew him just as it had drawn flies and scavengers when it first appeared. Stains and bullet holes pretty much summed up life.
Entering the kitchen, Alaga kissed Mama on the cheek and handed her the game bag. “Zlata was outside again,” he said.
“She was? I hadn’t noticed.”
Mama faded a little more with every day that passed. Although he tried, nothing Alaga did seemed to make a difference. She was a shadow of who she had been. If nothing changed, she would soon be a ghost.
“You need to notice, Mama. She could get hurt.” Angry words crowded his tongue, but he bit them back.
She stoked the flames of a small, wood burning stove as if she hadn’t heard a word. “Did you have any luck?” A lonely turnip and withered carrot waited alongside a pot of boiling water—Zlata’s birthday feast.
Before he could answer, Zlata boasted, “Course, he did, Mama. Alaga is the best hunter in the whole world. He got a fine, fat squirrel.”
Alaga’s eyes met with Mama’s over the top of Zlata’s head. No words passed between them. Both knew no squirrel lay in the bottom of Papa’s game bag.
“Ssssh, Zlata. You’ll wake Mirsa.” Something flickered across her face and disappeared.
Worry? Bother? Alaga could only wonder.
Zlata clamped a hand over her mouth and tiptoed to the side of the stove where a small box of blankets warmed. She peered inside at her sleeping sister. A raspy rattle accompanied the labored rise and fall of the baby’s chest and a red spot dotted each of her cheeks.
“Is she any better?” asked Alaga.
“No. No better, but not worse, either.” Mama pulled the rat carcass from the game bag. She grimaced before dropping it into the pot of boiling water. “I hoped her fever would break today.”
Alaga stared into the makeshift crib. Mixed feelings swirled through his mind.
How can I love one sister so much? And the other? The other, so little. If at all.
The winter following Papa’s death, Mama had given birth to a sickly, wheezing baby girl. Mama had named her after his father, which was customary for a posthumous birth but, the baby looked nothing like Papa and very little like Mama. Alaga knew what that implied, but refused to think about it.
Looking at her tucked into the warm corner by the stove summoned unbidden memories. They rushed into his mind and he recalled a Saturday in April. Two years ago. On that day, war came to his village. It knocked on their front door scant seconds before bashing it in. Soldiers flooded the threshold and filled the living room.
Once inside, two held Papa’s arms while the others took turns beating him. The sound of hard knuckles making contact with soft flesh, his father’s moans, and the squishing thud as fleshy tissue turned to pulp. They continued hitting him even after he could no longer stand, and argued among themselves over who got the next turn. The floor reddened with Papa’s blood. He never stood a chance. Five against one. When he finally collapsed, they turned their attention to Mama.
Alaga tried to defend her, attacking the soldier who forced her across the kitchen table. Despite all his force and a lion-sized heart, his small size was no match for an adrenaline-charged adult. With a single mighty shove, the soldier slammed him against a wall, knocking the breath from his lungs, leaving him gasping for air. His legs gave way beneath him, the edges of his vision darkened and he battled to remain conscious. He slid down the wall, his body slumping into the spreading pool of his father’s blood.
Unable to move, and unable to fight, one of the soldiers held his head and forced him to watch as each man mounted and raped his mother. When she cried out, someone hit her with the back of a hand. When Alaga struggled, another struck his head until his ears rang and an eye swelled shut, but never, ever did they allow him to turn away.
The soldiers left as quickly as they had entered, moving on to the next house systematically working their way through the small village at the edge of the forest.
Alaga crawled to his father’s side. His chest heaved with his fin al words, words forever carved into Alaga’s mind. “Take care of them. Promise me. You’re the man of the house now.”
Amazingly, baby Zlata went unnoticed, sleeping through the entire ordeal, peacefully sucking her thumb in a little wooden crib tucked into the warm corner by the stove.
Mama’s voice snapped his thoughts back to the present, but his gaze remained fixed on the baby in the box.
“Do you think you could get some medicine for Mirsa tomorrow?” She reached for her worn carving knife and began cutting the withered vegetables into paper-thin slices.
“I can try. There’s not much left in town.” Alaga sighed, Papa’s last wishes had not included a third mouth to feed and care for.
“You can get it on your way to school.”
School. Zlata picked up on the magical word. “Now that I’m six, I can go to school. Can’t I, Mama?”
“That’s not a good idea,” Alaga asserted. “It’s not safe. It’s dangerous in town. Anything could happen.”
“But Alaga, you said I could go when I turned six. You promised. You always keep your promises… Her voice trailed away in confusion.
Do I? He turned from her, avoiding her gaze.
“That was before.”
Alaga looked to Mama for support. Her eyes refused to meet his, leaving him to struggle for an explanation that Zlata could understand. An explanation that would not destroy her innocence or undermine her trust.
“Before soldiers took over town,” he replied.
“But Alaga, they’re our soldiers,” Mama dumped the vegetables into the pot and stirred.
“Our soldiers, their soldiers, sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference, Mama.” His shoulders sagged, “Once they were all our neighbors. Once, they were our friends.”
“Alaga, you promised,” Zlata whined, waking the baby.
“Mama, can’t you teach her…here, at home?”
“With what, Alaga? We have nothing left to teach with.” Mama busied herself with the fussing baby. “Tomorrow will be a trial run. If it goes well, then Zlata can continue. If you say it’s not safe, then we’ll wait a little longer.”
“I say it’s not safe now.”
“Please, Alaga? Give her a chance.”
Outrage boiled like lava, but Alaga bit back the words that threatened to erupt.
A chance? A chance for what, Mama? A chance to be sighted in the cross hairs of a sniper’s rifle? A chance to be raped? A chance to be disfigured. A chance to be tortured before dying? He shook his head in disbelief, convinced that Mama had lost what little sanity that remained. He looked from woman to child, and back again. Two faces so similar in features yet polarized in expectation. One shining, full of hope. The other, darkened in defeat. Yet, both stood pleading before him, united by a common desire.
“You’ll protect me, Alaga.” Zlata turned adoring eyes upon him. “You can do anything.
He couldn’t fight both of them. Not at the same time. Reluctantly, he agreed, “One day. One day only. If it doesn’t go well, she stays home. No more discussion.” He didn’t like it, but knew nothing else to prevent it. He had done all he could.
Sergeant Burton woke at first light, damp with dew, and eager to get the day started. While coffee boiled, he went to wake the C.O. and Henson. Inside the cab of the GMC, Major Bradshaw lay flat on his back, sprawled across the upholstered seat. Burton tapped lightly on the window. The old man shot straight up, instantly alert, decades of military training in effect.Burton saluted then moved to the second truck.
He approached the next vehicle with caution, unsure of what to expect. In one day, Henson had demonstrated enough anxiety and nervousness to make him dangerous. In Burton’s opinion, a scared man was dangerous, but a scared soldier could be deadly.
He peeked inside the cab, surprised to find Henson curled into a ball, sleeping soundly beneath the steering wheel. Although endearing in a child, the fetal position lacked a certain manliness that Burton had come to expect of his military superiors.
He tapped the glass, and waited. Henson did not stir. He rapped with more force a second time. Henson snored in response. The third time, Burton lost all delicacy, and Henson jumped up in confused wakefulness, fumbling for something next to him on the floorboard.
Burton watched as Henson pointed a wavering gun barrel in the general direction of his face. Confident that Henson lacked the courage or ability to shoot straight,
Burton stood his ground until Henson lowered the weapon with trembling hands. Embarrassment flushed across Henson’s cheeks emphasizing his red hair.
Burton stared without apology, disgust lined his face and he made no attempt to hide it. “Coffee’s ready.” He left without another word, hoping Henson would take the opportunity to pull himself together.
As the day progressed each successive checkpoint proved more difficult, the Serb soldiers less disciplined, their demands more resembling extortion than bribes.
Shortly before dusk, a weary convoy approached the fifth and final checkpoint in a day that seemed much longer than its normal twenty-four hours.
Bearded men, armed to the teeth wearing crossed ammo belts and black fur hats defended a barrier gate. Burton recognized the unofficial uniform of the Seseljevci also known as Chetniks, a group noted for extreme and unprovoked violence. That coupled with an inability to maintain discipline raised the stakes. Past checkpoints had demanded supplies and a certain posturing. This one, this one would require more. In the eyes of the Chetniks, a blood sacrifice wouldn’t be unreasonable.
“3actoj!” The guard shouted what sounded like gibberish. “Halt!”
It was an unnecessary order. The vehicles had already stopped, but the guard continued shouting in both languages as he neared. He wildly waved a Kalashnikov machine gun, discharging a few rounds into the air.
Bypassing the lead vehicle, the guard stuck his head inside the cab of
Burton’s truck. His rancid breath filled the confined area with the stench of contraband whiskey.
“State you business,” he demanded, his already bad accent thickened by too much alcohol.
Burton gave the standard reply, “United Nations, Humanitarian Aid.”
“We no make know United Nations. There ees no nation but Serbia.”
The guard’s air shots had prompted soldiers to emerge from a nearby garrison. Music blared as the door opened and shut, spilling light across a darkening landscape. Each man carried a rifle and a long, curved knife. Burton could tell by their staggering walk that none were sober. He assessed the situation. It did not look good.
“Give me you papers.” The guard’s words stumbled over his thick tongue.
Burton handed him the sheaf of documentation and inventory papers, now curling at the edges from wear.
“This ees sheet. Mean nothing.” He threw the papers to the ground, grinding them into the dirt. His voice rasped, “Everybody out. Hands een air.”
The newbies turned all eyes to Burton for confirmation of the order. With trepidation and slow, steady movements Burton first, then Major Bradshaw and his men exited the trucks and lined up alongside the gravel shoulder.
“Hands behind you heads!” The guard performed, showing off to his peers, waving his rifle closer and closer to the terrified faces of the new recruits.
Although orders were meant for everyone, Major Bradshaw’s emblems and insignia of rank marked him for special abuse. Drunken soldiers shoved the silver haired officer from side to side before landing a punch to his kidneys.
Burton objected, “Leave him alone. We’re guaranteed safe passage by the JNA.” He knew the JNA meant nothing here, but he had to try. The original guard rewarded him with a sharp blow to the side of the head. Blood trickled from his ear. He could almost see the man’s chest swelling with pride.
“There eess no guarantee. Here, I make law. Only law.”
Rough hands searched them for weapons, disarming everyone. Weapons passed from hand to hand until all had disappeared into the restless and growing crowd. A soldier ripped Jackson’s wife’s letter from his pocket.
“Loook. A luve letter.” He flourished it before Jackson’s face, taunting him to fight back.
Jackson clenched his fists, and rose to the bait. A rifle butt slammed into his stomach, dropping him to his knees, leaving him gagging and gasping for air.
More soldiers ransacked the trucks. Bags of flour and sugar exploded as they hit the ground. Medicine passed into the crowd, squirrelled away for future use or sale. Clothing tossed aside and trampled beneath heavy boots.
“On you knees. “All you. Now or die!”
A whack caught the back of Burton’s legs, and he crumpled to the ground. Chetniks followed the first guard’s lead, and the rest of Burton’s men followed like dominoes on a downhill slope.
The bearded guard in charge bent to Burton’s ear. He whispered, “Where are weapons and whiskey? Make thees easy. You tell me, and we no make search.”
Burton replied, “We have food and water for the living, morphine and clotting powder for the wounded, shovels for the dead. That’s it, nothing else. No weapons, no whiskey.”
“You lie!” the guard snarled. He struck Burton across the face, and more blood flowed. He grabbed Burton’s chin and directed his gaze to a tree a short distance away. Hanging, silhouetted against the setting sun, a corpse swung in the breeze. Clothing hung in tatters on the withered and blackened body.
“That ees last man make defy me.” Pride echoed in the guard’s too loud words. He paced before the row of kneeling soldiers. “Which of you want make join him?”
He tested their courage, pushing helmets off their heads, stroking their faces with
the tip of a steely gun barrel, pressing it into their mouths.
“Maybe, you.” He moved to the next man in line, “Or you.” Provoking each one in turn. Waiting for a response, an excuse, he continued down the line. Reaching Henson, he hauled the shaking Lieutenant to his feet. “It ees you, I think.”
Even in the dimming light, Burton saw Henson’s face blanch and grow paler.
“I’m not with them, I’m an observer,” Henson protested. “Take someone else. Not me,” he begged.
Burton doubted if the guard understood Henson’s begging, but knew he understood the sentiment.
“No, I you choose,” the Serb answered, then laughed.
Burton knew the psychology of breaking the weakest link held true in any country. Apparently, the Serbs knew it as well.
More bearded soldiers arrived, now forming an uncontrollable mob. One tied Henson’s hands behind his back while another looped a noose around his neck.
Henson’s eyes rolled white with panic, and his knees buckled. Once again, they hauled him to his feet. The rope pulled tight around his neck. They jerked, and he stumbled toward the hanging tree.
“Help me!” he cried.
Burton shifted his eyes left and right, searching for a way to save Henson. Regardless of his dislike, without Henson, there was no possibility for success. Men with guns pinned them from every direction. It seemed hopeless. His eyes met with Major Bradshaw’s and the old man shook his head. Negative. Henson was on his own. If he escaped, it would be by his own doing.
The bearded guard in charge returned. “Maybe, one more,” he slurred, drawing a knife from his belt. He scrutinized the line of kneeling men. His eyes passed the Major and came to rest on the Sergeant.
Burton felt the stare before raising his head. Ice blue eyes met with bloodshot brown.
“Thees one too.” He touched the blade of a long knife to Burton’s chin.
Burton refused to look away or beg for mercy.
The blade flashed silver as the guard turned it from horizontal to vertical, nicking
Burton’s chin causing a bubble of blood to well up around the tip of the blade. “Yes, take him,” he ordered.
Burton knew that hanging the weakest prompted panic; killing the strongest brought submission. Although Major Bradshaw held a higher rank, it was clear he was a figurehead. Burton possessed the command as every member of the patrol had looked to him first.
Serb soldiers wrenched Burton to his feet, tied his hands and encircled his neck with a coarse rope. Unlike Henson, he retained his composure as they led him to the hangman’s tree. Falling apart did no good for anyone.
One man threw the end of Burton’s rope over the tree limb, crowding the withered body already there. Several men seized the end and pulled. The rope tightened, digging into the tender skin of Burton’s neck. With the rope taut, he felt his neck lengthen until it could stretch no more. To his right, Henson thrashed. His gasps and cries carried through the chilled night sky as he begged for mercy. Burton constricted his neck muscles and rose on his toes as the rope pulled his body upward. One foot lifted off the ground. Is this how it ends? After all this time trying?
Bright lights pierced the darkness. Headlights swung across the road, slicing across the line of kneeling men. Taillights flashed as a battered Jeep tore past them, heading toward the hanging tree. It skidded to a stop next to Burton and his escorts.
A slender, dark-haired man sprang from the Jeep, his movements heralded by a barking dog riding shotgun. The unknown man took in the scene with a single glance, “What’s going on? Who gave orders for this?”
The bearded guard stiffened.
Burton recognized the ring of authority in the new man’s voice. Here was the true leader of the group, and from the way he glared at the ringleader of the drunken soldiers, he didn’t appreciate impersonators.
“Take those ropes down.” His quiet voice penetrated the mob and a deadly silence filled the air. No one spoke. No one whispered.
With a single jerk, the rope attached to Henson’s noose slithered from tree limb to ground in a harmless coil like a dead snake. Henson fell to his knees, relieved to the point of tears. With the rope slackened, Burton settled onto the flat of his feet. The hangman’s rope cascaded down upon him. Only then, did he relax the muscles in his neck.
The mob, now shuffled uncomfortably as the ringleader and the real leader argued. Verbal bullets flew between the pair, far too fast for Burton ’s limited language abilities. The argument between the two Serbs didn’t last long.
As the chastised imposter approached, he waved a long knife in front of Burton’s face. They locked eyes. Again, Burton refused to look away. The guard, though angry, lowered his blade and cut the rope binding Burtons’ hands.
Burton rubbed the bruised skin on his wrists before removing the noose from his neck. When the Serb held out his hand for the rope, Burton let it fall to the ground further humiliating the imposter. While the guard retrieved the rope, Burton retrieved Henson, half-dragging him back to the convoy.
With his back turned, a shot rang out. Burton turned in time to see the ringleader guard crumple to the ground, a smoking gun in the newcomer’s hand.
The slender, dark-haired man brushed past them, stopping in front of Major Bradshaw. “I am Captain Radovan.” He bowed slightly. “Major, I apologize for my men’s behavior.” He stooped to pick up the papers thrown to the ground earlier. “If the JNA guarantees safe passage, then it will be so. You have my word.”
Burton knew the Major well enough to read the skepticism painted across his face. He handed off Henson to Corporal Cooper, and went to Bradshaw’s side.
“Return these men their weapons,” the Serb leader shouted. He turned back to Major Bradshaw with a greasy smile. Like a drop of oil in water, his smile promised rainbows, but delivered death. “You see, we mean you no harm. Stay.”
Major Bradshaw folded the traveling documents, and handed them to
Burton. The two NATO soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder. Behind one of the buildings, a generator growled into operation, and pole lights bloomed with electricity throughout the compound. In the improved lighting, Burton noticed a thin, sinister scar carved into the perimeter of Radovan’s face.
The pause before Bradshaw spoke was pure theatrics, and Burton knew it just as he knew that only a snowstorm in hell would prevent them from putting distance between the convoy and here.
“Thank you, but no. We have many miles yet to travel tonight
“Are you sure? These roads are treacherous even for a native.”
“We’ll be fine.” Major Bradshaw’s tone left no doubt of his intention.
Radovan stepped aside with an exaggerated gesture, “If you insist.” He waved his men away from the road to allow the convoy to pass.
Burton gave the signal to move out. Seconds later, the trucks chugged past the barricade and began the steep descent down the mountainside.
In the close confines of the cab, Burton listened to Henson fume in a feeble attempt to restore his dignity. “Geneva Convention, NATO mandates, we’re guaranteed certain rights.”
“Guarantees? Rights?” Burton exploded, “Listen, Henson, this is war. War respects no man, woman or child, and it especially doesn’t respect us.
“I don’t understand. We’re the United States. Everybody respects us.”
“For Christ sakes, Lieutenant, we’re not the US. We’re the UN. We have no authority here. Our hands are tied, and the Serbs know it. We barely have permission to defend ourselves and certainly not to defend anyone else.” He pulled the blue helmet from his head, slamming it upon the seat between them. “This for example. They call us Smurfs. Fucking Smurfs. Or didn’t you know that? Make sure you put that in your report.Washington needs to know what’s really going on over here. Maybe then, they’ll stop sticking their heads up their asses and let us do something about it.”
For once, Henson had nothing to say.
Despite narrow roads, hairpin turns and treacherous switchbacks, the convoy drove through the night. In the wee hours of morning, exhaustion demanded they stop. Even so, the mileage between them and the Seseljevci remained minimal. Both mankind and nature conspired against them in the form of deteriorating roads and poor visibility. Foggy fingers combed the trees and ventured onto the roadway, obscuring craters left from earlier bombings.
When progress seemed impossible, the convoy stopped in the middle of the road. In case they had been followed, Burton posted lookouts and six of the fourteen men slept in shifts, and rotated guard. He exempted Major Bradshaw out of respect and rank. He exempted Henson out of fear for the harm he might cause.
Pushed to exhaustion, Burton drifted into a disturbed sleep, his head resting on arms draped over the steering wheel. Defenses down, memories flooded his consciousness and nightmares pulled him back in time to events he would rather forget.
Sometime in the night I awoke. Josh’s sleeping bag was empty. I thought I would lose my mind. Maybe, I did. I searched the camp. The woods. All the while shouting for my boy. My son. My only child. Josh? Josh! Where are you?
Burton awoke with a wrench, bumped his lip on the steering wheel, and tasted blood. His nightmares shredded like cobwebs in morning’s gray light, and weak sunbeams filtered through the trees. The fog retreated as silently as it had appeared.
He fumbled with the key before cranking the engine over. Soon, all three vehicles roared awake and white exhaust added to the morning haze. With daylight came a false sense of confidence, and the first two vehicles sped ahead, eager to leave last night’s problems far behind.
Last in line, Burton put the truck in gear and let out on the clutch. The truck bucked and sputtered to a stop. He cranked the ignition a second time, but the engine refused to turn over. His stomach tightened with dread, and his heart skipped a beat. He watched helplessly as the tail lights of the escort and first truck disappeared around a curve obscured by a cloud of dust.
“What the fuck?” Henson screeched. “Why aren’t we going?” He grabbed for the keys, attempting to start the engine.
Burton shoved Henson aside, slamming him against the door. A crack spidered across the glass where his head hit. Burton tried the ignition again.
Nothing. What the fuck?
He ordered Jackson, Jacoby and Wallace out of the truck and to the rear to push. Behind the steering wheel, Burton jammed the clutch to the floor, and shifted into second gear. On his signal, the men put their shoulders to the truck, and it slowly rolled forward. When it picked up speed, Burton popped the clutch. This time, the engine fired to life with a jerk, and his men scrambled aboard without delay.
Anxious to catch up, Burton gunned the engine and the truck lurched forward and around the bend. Less than three minutes had elapsed.
Out of the corner of his eye, Burton watched as Henson rubbed his head and whined in exaggerated pain. Drama queen. I hope he has a concussion.
Ahead, Burton spotted the armored GMC escort. A split second later, it hurtled through the air, propelled by a massive detonation. The vehicle reverse-flipped, front over end. Burton’s eyes registered everything in frame-by-frame, slow motion detail: hood, front tires, undercarriage, rear wheels, tailgate, roof and back to the hood again. An arm flailed out the window. Flames raced along a broken gas line. The crash assaulted his ears when the truck impacted. Another even more deafening explosion followed as the gas tanks ignited. Bits of metal, shards of burning rubber and clods of earth hailed from above. A single, blue beret drifted to the ground as softly as a snowflake.
The driver in the truck that followed slammed on the brakes and veered to the right. The left wheels lifted off the pavement and the truck careened off the road. It teetered between vertical and horizontal before skidding to a halt, the passenger side plowed into the dirt, the driver’s side stranded to the sky. The stench of gasoline permeated the air. The air around the second truck shimmered as gas vaporized into the atmosphere. One wheel still spun as the engine sputtered to a stop. Boxes of food, vials of medicine and shovels lay strewn about, dotting the landscape.
Burton brought the truck to a halt. He and his men leaped out and ran toward the overturned truck. Cries for help and moans of pain mingled with the fumes of gas in the air.
Bloodied Cooper clawed his way through the driver’s side window, and dropped to the ground before Burton could reach him.
“Where are you hurt?” Burton ran his hands over Cooper. “Where’s the blood coming from?”
“I’m okay,” Cooper said. “It’s not mine.” He wiped his face with a sleeve. “Nelson didn’t make it.”
Shouts from the other side of the truck brought Burton running. Movement beneath the canvas brought hope that someone else had survived. He slit the fabric top of the truck, and Jackson and Wallace helped pull a battered Jones from the wreckage.
Kohenskey and Ortwerth, both too injured to escape without assistance, remained trapped amongst the boxes and bent framework.
“We’re going to get you out,” Burton shouted. “We’re not going to leave you—” His words were cut short by the cold steel of a gun barrel against his temple.
“I think that is exactly what you’re going to do.”
Burton raised his eyes and stared back into the scarred and smiling face of Captain Radovan. “You?”
“I told you these roads were dangerous.”
He waved Burton to the road, guiding his steps with the barrel of a nine millimeter. Six of Burton’s men already waited, stripped of their weapons, kneeling in an eerie déjà vu of last night’s events.
“What’s happening?” shouted one of the trapped men.
Radovan fired a shot in the direction of the truck, effectively silencing any more questions. His men commandeered Burton’s truck, and jettisoned supplies, making room for a mounted machine gun.
Radovan removed Burton’s weapon from its holster, and flung it into the woods. “You can get it later,” he told Burton, “if you dare.” He shoved the nine millimeter into the small of Burton’s back. “Kneel with your hands above your head.”
“Wait!” Henson blurted. “My family has money. They’ll pay you.”
“Will they pay for your friends?” Radovan asked. He waved a hand to indicate the other men. He paused to light a cigarette, inhaling deeply.
“They’re not my friends,” said Henson.
Burton shook his head in disbelief. Is he that stupid?
A groan escaped from the overturned truck.
“Are those men your friends? Radovan nodded toward the truck, the tip of his cigarette glowing.
Perhaps buoyed by his progress, Henson replied with confidence, “No.”
“Then you won’t mind.”
Burton watched helplessly as Radovan flicked the burning cigarette toward the overturned truck. A brilliant flash blinded him nanoseconds before he was knocked unconscious, the memory of Radovan’s broad smile engraved in his mind forever.