The Hunters

by Mike Ingles

It was nearly when dusk Buck and Hank moved south along the Tigris to Yafast Street then over to The Fourteenth of July Street, almost to the middle of Zawra Park. They stood less than three hundred yards from the Unknown Soldier Monument, where there was good cover.

The dust storm threw a rain of sand at their masks making visibility poor and breathing heavy and uneven. Buck wanted to tear the mask away, but Hank sensed his friend's confusion and placed his hand over Buck's mask.

"Easy big fella, you're going to need that".

Buck nodded in agreement, the panic left him, and he pointed to the monument. Hank understood, and they ran through the empty street to the sound of small arms fire less than a block away.

The wind blew hot air as they held a position less than a hundred yards from the monument. Through his dusty mask Buck could make out a few shadows behind the red granite sphere.

"Keep your head down, stay here, I'll check it out', whispered Hank.  

Buck fell to one knee. He could hear his heart pounding through his mask and felt it throb into his ears. He wanted to hurl the mask into the air and shake this yellow dust from his clothes and skin. But he knew that mixed with the dust were invisible gases that would take his breath and leave him bleeding from every orifice. He had seen what these chemicals did to people. He’d stepped over and around hundreds of bodies in the last three days that wore no protection. Dead children holding onto the lifeless bodies of their mothers. The mothers leaked red from their eyes and ears. No protection for these poor fools who lived long enough to see the sand colored army fill their streets, wearing black rubber masks like something out of a nightmare.

He heard shots coming from the monument, and could just make out the dark shadow of his friend coming back to him.

"Got two", said Hank with a grim smile. "I think there are three or four more on the other side, you go this way and I'll go around the far end."

Buck said nothing.

"Hey buddy, hey Buck are you ok?"

Buck nodded, "Let's go".

Within twenty yards of the monument Buck fell to the ground. He listened for any sign of life, but only stillness surrounded him. He wanted to give Hank a few seconds to reach the other side so their ambush would be in sync. He lifted himself, and moved cautiously to the backside of the monument. He heard a small sound, like a puppy whimpering in the dark. He leveled his rifle and moved like a large cat around the red stone.

There were three of them standing there. The children held their mother’s waist and all three held their gas masks close to their faces. Buck froze for an instant, remembering the queen doe in the cornfield. He showed her a card that said in Iraqi, 'friend'. She backed up a few steps and folded the children behind her.

At dusk each day the boys would meet at the lodge to compare stories of the day's hunt and to brag about who bagged the most game, which included squirrel, rabbit, pheasant, quail and deer. The local farmers didn't mind. It was a way of life for these boys, instilled at the age of ten by fathers who knew that becoming a man necessitated they teach their young the importance of self preservation.

How to handle a gun and fend for yourself was as important as any subject they would learn in high school. On gray fall days the four of them would drive past River Ridge High School, wave at the girls and then head to the lodge to get dressed for the hunt. Their sense of freedom, adventure and of becoming men pushed their adrenaline to highs that no schoolteacher could understand. And only fathers could appreciate.

Buck Riden was the leader of this small pack. The pecking order then fell to Chuck Johnson, Merv Collison and finally to Hank Borrows. Buck had learned all he knew about the woods and hunting from his father. He had tramped behind his father in thickets and brush from the age of nine, learning all there was to know, all that any man could understand about the woods and about the hunt.  

The game this day was rabbit. They split into pairs - Buck and Hank, Chuck and Merv. Buck always paired with Hank, because Hank was the youngest and the least prepared to handle a gun. Buck and Hank headed southwest through a harvested cornfield. Chuck and Merv moved north through Miller’s Woods. They would be hunting for six hours and would meet back at the lodge at 3 o'clock.

"Got two". Buck said, as the friends all entered the lodge.

"Got one", said Hank, beaming at the fact that this time he didn't get shut out.

"Got three", said Chuck matter-of-factly.

"Got two" added Merv, "saw three, but couldn't get a shot".

"Looks like you get to clean them again", said Merv to Hank. "You should be getting pretty good at skinning rabbits by now".

"Kiss off Merv, I'm not going to clean eight rabbits, you guys can clean your own."

"No way,” said Chuck. "We all agreed whoever bagged the least would clean the kill."
"I'll help you Hank," offered Buck. "No big deal, we'll have them done in fifteen minutes."

The boys stood in front of the stone fireplace and let the hot waves of air encompass their tired bodies. As always, they all had stories to tell. Chuck saw a red fox and chased him into a thicket but couldn't get a shot. Merv happened upon a black snake and crushed him with a rock. Hank saw a new groundhog lair and marked the spot with a tree branch.  

Buck saw a doe. "Biggest dammed doe I ever saw, had two babies with her. They were eating bluegrass. They saw me and heard me, but didn't run. She acted like she was queen of the valley, like she knew somehow that I wouldn't hurt her. Pretty thing."

The shots rang out from behind them and they fell forward almost in unison, as though they were being choreographed by some unknown hand. Buck could feel his heart growl in his mask. And then innocently, the sound of Hank's voice rifled through the thick air.

"Buck, are you ok?" Hank's voice grew strong against the darkness as he ran to check on Buck.

"Christ Hank, you killed them! They are only babies. Christ sake Hank, you fucking killed a woman and her kids, you crazy son-of-a-bitch!”

Hank checked the bodies for life but felt none. He fell to his knees and began to cry. "Oh shit Buck, I didn't know, I didn't know. Oh God in heaven I didn't know. I could only see that they weren't us. I thought they had you! Oh Christ I didn't know."  

Buck joined his buddy on the ground. The haze that was the sun had fallen off the corner of the earth, and they sat quietly in the dark dusty air.

"Got three"!

Hank stood up. He had stopped crying and began to laugh. "Got three, got three!" he kept shouting over and over again.

Buck stood. "Shut up you crazy fuck, or you’ll get us both killed."

Hank's laughing was uncontrollable. "Tell the guys all about it Buck, tell those sons-a-bitches that I got three!” He pulled off his mask and breathed deeply the yellow poisoned air. The smile was still on his face as his limbs began to tremble violently and a trickle of blood fell from his eyes.

Buck decided that the brass must not find his friend here. There would be questions about the woman and children. He pulled Hank’s body to the red marble wall and leaned his body against it. He pulled Hank's dog tags from his neck, took his wallet and helmet, tore off his name patch and left him there in the dust, with his kill, at the Unknown Soldier Monument.     

© 2003 Mike Ingles

Mike Ingles is a freelance writer living in Ohio. He has a degree in American Literature from Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio.