The Reluctant Marksman
The first shot missed. It kicked up a little spiral of dust on the track in front of me. I knew he'd get my range next time, so I tumbled sideways into the ditch and pressed my body to the ground. The air was full of the smell of wild thyme and the sound of crickets. It was hot - Southern Europe hot, shimmering heat that faded the foliage in the hills and valleys to a silvery gray - but the sweat on my forehead and palms felt cold. Donít panic, I told myself. Keep calm. Work this out.
I had to find the source of the shots. It was my only hope of survival. Then I remembered Westerns from my childhood. The Good Guy always put his hat on a stick to find out where the Bad Guy was hiding. It was worth a try.
I wriggled to the lip of the ditch and poked my white Tilley hat over the edge with a dried out stick. Another shot crashed out and a bullet ploughed into the earth on the far side of the ditch. The smell of thyme grew stronger. Now I knew where he was, on the other side of the road from me, somewhere in the little knot of bushes in the high ground about two hundred yards away.
I pondered my next move. The sniper had seen me walking along the road, alone and unarmed. Perhaps he mistook me for a local, although we were careful to wear colorful clothes - bright striped shirts, white pants - anything that screamed Aid Worker. My own rule was to smile. I never showed aggression. I was always a man of peace. Perhaps that was naïve and simpleminded, but it had worked. Until now.
I thought of standing up and shouting, Aid Worker! in English, but in this part of the world rules of engagement and the notion of innocent bystanders were an alien concept. My mere presence in this shell of a country might be enough for him to kill me. I looked around the ditch. It was more like a gully, not following the line of the road, but meandering on a path of its own. It twisted out of sight on a steep slope, rutted with the tracks of long evaporated spring rivulets. That was my best escape route. All I had to do was wait until dark and follow the gully to the safety of the village, but the comfort of night was hours away and the gunman might get restless.
The ditch was dry, lined with a reddish, powdery dust that stirred every time I moved and settled on my already parched lips. Clumps of wild thyme and rosemary added splashes of faded green to the scorched landscape of late summer. Among them, some thirty feet from where I crouched, was a darker, more amorphous shape that drew my curiosity. I slithered along the ground, careful to keep my head low. It was an old man, gnarled and twisted like an ancient tree. He was dressed in ragged brown pants and a faded yellow cotton shirt. He had been hit in the head. The bullet had sliced across his forehead, digging a furrow that was now full of dried blood and feasting flies. They walked over his staring, dull eyes and crawled in and out of his open mouth. I gagged, tasting the acid bile that flooded my mouth. This could have been me.
Beside him were a canvas bag and a Lee-Enfield rifle. I almost laughed when I saw the rifle. It was like meeting a difficult relative after many years, someone avoided for the arguments they always provoked, but could not be totally shunned because they were part of the family. All of a sudden my past was linked to the present. It added a new twist to the terror of my predicament. I wondered how the old man came to possess such a weapon. Most likely it was left over from World War Two, dropped to partisans by the British, used against the Germans, then hidden in a basement for the day it might be needed again.
I remembered childhood days when my father took me to the Irish Army range in the Wicklow Mountains and taught me how to shoot. "A soldier is trained to kill," he told me, "but he only kills if he has to. There's no pleasure in killing other human beings."
He was the most idealistic of soldiers, serving in Irish contingents of the United Nations in Cyprus, Lebanon and the Congo. He believed the noblest role of a warrior was saving others. Peacekeeping was the perfect outlet for his humanitarian zeal, but he also believed a soldier should be ready to kill in the name of peace and that killing should be done as efficiently as possible. That was why he took me along on his weekend target practice, off-duty, but determined to be the best shot in his unit.
His favorite weapon was a Lee-Enfield. "There are faster, lighter guns nowadays," he said, "but the old 303 will never let you down. Just keep it cleaned and oiled. The mechanism is simple, almost impossible to jam. And itís accurate."
I pictured him handing me his rifle all those years ago as I reached towards the old manís in the ditch. The wooden stock was dry with age, but there was no rust on the metal. I slid the bolt - it was well oiled and moved easily - and looked into the chamber. There were five bullets in the magazine. I made a quick calculation; if this ammunition was left over from World War Two it was more than fifty years old. It might be useless, not fire at all, or blow apart the moment the firing pin hit the cartridge.
In situations like this we were supposed to wait for fellow aid workers, or armed peacekeepers to show up, but nobody would come down this road to my rescue. This was my own expedition, a walk in the hills to stamp out the sadness I felt on the anniversary of my father's death. I wanted him here in this awful country. I needed to talk, to slice through the death and misery and find some path to a decent future. Instead I found myself alone, faced with an anonymous sniper who knew nothing of me except to want me dead.
Despite his intentions, I felt no animosity. The sniper was not my enemy. The enemy for me was what he stood for. It reminded me of tribal hatreds in my own country, hatreds that still flourished, flowing easily from father to son, from mother to daughter, a poisoned cup passed from generation to generation. That was why I needed my father. I needed his wisdom, his insight. I understood the hatred people felt for each other, but I could not find the key to using this baggage of history I carried in my genes to choke off grievance in the Balkans. And now my foolish wandering had put me in the path of death.
The sun began to sink, a disc of gold in the glare of yellow haze. It would soon be night and I could make my escape. It would be risky, but better than the certainty of the waiting gun.
The stillness of the early evening made me nervous. I listened for sounds - the snap of a twig, the crunch of boots on the road - but there was nothing except the low buzz of insects. I was afraid; the fear was physical, sitting over my heart like a cold, wet stone. It made me restless. I wondered what he was doing. Was he content to sit there until I moved, or would he become impatient and hunt me down before I could disappear into the night?
A shuffling sound made me jump. I pulled myself to the lip of the ditch and pushed up through the middle of the thyme bushes, keeping my head low. I could see him exactly where I imagined. He was moving behind a bush, trying to catch sight of me. Suddenly he stepped into the open and began to walk towards the road. He wore old Soviet style fatigues and carried an AK47 at the ready in case I tried to run. I couldn't see his face, but he walked with determination, eager to finish me off. He must think I'm unarmed, an enemy to be wiped out, another debt paid on the insane balance sheet that fuelled his hatred. How could he know the confluence of history and chance that placed me in front of him?
It was one of my father's dilemmas - the instinct of human beings to kill in order to survive. It was riddle he always posed when we talked about pacifism, a riddle he never had to face himself, but now faced me with all the irony of fate.
I had never lifted a gun in anger and yet I could shoot as if the weapon were a part of my body. Those weekends of casual target shooting in Wicklow had turned me into a reluctant marksman. I enjoyed the feel of the rifle against my shoulder. I loved the calm moment before firing and the kick of the rifle when I pulled the trigger. I liked to see the bullet rip into the target, almost always in the center. But it was an abstract thrill, a skill learned on the firing range. I never wanted to use it against people.
I thought about standing up. I could throw myself on the mercy of this stranger who was getting closer with every footstep, but what good was pleading in the face of centuries of hate? I realized there would be no escape down the gully in the dark, no avoiding the choice I had to make. Was I willing to die just to win an argument with my dead father? I thought of my wife and children in Ireland. I thought about their lives after I was gone, but there was another emotion at work. An urge to live fought my passiveness. I made my decision.
I lifted the Lee-Enfield to my shoulder and curled my finger around the trigger. I shut my mind to the figure in front and imagined the targets in Wicklow. Instead of a human being I pictured squares of white cardboard with ever decreasing black circles to a large dot in the middle. The sight on the rifle was simple, a small U over the firing chamber and an upright at the far end of the barrel. "Make a T," I remembered my father saying. "Cross the upright with an imaginary line in the middle of the target. Remember to keep breathing, in and out slowly. Watch the T come apart as the barrel moves up and down with your breathing. Aim so the T is made as you finish exhaling. That's the moment when your body is completely still. That's the moment to fire."
The gunman was about a hundred yards away. He was moving more slowly. His movements were cautious. I took aim at his legs, but I had never fired at a moving target and it was impossible to make a T. I was worried about missing - the Lee-Enfield was a bolt-action single shot rifle; moving the bolt took a few seconds for each new shot, but the sniper's AK-47 was a modern, automatic weapon. He could spray a dozen rounds in my direction in the time it took for me to aim a second shot.
I shifted my aim to his body. There were two large pockets on the chest of his fatigues. They made a perfect crossbar for a T. My heart was beating in a terrifying rhythm, but I concentrated on breathing. Now he was facing me. He was still moving, but the T on his chest stayed in my sight, barely weaving from side to side.
Then he saw me. I could see the change in his walk. He tensed and raised his gun.
But I fired first.
The crash of the Lee-Enfield surprised me - far louder than an AK-47 - echoing across the hills, echoing back through time. I slid the bolt and ejected the empty Marksman/Joyce cartridge, noticing the brass casing was dulled with age. It was a wonder it fired at all. I picked it up and held it. It was still hot and burning in my hand, but I gripped it tightly and looked towards the gunman.
He was on the ground. There was no movement.
My hands were shaking. My body twitched with spasms of relief and regret. I stood up and slid the bolt to click another cartridge into the barrel, but it was an empty reflex. I was incapable of firing another shot. I began to walk forward. There was still no movement from the figure on the ground. The shot had thrown him onto his back with his arms stretched out and his legs splayed apart. Blood, thick and healthy, spread from the wound in his chest. It was right in the middle - the marksman had found his mark - but my attention was drawn more to his face. It was topped with a mass of black curly hair, fine featured and handsome like a storybook hero - young, nineteen or twenty. He had a bemused look, blue eyes staring in surprise at the mystery of death.
© 2000 Garry Dwyer-Joyce
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