MONDAY: Cheshire Cat

BY CHRIS G. W. NEILL

Copyright is held by the author.

SERGEANT BAMM BAMM STARKER was the funniest guy I’d ever met. I was only 22 when I signed up for regular duty so I guess I hadn’t met that many people yet. But he was just the type of Section Head that a bunch of young recruits loved because he made you feel secure with his bizarre sense of humour. He gave you the sort of feeling that it would all be kind of okay in the end.

We were down on the last spur of hills before the isthmus where the sierra cut away, overlooking the old volcanic plateaus covered with jungle and cut by hard rock waterfalls. We formed a small camp of 80 recruits; with some bone-head lieutenant in charge, a bunch of corporals, and Sergeant Bamm Bamm.

September’s end was balmy-cool on the jungle plateau, the nights were clear and calm and our camp held the high strategic ground in the central lands where a long campaign of scouring rebels from the interior was coming to an end.

Bamm Bamm thought it would be fun to take a few of the new recruits on an ambush. The rebels were pretty much routed anyway. He got clearance pretty quick and eight of us jumped on the opportunity to run an Op with our favourite Sarge. We were all excited and giddy, and Sergeant Bamm Bamm was full of absurd remarks so it was all just a great night out on the town for us.

The gully that cut through the last drop before the isthmus was the final staging ground for the remnant rebel forces. The ravine that marked our target had been shelled so many times that there was as much spewed-up dirt and shattered vegetation as there was natural landscape.

Bamm Bamm took us on a two-day hump through the jungle foothills until the only landform remaining was a blind gully capped by a 180 metre drop. I never really understood why a rebel base would be stationed at the bottom of such a drop. There was only one way out — down the edge of a shallow creek hemmed by sloping rock and jungle on both sides for six miles.

Bamm Bamm took us to the edge of the plateau and snuck us down to a slumped ledge 30 metres under the flat lip. It hugged the irregular cut and was never more than two metres wide, with a rocky, leafy drop of a 150 metres into the gully below; which would have smashed you to shit if you fell.

We were hyped and ecstatic, privileged to be with Sergeant Bamm Bamm Starker. And it was an easy gig. The rebel camp was situated way below us and cut off by the rock wall. We snuck in at dusk on a moonless night so we couldn’t be seen. There weren’t that many of us so we were harder to detect.

I was feeling a bit guilty about ambushing the rebels from a completely safe vantage point. Sure, they could fire back but they wouldn’t really be able to see us. They would have nowhere to go except to stumble down the rocky bed of the ravine while we picked them off from above.

Oh well. They’d have done the same to us. I was sure that the others in our little troop were justifying the ambush; each in their own way. Sergeant Bamm Bamm had joked about “duck soup” and “worm bait.” We had laughed our asses off. It was never what he said, which was usually juvenile and commonplace, it was the retarded faces he made when saying it. And he always got this stupid little grin on his face just before making some absurd remark.

We were expecting just such a comment when we reached a collapsed rock wall, which provided a perfect platform for all of us to climb onto and lay flat; bushes all around us, ready to shoot rebel “worm bait.”

I was third in line — behind Barton and Derbyfield. They were big guys, younger than me. At first I couldn’t see Sergeant Bamm Bamm’s face; just the right half of his torso past Barton and Derby. I felt thrilled, looking for that absurd grin he got on his face when he was about to say something really stupid.

John Law was next behind me — he was a bit of a geek, sometimes annoying. Law was just as excited and ready to joke it up with whatever gimbo nonsense came out of Sergeant Bamm Bamm’s yap. As the Sarge came even with Derby, Law opened his mouth to give the usual, familiar address we liked to use to greet him. He started to say, “Bamm – Bamm!” but the Sarge hit him with the butt of his rifle hard enough to knock him senseless.

It knocked us all senseless. We just stood there and gaped at poor John Law, twitching on the ground.

We had never really seen Sergeant Bamm Bamm serious. Oh, he was a competent soldier, knew his stuff, ran the drills and kept a straight face when saluting the upper ranks; but that was just routine.

No. The look on his face at that moment was worse than serious. He was terrified. Like a trapped animal. He was going through a battle drill as his only recourse; starting with a head count and assessment of available assets. One of those assets was presently unconscious. The rest of us were now so fucking panicked that we were ready to jump off the ledge and roll down into the ravine to escape from whatever it was that had Sergeant Bamm Bamm so spooked.

Derby started to scream.

I saw the Sarge twist to face him. I leaned back a bit, expecting to see Bamm Bamm smash Derby in the head like he had done to Law. He made some gesture at Barton and Barton wrestled Derby to the ground and literally sat on him.

Someone started to whimper. I think it was Konigsberg. It could have been Patterson. Bamm Bamm looked right at me with an expression I have never seen in anyone: loss, dread, indecision. It was accompanied by a very odd sound — a dull, soft, hollow, metallic “thwoop.” There were three of them in a row. That’s what mortar fire sounds like.

That’s what it was.

Bamm Bamm grinned at me. Weird grin — not, “I’m gonna say something retarded and make you laugh” grin.

I just wanted to get out of there. Why wasn’t Sergeant Bamm Bamm moving?

Then the mortars hit. They were well-placed. One hit 50 metres down the slumping ledge we had followed in and caused a major landslide. The second shot hit 80 metres ahead of us, too high up on the slope but it brought down so much rubble that a new gouge was left in the cliff face. The third went right over our heads on a steep angle, dropped 100 metres below us, and shook our precarious ledge like an earthquake.

Rifle fire from below added to the chaos.

Sergeant Bamm Bamm dropped to his belly and began to return fire. Barton jumped up off Derby in a panic but there was nowhere to run to so he dropped to his belly beside Bamm Bamm and started shooting. Sung Su hit the ground and followed Barton’s lead by shooting down the slope, although I don’t think he was hitting anything other than trees. The others were yelling and shooting and I shit my pants.

I mean it. My bowels just turned to water and it all came out.

“Neill,” Sergeant Bamm Bamm hollered at me. I think he wanted me to get down.

That’s when I saw it. Twenty metres ahead there was a rough cut through the wild sage behind the flat rock that we had planned to use as a strike platform.

I ran for the cut.

Sergeant Bamm Bamm watched me run with a confused look, maybe some irritation.

Everyone was shooting.

The rebels were shooting up at us.

It was odd. I’m sure I stunk to high heaven and if not for the dark and the panic, I’d have been one hell of a laughable sight. I tell myself even now that it was a perfectly natural reaction to danger; the body doesn’t want to be keeping a ton of waste matter warm when its existence is on the line.

Despite all that horrible mess, or because of it, I felt light and clear and energized.

“Sarge,” I hollered back while standing on the first upslope of the cut. It was irregular and steep but it led right to a sizeable shelf that would let us reach the top.

There were three more soft, hollow, metallic “thwoops.”

Sergeant Bamm Bamm jumped up, yelling orders — simple, straightforward orders, “Move, move, move.”

Everyone moved. They followed Bamm Bamm to the cut.

We all knew that in about 10 seconds the shells would start to hit.

I scrambled up the cut while Bamm Bamm shoved everybody up the slope one or two at a time.

All three shells went down the ravine. The ledge was no more than two metres wide. It was pretty hard to hit. But they could cause the whole slope to break away with us on it.

By the time I reached the upper shelf the rebels below us had stopped firing; maybe because we weren’t shooting anymore, probably because the mortar shells were exploding too far down and causing avalanches.

I could see the angle to the top and made a dash for it as Bamm Bamm shoved a whining, John Law into Sung Su — his burden now.

“Hey,” Bamm Bamm whispered in a shout at me.

I understood.

There were rebels up top with mortars and, no doubt, hand weapons.

Bamm Bamm took the lead. I followed close behind; a quick look at my buddies. They were all still alive and whole.

I grinned a joyous grin denoting a total lack of understanding, a quick look at them all, all of them looking up at me, heading up the rough angle to the top, with my drenched fatigues, grinning stupidly with a, “fucking happy as a pig in shit to see you all alive” – grin.

We made the top, Sergeant Bamm Bamm and me. Bamm Bamm was laying down a pattern across the flat, jungle plateau; shooting a burst one way, crouching to shoot a burst another way.

I followed suit.

We could hear the first of our troop making the top. Odd, I guess. We both stopped to listen.

Nothing.

Maybe the rebels were all dead. Or maybe they ran off. I looked to Sergeant Bamm Bamm for instructions. He had that retarded grin on his face — the one he got when he was about to say something really stupid and juvenile and make you laugh your ass off.

Then his head was gone.

Not really gone — gone. Just a lot of pulpy red and his helmet blew away like some law of physics had just been broken and I was left looking at his stupid grin floating in the air.

Barton rushed by me, his rifle ablaze and Sung Su hit the ground on his belly with his gun already spewing spent cases. My buddies all opened fire as soon as they each made the top. Even wimpy, John Law, opened up at the foliage.

I was shaking and wondering why I was shaking until the 30 round clip in my rifle went dry. I snapped in another clip and looked around but all I could see was that grin.

Then it was over.

Quiet.

And calm.

“Fuckin-A, buddy.” Barton slapped my shoulder then took point to lead us back.

“I got your backs,” I offered as an excuse for not moving.

“Right-on.” Sung Su punched my chest with camaraderie and took his place in line.

They all gave me a manly punch as they formed a single line and headed into the wasted jungle foliage.

I waited until they all went by and let them get ahead a bit. I couldn’t force myself to turn around to take one last look at Sergeant Bamm Bamm. I felt a little guilty that I didn’t check over Bamm Bamm’s gear for some memento, his dog tags, a favourite knife, or something. We didn’t take anything back that belonged to Sergeant Bamm Bamm; not even his weapons.

I just stared out over the leafy plateau, watching the dark silhouettes get smaller, waiting for some surreal comment to break my mood.

It never came.

All I could see was his grin. It was just floating in the air like some absurd expression.

We humped it back all night across the jungle flats. We never stopped. I chugged along with the rest of them and I’m still chugging.

They had a big party for us and they all bought me beers and slapped my back and said, “Fuckin – A” so many times I thought it was all I would ever remember.

There were never many girls in the force but they all seemed to be there and they all seemed to want me, and no one was jealous; rather, they encouraged me on so I let the best looking nurse take me to bed and we played and we rolled and she said that I was way better than she thought I would be so I even went looking for her the next day but she wasn’t there so I tried to remember how juicy she was with her big tits and big ass and her kind of pretty face for all its rough ways but I never saw her again because they transferred me out to do recon up north, which was supposed to be some kind of promotion with much better pay, but I would rather have settled down with the nurse or just made her my girlfriend long enough so that all I could think of was tits and sex or my drinking buddies patting me on the back and the big brass pinning medals on my chest, but none of that ever lasted long enough and I doubt that it would ever really matter because no matter what I do . . . that’s not the last thing I remember.

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4 comments

  1. Georgia Dayley

    A very accomplished piece of writing. Vivid characters and the dialogue, action and narrator are spot on.

  2. Bev Bachmann

    Riveting from beginning to end. A deeply moving story that shines the spotlight on fear and what it can do to people. Well done!

  3. Pingback: RERUN FRIDAY: Cheshire Cat |
  4. Dave Moores

    Riveting and well done for sure but I do have a couple of quibbles.
    I had to read it more than once. First off I wasn’t totally sure of the geography and who was where, and if our narrator was able to quickly scramble to the top then the range was too short for the bad guys up there to use mortars.
    Second, it took a second and third reading for me to be able to guess what exactly the narrator did to make him the hero.
    Would it have been a more satisfying story if Bam Bam had been killed sooner and then his smile told our hero what to do?

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