The RPG cage rattled as the Stryker barreled down the doubletrack road. The patrol leader, Sergeant First Class Burns, stood in the commander’s hatch with tight fists and his checkered scarf up to his eyes. Burns told himself to be cool. Inside he was flapping like a hooked trout. Tonight, their target was a safehouse for a Sunni militia captain. This was a mission no one wanted, for there was a sandstorm brewing in the eastern desert. If caught in the blinding sand, Burns’ men would be cutoff from air cover and medevac. The platoon would beat the storm if shit didn’t go sideways. Be cool, Burns told himself again.
They snaked through the stinking streets of Al-Hayy. As they navigated the roundabouts, Burns issued commands to the driver. “In at the six, out at the twelve.” Then, “In at the six, out at the three.” Checking over his shoulder, Burns saw the four Strykers in tail holding their intervals. On they went. Burns was calm, at least on the outside
A half hour into the drive, they crossed a median south of Al-Hayy. Exposed rebar in the median flattened two tires on the second Stryker. They halted for a tire change. Burns said, “Shit has gone sideways.”
The radio beeped, “2-7, this is 2-2. Blue Force Tracker shows an engineer convoy two clicks west. They’ve probably got a power-jack. Let’s get ‘em on the horn.”
Burns answered, “I ain’t asking pot-bellied engineers for help.” As a matter of principle, Burns didn’t ask others for help. It was poor form in the infantry.
A red-faced corporal from first squad fumbled with the hydraulic jack in the dark. Burns snatched the jack and set it himself. He then threw in a twist of tobacco and wrenched off the lug nuts. The corporal was standing there looking dumb so Burns told him, “Grab Alpha Team and get me two fuckin’ tires, like yesterday,” and the corporal was running before Burns finished the sentence. Four sweaty men set the new tires and the platoon was moving again, a half hour behind schedule.
Once more, Burns stood tall in the TC hatch, his body exposed above the waist, as if he’d already forgotten about the two IEDs the night before. The Strykers topped out at 55 mph, their pistons pumping inside turbocharged engines. The sweet scent of diesel combustion vanished in the wind. There was only the clean smell of the desert. Burns loved that smell.
The squad in back of Burns’ Stryker were all standing half out the hatches, sweeping their guns and lasers across the palms and blackrock desert. Sergeant Garcia stood closest to the ramp, silenced MP5 pulled into his shoulder. He was slaying dogs for no particular reason. “Did you see that shot?” said Garcia, lasering the dog he had just dropped, “On the move at 50 meters. It’s hard being this good.”
The badlands in the east were sun-cracked. Sand dunes marked the horizon where the storm would come from. About 0345, the platoon pulled up short of an unnamed village and scanned with thermals. Burns spied what looked to be a colony of sand castles ringed by a palm grove. Inside the village, lampposts and courtyard floods cast hoops of dim light, but no one stirred.
Burns told the driver, “Shoot the gap, there—don’t slow down,” and they were off again. Reaching the village, they rumbled through the main thoroughfare without tapping the brakes. Burns saw electric lines ahead. The twisting network of lines were strung up between the houses, running up and down and crisscrossing the road. Some ran lengthwise to a rookery of huts that must have been the village bazaar. This tangled web was the power grid, the arteries and veins of a clay village that seemed a biological extension of the desert.
The squad boys in the back hatches ducked to avoid being clotheslined. Burns’ Stryker turret ripped down the first few lines, which twisted and knotted over the hull. There were flashes and sparks and cracks of electricity as more lines snapped off and whipped about. On they went, bringing down more lines. What the turret missed, the Stryker’s antennae did not, and by the far end of the village, a few dozen electric lines were wrapped around Burns’ Stryker, some dragging behind it, some still glowing with current. Burns rose in the hatch, saying, “Everyone up,” through the intercom. The squad boys in back emerged like gophers and aimed once more at the desert. Behind them, the village was now dark. The platoon crossed into palm groves, and three miles on, they halted at the rally point.
They circled the Strykers, dismounted, and hustled into a screen of grasses and reeds. A half mile later, they blew in the target house’s metal door with a water charge. A man with bed-head and a Kalashnikov came running down the stairs to see about the fuss. Burns shot him in the face and his head exploded like a water balloon across a tiled wall where a family picture hung. Burns kicked away the gun and stepped over the body. The assault squads fanned through the rooms. They cleared the house in one long minute, but their man was nowhere to be found. They tossed the rooms. Garcia smashed dinner plates on the kitchen floor where two old women sat wailing. They left the women on the floor and exited the house.
Burns marched for the Strykers as dawn reared up brown in the east. In came the first grains of the storm. Burns blinked sand from his eyes, and radioed Garcia, “Storm’s a’coming.” First squad emerged from the house carrying plastic bags with confiscated cell phones and thumb drives and digital paraphernalia. They trotted for the Strykers, once more crossing the palm grove, following the same swath they had trampled during their silent infil. Burns waved at them to hurry.
Garcia skittered through the grass and came up panting, telling Burns, “Thought you might try to leave us.” Just then, Garcia yelped and jumped and ran wildly ahead. He only made it twenty feet before he dropped. Garcia rolled, calling out, “Something bit me, something bit me.” There was panic in his voice. It all happened in a blink.
Turning on his rifle-mounted flashlight, Burns scanned the grass. There he saw a cobra with shiny skin and vertical pupils. When it hissed, the venom on its fangs glistened in the flashlight beam. The cobra had the girth of a man’s forearm. Its tail rested somewhere unseen in the chest-high grass. Taking a bead, Burns fired twice. The second bullet split the head, which slumped onto the twitching body. Burns ran back to Garcia, and found the squad boys huddled around him. Elbowing through the crowd, Burns saw that Garcia’ leg was swelling badly, the skin cherry-colored. Doc kneeled over Garcia and produced a set of surgical scissors and cut off Garcia’s boot.
Doc looked up at Burns, “This is bad. What bit him?”
Burns said, “A cobra. Where’s the anti-venom.”
With edge in his voice, Doc said, “Fucking anti-venom? Sarge, what you think this is?”
“You don’t have any?”
Garcia broke in with groans and then a mortal scream. He thrashed and pedaled in a circle, flattening a little landing in the grass.
Doc held him still and told Burns, “Anti-venom?! I fix holes. I ain’t no snake doctor.”
Burns said, “We’ve got no air support. It’s an hour and twenty back to the COP. How long’s he got?”
“A cobra bite? Shit, uh.” Doc rose and whispered to Burns, “He’ll be dead by the time we get back. We need a bird.”
Burns said, “They’ll never fly in this storm.”
“Maybe we ask the village north of here.”
“The one we just came through?”
Doc shrugged his shoulders. “Or we could go back to the target. I’m sure those old hags in the kitchen would be happy to help.”
“Goddammit,” said Burns. He dreaded the idea of asking for help, especially since the platoon had just destroyed the village grid.
Doc said, “What choice do we have?”
Burns scratched his chin for a bit, and said, “Mount up.”
They pulled up in the village at 0700. The first squall of sand was ripping through the houses. Bits of trash skipped through the alleys. The palms dotting the dirt streets shook violently against the storm’s power. They had only a few minutes before the storm descended fully upon them. At this point, thought Burns, a bird was out of the question and it would be a long, slow drive back to the outpost. The options were cruel. Up ahead, a group of bearded old men were marching down the street, coming right for the Strykers. Pulling his scarf up against the stinging grains, Burns jumped from the hatch and strode toward the men. Burns guessed they were the village elders. One leather-faced old man stomped forward and met Burns. In his right hand the old man held a coil of black wire.
The old man held up the wire. There was anger in his tired eyes. “You did this.”
Burns opened his mouth to lie about it. He realized the same black lines were still draped across his Stryker. “We didn’t see them in the dark.”
“You rip down the lines and we put them back up and you rip them down again,” said the old man. “This is not good for my boy. He needs a machine to breath. He suffers when you kill the power.”
Burns said, “I’m sorry for your son.” Burns squirmed in his body armor. He didn’t want to say what he was about to. “We need your help.”
“Yes. A cobra bit one of our men.”
“Why should I help men who take away our power?”
“We are new here. The soldiers you speak of are gone, back to the States.” Burns was telling the truth. “Now we are here and things will be different.” Burns wasn’t sure that part was true.
The old man looked at the wall of sand in the east.
Burns tugged his shoulder. “Chief, can you help us?”
The old man said, “You, the Ameriki, ask the help of my tribe.”
“Our man doesn’t have much time.”
“What of your helicopters?” asked the old man, “What of your planes?”
“The storm keeps them on the ground.”
The old man smirked. “You ask me.” He didn’t seem to believe what he was hearing. “We’ll help on one condition. Promise me this — from now on, you’ll go around our village. You’ll not spoil our electric scheme.”
Burns put his hand over his heart. “I swear, Chief, as long as I’m here, no one will interfere with your electric lines.”
Leather-face went back to the elders and they exchanged clipped words. They began shouting at each other and the chief and the Americans. At last, the elders summoned a boy on a rooftop, who ran down the street and disappeared. Minutes later, the boy returned holding an old woman by the elbow. The old woman wore a black cloak over her curved back. She carried a jar filled with jade-colored paste. Alpha team searched her and then dropped the ramp on the Stryker, revealing Garcia lying on a stretcher in the cabin. Garcia’s leg was turning green. His face was ghostly white and glazed with sweat. The woman hobbled up the Stryker ramp with her cloak wheeling in the wind. She sat on her heels and went to work with her paste.
Watching all this, Burns stood beside the old man and the boy.
The old man rubbed his white beard and told Burns, “The boy who brought this woman, once, he was bitten when out with the goats. We used the paste on him. It attacks the venom.”
The young boy must have heard the tale being recalled, for he hiked up one leg of his track pants. There was a brown scar at midcalf. It looked as if the skin there had been removed with an ice cream scoop. The boy fingered the scar and then held his chin high, looking very proud of himself.
Burns told the boy, “You’re a brave boy. Braver than me.” Then Burns put a hand over his own heart again and addressed the old man. “Thanks, Chief. I’m grateful, and know this – I keep my word.”
The old man said, “You must get your man to a doctor quickly or he’ll lose the leg. He will be well, Inshallah.”
“As soon as she’s done,” said Burns, “We’ll move on.”
“Remember our village, remember our electric scheme.” Pointing east, the old man said, “There is a track through the grove, it’s good driving, clear and wide. If you come back again, use it to go around. We’ll mend the potholes just for you.”
“If we hear of bad men in the village,” said Burns, “We must come in.”
“So be it,” said the old man, “But you’ll find no evil men here. Maybe on the farms, but not in the village. Nothing escapes my eye.”
“I promise we’ll go around,” said Burns, “You’re a good man, Chief. You’re on our team. We take care of our team. Rebuild your power lines. No more harm will come to them. You’re under our care now.”
The old man said, “Thank you.” He closed his eyes for a moment against the sand, which now came in slants. “It’s my boy I think of.”
About that time, the old woman finished with Garcia and capped her jar and disappeared in the blowing sand. The platoon mounted again and set off with Garcia moaning over his leg. Burns waved goodbye to the chief. They rounded a bend and rolled on into blowing sand.
A week later, Burns swung open the door of the plywood hut they called HQ. He picked up the red phone and listened to the report on Garcia. The old woman’s paste had done well. The main ingredient came from a plant called paniculata, long used by the natives as an anti-venom. Garcia would keep his leg. He’d be back after two weeks of R&R.
That afternoon, some boys from JSOC rolled into their outpost in armored jeeps. Burns had his feet up on the desk in HQ, listening to the battalion radio update when a long-haired Operator came into HQ. A tiger-striped rifle was slung across his chest. He moseyed up to Burns, saying his name was Nick. Nick wanted to know about routes to the north. He unfolded a map on the desk in front of Burns. Nick said they had just crossed through the southern part of Burns’ battlespace.
“Down south,” said Nick, “There was this little village that had no name on the map.” Nick pointed to the village on the map.
Burns gulped when he saw it was the chief’s village.
Nick went on, “About 0800, we drove through. We must of clipped 200 powerlines. Half are still hanging off my jeep. This leather-faced old man was throwing rocks at us. One broke my windshield. No shit, that old man threw a rock through a bulletproof windshield.” Nick laughed so hard his shoulders trembled. “That old bastard was pissed. I wouldn’t go down there for a while.” Nick was still laughing about it when he left.
Burns puffed his cheeks as he blew out a long, frustrated breath. He picked up the red phone for Battalion. When the supply officer announced himself on the line, Burns asked if anyone had any goddamn powerline poles.
Ray McPadden served in the infantry with 10th Mountain Division and 2nd Ranger Battalion. He deployed multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan. He was awarded the Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, and a medal for valor from his time in combat. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Oregon. His works of short fiction have been published with Military Experience and the Arts. Ray now lives in Colorado with his wife and daughter.