Cowboys and Indians

Henry had always hated the winter sun. It was too white, too bright, and never warm at the right time. Henry tried digging into the frozen ground, but the ice broke his e-tool. He swore and moved the snow away with his hands and sat down between two trees. His toes and fingers tingled. He was bundled in wool and cotton and Gortex but still the cold leaked in. He leaned his helmeted head against the tree and closed his eyes, cursing the sun and everything it touched.

“You sleeping again?” Matson asked.

He opened his eyes and smiled. “I wish,” he said. “Maybe I could be dreaming myself in Hawaii.”

“Yeah right,” she said, sitting down. “Your luck, you’d be dreaming you’re right here and wake up colder than you are.” She blew on the warm drink in her hands, steam billowing around her face.

“What’s that?” Henry asked.

“Hot chocolate,” she said.

“You didn’t bring me one?”

“I thought you didn’t like hot chocolate.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I asked you once back in Ansbach if you wanted a hot chocolate,” she said. “And if I remember correctly you laughed at me.”

“Ansbach?” Henry said. “That was in the middle of July. Who drinks hot chocolate in the middle of July?”

“Hot chocolate is good anytime of the year,” she said. “Go get some hot chocolate if you want, I’ll watch your weapon.”

Henry looked back at the truck where the hot water was set up. Sergeant First Class Wainwright, a short round black man, was laughing and filling his cup, catching up on platoon gossip from his squad leaders.

“I better not,” Henry said. “I’ve been on Sergeant Wainwright’s shit-list since First Sergeant caught me sleeping through stand-to yesterday.”

“That’s right,” Matson said. “I forgot about that. Only you, Henry, would drag your sleeping back out to stand-to.”

“Well it was cold,” Henry said. “And they stuck me on a three-hour radio guard the night before. If I didn’t sleep during stand-to, when would I sleep?”

“I don’t know,” Matson said. “Why don’t you learn how to sleep standing up in the turret?”

“I would, but you’re such a shitty driver I’m afraid for my life most of the time.”

“Fuck you, Henry,” she said. “I’ve got a driver’s badge.”

“So do I,” Henry said. “And I ain’t even a driver.”

She laughed and handed him her tin cup. He drank slowly, the cup warming his hands, and handed it back to her.

“What’s today?” he asked. “How much longer are we out here for?”

“We’ve got three days left,” she said. “Today we attack headquarters platoon.”

“Jesus Christ,” he said. “Why can’t we just do convoy security all day?”

“Because the gods want us to run up a hill fully loaded.”

Every three months the company came together in Bamburg for a field training exercise and evaluation. The platoons were spread out over the training area, but the headquarters platoon—cooks and mechanics and paperwork pushers—spent the week playing cards and sleeping in heated tents on the crest of a hill. And during the exercise the platoons would be made to assault headquarters, running up the steep mud with machine guns in their arms and radios on their backs. The mechanics and cooks would throw batteries and bread at them as if they were grenades. It reminded Henry of playing cowboys and Indians as a kid—nobody wanted to die. “I shot you, you motherfucker,” Matson yelled at the new commo girl last time. “You know I shot you.” The girl, only eighteen and fresh from a Carolina farm, poked her head up from behind a tree, fired two blanks off, and shouted, “No way. You shot over my head.” Henry couldn’t understand it. Why wouldn’t you want to die charging up this stupid hill? As soon as anyone even fired in his general direction he would fall down dead.

“What are you doing, Soldier?” an E-7 with a white band tied around his helmet asked.

“I’m dead, Sergeant,” Henry said. “Got taken out by that machine gun up yonder.”

“Did I tell you you were dead?”

“No, Sergeant.”

“Then you’re not dead. Now hurry up this fucking hill.”

Fucking Army, Henry thought. Even the dead don’t get to rest.

“What time are we supposed to start that?” Henry asked.

Matson was staring out over the land. Flat fields like Kansas, trees like Washington, snow like Michigan. “What?” she said.

“The assault on headquarters,” Henry said. “What time is that kicking off?”

“Oh,” Matson said, looking at her watch. “Sixteen-hundred. And then there’s a company formation followed by chow at 1800.”

“Shit,” Henry said. “A formation?”

“Yeah. I guess the commander wants to promote some people.”

“What time is it now?”

“0745.”

“Jesus,” Henry said.

“Yup,” Matson said, drinking the rest of her hot chocolate.

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