Hours later, he finally slogged his way to Charlie and unloaded the equipment. The enlisted men lent him a wire brush to scrape off the dirt. Still, the remaining crud and the water in his clothes made him feel more like the trail than an officer in the US Army.
“Anything going on up here?” he asked the Sergeant in charge of the outpost.
“Nothing lately, sir, but you’re free to check it out yourself. The trail to the listening post is over there,” the man said pointing toward a narrow walking path leading up a hill.
Oh, why not? Heller grabbed his binoculars. “I’ll be right back.” Within minutes, he reached the top, and within a sandbagged enclosure, stared down the mountain to where the Jugs must be squatting in the rain. I sure hope they are as wet and miserable as I am. While looking for evidence of this, he spotted a strange looking branch sticking out of a hole. At the other end of that branch, a pair of eyes gazed at him.
Nuts. A flash erupted, followed by the streak of light. A tracer round! It left a thin smoke trail. Thump! The sandbag to his right exploded. A sharp retort echoed in the mountain air. Okay, that was fun. Time to go. A loud crashing boom of thunder echoed overhead. I get it, God. I’m out of here.
Lightning flashes followed him back to the outpost.
“See anything, sir?” the Sergeant asked.
“Enough,” Heller replied. “Telephones operating?”
“Yes, sir, just got them working, but I wouldn’t use them until the lightning stops.”
“Sorry, I’ve got to report in.” Heller grabbed the phone and connected with Captain Walker. “Sir, this is Charlie outpost, Lieutenant Heller speaking. One shot fired at the listening post, but no casualties. Everything delivered. Phones and radios working.”
“Very good. Get back to HQ,” Walker replied.
“Yes, sir.” Just as Heller started to hang up, a flash of light followed by crashing boom shook the entire outpost. A shudder ran up his arm holding the phone; his hand spasmed and he dropped the handset. “Yeeooouuch.” God bless it! Just kill me already.
Several hours later, and in complete darkness, Heller made it back to base. All the animals were returned to the barn, except for, of course, Big Boy. After chewing out Sergeant Frank, he made his way to the Colonel’s office. Captain Walker was out, but the Colonel waved him in.
Heller removed his dented helmet and snapped a perfect salute, “Sir, Lieutenant Heller reporting.”
The Colonel returned the salute but frowned. He spoke with a high-pitched Carolinian accent, “Well, Hella, did you walk the trail or swim it? “
“Rode it, sir.”
The Colonel waved away the distinction. “Status of the mission.”
“Mission accomplished, but Big Boy is lost.”
Colonel’s face swelled up like Big Boy’s belly, and he pounded his desk: “Hella,” he screamed, “You is the poorenist lieutenant in the US Army. Lieutenants I can easily replace, but horses I can’t. Find Big Boy or don’t come back until you do. Dismissed.”
With the Colonel’s twang still resonating in his ears, Heller saluted. “Yes, sir.”
In the dark Heller slogged toward the trail. Where could that damned horse be? The beast had been heading toward the trailhead, but he hadn’t seen him there. He must still be up the trail, somewhere. The prospect of searching in the dark for Big Boy was not appealing at all. Perhaps if I’m lucky, I’ll run into a US patrol, and they’ll have him. Then again with his luck, it will be a Jug patrol instead. Heller stopped and dug for his cigarettes, at least he could indulge before having to enforce noise and light discipline on the trail. His hand settled on the pack – or what was left of it. The soggy mass squished between his fingers. Yet another casualty of his war with horse Hitler.
Working his way up the trail, he poked and peeked through every brush patch and grassy area on the path. The darkness continued to plague him, though the sky was gradually lightening up as dawn approached. Unable to use a flashlight, or to call out, Heller wrestled with brambles and thorns while sinking up to his ankles in mud. Despite the cooling effects of the night air and soaked clothes, sweat dripped into his eyes and ran down his back.
Near where Big Boy had run off, Heller slipped into a ravine filled with thick patches of thorny underbrush. As he fought off nature’s barbed wire, movement erupted from his right. Freezing in place, he listened intently. A rustling drifted toward him, as did a snort. Ah-hah! Pushing though, Heller popped out into a small clearing filled with tall grasses. There, looking quite pleased with himself, stood Big Boy, placidly eating nearby weeds.
The animal with the saddle still on his belly looked up as Heller approached, but made no move to run. Perhaps he’s as exhausted as I am. At least I hope so. He grabbed the reins and tied them to a nearby gorse bush. Muscles screaming with exhaustion, he seized the saddle straps and shoved the seat onto Big Boy’s back. Once again, but to his amazement, the beast remained calm. With a last expenditure of effort, he pulled the girth strap tight and set it.
By now, dawn was very close, but because of the low-lying fog, visibility measured in feet rather than yards. Still, at least he’d found Big Boy. Let’s go home, big bastard. With a tug on the reins, he led the horse toward the trail, but not before the thorn bushes got their revenge, leaving bloody scratches on his skin and tears in his uniform.
If he trusted Big Boy, he might have considered climbing into the saddle. But there was no way he was going to let the animal throw him again. After several minutes they emerged onto the trail and turned toward home. Misty fog continued to swirl around them.
By now, he’d been marching up and down this trail since leaving for Charlie some six hours ago. His legs throbbed incessantly, and his eyes kept drifting shut. To add to the constant misery, now nature began to call. He had to relieve himself, somewhere. Up ahead a bend in the trail revealed itself, along with a small grove of trees. Perfect.
He pulled off the trail and dragged the horse into the copse with him. Leaning against a tree, he closed his eyes and listened to the pitter-patter of an emptying bladder. Boy, I must be tired, I can almost smell a cigarette. Just then, a massive hairy head struck the side of his face. A stream of urine traced across his boot. Damn you, Big Boy. Gritting his teeth, he turned to cuss at the horse but quickly clammed up. Ten feet away, standing on the trail were three figures, rifles slung across their shoulders, facing one another. A thin spiral of cigarette smoke rose above them. For a brief moment, Heller hoped they might be an allied patrol. But when one of the soldiers turned, the blocky steel helmet revealed what he’d feared: Jugs.
He’d gotten lucky. Had he not stepped off the trail, he might have run straight into them. Still, that didn’t make his situation any better. They stood between him and safety. The fog wasn’t going to last forever, so unless they walked past without seeing him, he’d be as obvious as the giant reddish-brown horse he stood next to. By some miracle, he might be able to slip away without Big Boy, but then he’d be in trouble with the Colonel. What to do?
Big Boy looked at him and flared his nostrils.
What are you thinking of?
The horse nudged his hand holding the reins.
Are really telling me to ride through them? He glanced toward the Jugs again. Well, he certainly would have the element of surprise. At least until the Jugs shot them to death. Still, the shortest distance between two points was a straight line, and the Jugs were between them and HQ. A curve in the trail was just a few feet ahead, they only needed to make it that far to be out of sight of the enemy.
With surprise, speed and a downhill trail, they might make it. Or at least go out in a blaze of glory. Not the first time, he wondered whatever possessed him to ever leave West Virginia.
“Okay, boy. Let’s do this,” Heller whispered climbing into the saddle. The big horse whickered softly but didn’t fight him. As he sat there, Heller struggled with whether to arm himself or not. He still had his rifle and sidearm, but there was no way to readily use either and control the reins as well. Most likely he’d either shoot himself or Big Boy. Just focus on riding and get the hell out of here.
“Yeeha,” Heller shouted kicking his heels into Big Boy’s flanks.
Belying his size, the big horse charged from the trees straight toward the Jugs.
They looked up and scattered, two them slipping and falling on the muddy trail.
Heller risked getting his hopes up. This might work. But then a loud crack erupted behind them. At least one of the enemies had gotten their weapon ready. A bullet whizzed by like an angry bee. Up ahead the curve loomed closer. Two more shots rang out. Big Boy shuddered but kept running. Another gunshot. A searing pain erupted in Heller’s left arm. He glanced toward it, only to see his TRUST patch flapping in the breeze, a red gash in the exposed flesh of his arm.
Around the bend, they raced, as Heller kept jabbing Big Boy’s flanks. The horse snorted and whinnied, but kept pushing on. For several minutes they sailed down the trail, though Big Boy’s breathing became more labored and he tossed his head on occasion. HQ wasn’t much farther ahead, so Heller pulled back on the reins. Big Boy slowed instantly, but then stumbled, tossed his head, and stamped a hoof while swishing his tail. “Whoa, boy. Relax. We’re safe now.”
Big Boy shook his head and squealed. Heller reached to pat his neck but noticed blood dripping from a cut.
“Guess they were more accurate than I expected.” Heller swung out of the saddle and landed on the ground. Despite his own throbbing pain, he focused on Big Boy. “Let me see, boy.” Heller moved around the horse and examined the wound. It didn’t look like much. “It’s okay. You’re going to be fine.” He patted the horse’s head, and it pushed against him with some urgency. “Come on, we need to get you to Sargent Frank. He’ll know what to do.”
Walking beside Big Boy, they moved down the trail. The horse calmed down or at least seemed to. His movements became less erratic, but also slower. Heller pulled on the reins to increase the pace. Big Boy whined and whickered in response.
Something else is wrong. Heller stopped and walked around the horse, careful to avoid getting directly behind him. He’d seen too many novices get injured doing that. Just under Big Boy’s belly, a red puddle was forming. That wasn’t coming from the animal’s neck wound. Crouching down, he spied a hole in Big Boy’s belly, just behind the stirrups.
A chill ran up his spine. Bright red blood leaked steadily from the wound. Big Boy was bleeding to death. Heller raced around and tugged on the reins. “Let’s go. We can’t stay here.” He pulled on the straps, but the big animal resisted, tossing his head.
He clapped his hands on either side of Big Boy’s face and stared into his eyes. “You don’t want to die, do you? Let’s go.” With another tug on the reins, the horse moved, though slowly and reluctantly.
As they approached the HQ compound, Big Boy began dragging his feet, letting his head droop. Heller kept tugging forward, and though Big Boy gave in, the resistance was less feistiness and more listlessness. Sargent Frank appeared, looking much better than he had yesterday. “Oh hey, Lieutenant. I see you got him back.”
“Sarge, Big Boy is hurt. Take the reins while I check in with the Colonel.”
“Sure thing,” Sarge replied.
Heller ran a hand down Big Boy’s nose. “You’re going to be okay.” With that, he turned and sprinted to the Colonel’s office.
This time Captain Walker was in, and he stopped Heller short. “Stop there. You’re filthy.”
“Yes, sir. I need to report in.”
“Let’s have it then.”
“I found Big Boy and brought him back. We ran into a three-man patrol of Jugs on the trail. They shot at us. Big Boy was hit.”
“I don’t, sir, but Sergeant Frank is looking after him.”
Walker sighed. “I need a written report of what happened on my desk before noon.” He pursed his lips and pointed at Heller’s shoulder. “Seems you got winged as well. Get over to the aid station.”
“Yes, sir.” Heller saluted.
Walker returned it. “For God’s sakes, go take a bath and change your clothes. You look terrible. Dismissed.”
Heller nodded, then turned and sprinted out of the CQ. He turned left, away from the aid station, and back toward the barn. Inside, Sergeant Frank stood with his arms crossed, looking down at Big Boy, who lay on his side. The tech-sergeant serving as the unit’s veterinarian kneeled next to the horse.
“How is he?” Heller asked.
Sergeant Frank shook his head, “Not good.”
The Vet spoke. “Sorry, there isn’t much we can do for him. He’s lost too much blood.”
Heller sat next to Big Boy. “Can’t we give him what we have?”
“Sorry, our stocks are limited, and we can’t use it all on one horse.”
“Who said that?” Heller asked, his face growing warm.
“The order comes from Major Sellers, my CO.”
Damn. “Will he recover?”
“Not likely. All we can do is either euthanize him or let him go naturally. Either way, he won’t feel any pain.”
“How long does he have?”
“Probably no more than an hour. His heartbeat is very slow.”
“Who makes the determination?”
“Since you’re the ranking officer, you. What do you want to do?”
“I’ll stay with him. You two can go.”
Frank and the Vet looked at each other, then left.
Heller sat in the straw next to Big Boy’s head and stroked the big horse’s nose. “Sorry, big guy. Guess we just didn’t have much luck today.”
The animal sighed, then opened an eye and looked at him. “Look at it this way, you won’t deal with any more soldiers.” Big Boy’s ear twitched, and the eye closed.
For the better part of an hour, Heller watched Big Boy take smaller breaths until they stopped altogether. He placed an ear on the animal’s chest and listened. Nothing.
Despite his best efforts, Heller’s eyes watered as he patted Big Boy. The same horse who had tried to stomp his head, gave his life to save him. Not sure if it was worth the trade but thank you anyway. He stood and considered the proud cantankerous animal. I should say something, but what? For a moment he mulled over some ideas, then snapped a salute. “Well done, Big Boy. You’ve done your duty. For you, the war is over. Dismissed.”