After the trucks were loaded, every man turned to preparing his chosen weapons, approaching them with great reverence, almost as sacrament. There was a sense that if everything was not in order with our guns and knives, with our machetes and hatchets and cudgels, that they might not extend their protective power to us, that we might find ourselves helpless as naked toddlers in a dewy field, but even with these final ritual ablutions, we managed to break camp several hours before daybreak, and headed up into the mountains just as a bank of fog started settling in around us, headlamps beaming this way and that like we were entering the blueish glow of a computer screen late at night or the thick atmosphere of some dark, alternate dimension. Custer’s plan was to divide the convoy so that several of our vehicles would make their way around the trails to the far end of this section of the forest where men would cut off any potential exit while another, smaller group would stage at the lower end of the main ravine in case the white zombie had stumbled down that way. Meanwhile, Custer’s mercenaries and a few other men would fan out and head into the woods from this position, press up into the ravine as though flushing grouse.
So it was that we found ourselves in the earliest gray haze with the group making its way around to the roads on the far side of this large stand, stopping periodically while the dumptruck lowered its plow to fill in deep ruts with dirt or to clear brush overtaking the path. By then, the weather was starting to turn: leaves were going faintly orange and the dampness seemed to come from the ground up and the morning air this side of the Cascades was cool and crisp and at one point I looked up to see Chucho’s breaths escaping him like little wisps of spirit. His eyes were closed, his eyelids black with ink, and I couldn’t help but imagine my friend lying instead in a coffin, his flesh having tightened into a mask of dusty leather still marred with ink, his lips peeled back in that macabre grin of the long-dead and buried.
By midmorning, the sun broke the clouds for a few minutes. It had already warmed up significantly, but now a rectangle of sunlight was slipping in through the back of the truck, bathing all our feet. Huckleberry was sitting on the bench opposite Chucho and me and kept looking our way, smirking as if to remind us he had set all this in motion, not us, but he. Huckleberry nudged Ragnar’s arm with his elbow and started into what appeared to be the middle of an ongoing conversation in his head.
“And these two here. Some fuckin balls on these two.”
Ragnar had been dozing off, and here he jolted-to, like he’d been warned of a threat but wasn’t sure where. They said he’d been a shot-caller in prison for some splinter of the Aryan Brotherhood and I was inclined to believe it. He wasn’t large, but all lean, hard muscle, like a soldier forged in the far north for grappling in icefields. He blinked hard twice and stared at us for a long moment, his wide eyes steely and blue. If these two were pairing up, Chucho and I had something to worry about. But here Ragnar only turned to Huckleberry.
“You talk too much,” he said.
“Didn’t mention the white zombie till Huckleberry set em straight and now—”
“Shut up already.”
Huckleberry snorted: “Don’t play like you don’t know.”
Ragnar sighed and shifted in his seat. I couldn’t read the man—his face was too inexpressive and any time I thought I had a read he would blink and distract me—so it was hard to say if he was irritated with Huckleberry for tipping their hand or because Huckleberry was being Huckleberry. Either way, I had a bad feeling. I couldn’t quite place it but something in the moment said this wouldn’t end well. My hand was inching toward my revolver when the truck suddenly veered hard to the right. Something hard scraped along the fenders and then we hit a bump and the toolbox at my feet jumped with a clatter into the air, bashing my knee. The truck skidded down a short embankment and ground to a stop. Only then did we hear the heavy thump of automatic machinegun fire up ahead.
We spilled out the back of the truck and hit the ground, using the embankment for cover. All around men were calling out, trying to pinpoint where the fire was coming from. One of our men was already lying still, a bullet having shorn away the right side of his head when, I suppose, he’d raised his head from cover to see what was happening.
“Far side,” Chucho said. “On the rise. See?”
Ragnar was lying face-down beside him.
He looked up, squinted, and shook his head.
Chucho pointed between two large trees where a large section of a trunk lay across the hill in a slightly unnatural position, concealed with loose wild ferns.
The door of our rig swung open now and Buttplug slid carefully to the ground and army crawled toward us through the tall grass.
“Ambush,” he said. “Machinegun nest.”
“No shit,” Huckleberry said.
Buttplug looked to Ragnar.
“How many you think there are?”
Ragnar shrugged, too, and said, “Hard to tell.”
A divot kicked up in the soil about twenty feet out in front of us. Then another.
Buttplug’s handheld radio beeped.
“There’s a truck across the trail and they’ve got us pinned down,” Starbucks said. “Can you get behind that nest? Over.”
“You guys see a nest?” Buttplug asked us.
Ragnar pointed it out.
Buttplug keyed the handheld. “We’ll git’r done. Over.”
We were seeing muzzle blasts coming from a number of positions in the trees above; they were definitely trying to pin us down, but most of the fire was being directed at the front of the convoy, an old ambush trick by which you disable the front and rear vehicles so everything else gets hung up between. We didn’t have much time before this went from bad to worse.
“Ragnar, Concho, come with me,” Buttplug said. “The rest of you: cover fire.”
The rest of us rolled onto our bellies in a line along the safe side of the embankment, aimed our rifles through the tall grass and weeds. My elbow crinkled a flat Budweiser can.
“One, two, three,” Buttplug said, and we started firing into the trees.
The three men jumped to their feet and started across the road, running as low as they could. Not quite halfway across, Buttplug twisted to one side and fell onto his elbow. It was as if he’d slipped in the mud. But here he started writhing and kicking out his heels, clutching desperately at his throat. When he careened onto his other side, I saw the blood boiling up, thick and dark as an oil seep between his fingers. He was gasping for air, his eyes wide with terror.
Chucho and Ragnar were already across and hunched behind a log, but Chucho ran back out as bullets kicked up divots of dirt all around him, grabbed the lieutenant by his feet, dragged him across to the log where he collapsed and pulled Buttplug up close; here, he put his mouth near Buttplug’s ear and said something and now the lieutenant convulsed, his back arching upward and he stayed in this arched position for a long moment—like his body in its last frantic moment was trying to inseminate something, anything, even the sky, to pass himself into the ages—until his body realized the futility, and lowered back into the grass, settling, as we all must eventually, back to the earth. One of his boots twitched a couple times, then his whole body relaxed.
Chucho crossed himself, drew his pistol from his shoulder holster, pressed it against Buttplug’s temple, and fired a round so that a stripe of the lieutenant’s blood painted his face. Then, without missing a beat, he motioned back across to us as if to say, Keep shooting, morons.
We started firing again and Chucho and Ragnar burst from their concealment, disappearing into the thick brush about fifty yards away from the machinegun nest.
Buttplug’s radio beeped.
“Lieutenant?” Starbucks said. “What’s your situation? Over.”
The lieutenant didn’t pick up.
Soon, amidst all the shouting and gunfire, we heard a rumbling coming up the trail behind us. Just as we realized what was about to happen, that more marauders were coming up behind the convoy, Jason came crawling through the grass to our position, followed close at heel by the giant, Christopher Martin.
“Where’s the lieutenant?” Jason asked.
“Dead,” Huckleberry said. “Across the road. Shot in the—”
Jason glanced toward his boss’s corpse. “And the nest?”
“Ragnar and the Messican: they’re already across.”
“Good. Okay. We have got to flank the others. Follow me.”
We all followed him off into the woods. The ex-child soldier flew through the trees with all the rest of us behind, tree limb after tree limb whipping back and slapping each of us in the face in turn. The scent of gunpowder and diesel fumes was overpowering as the trucks were all still running and the forest canopy was holding it all in. We could no longer see the road. We were too far into the trees by now, which meant they couldn’t see us either.
Suddenly, Jason stopped, held up his fist.
We could hear something to our right. A rusted blue and white dumptruck. We were almost in line with it. Jason sprinted ahead another thirty or forty yards and then stopped again, raised his fist again, then motioned for us to get in a line and advance. Before any of us realized what was happening, we saw the truck through the foliage, and what looked like about a dozen armed indigents trotting along behind it for cover. They clearly had no idea we were here.
“Now,” Jason said.
We stepped forward and, in one quick sweep, we mowed down the entire line of them before they had time to turn their guns on us: it all happened so fast I didn’t even see Christopher Martin and Jason dash toward the truck so that already a gunner on top was lying dead in the dump bed and our men were scrambling up the running boards on either side and pumping rounds from their sidearms in through the windows. Christopher Martin opened the door and dragged a corpse out of the passenger seat, let it drop to the ground, limp as a sockpuppet pulled from a puddle of blood.
The truck’s back tires rolled over and burst the head of another corpse on the driver’s side and then, just as quickly, without any indication from the taillights, it came to a stop. A second later, Jason appeared at the back and told us to use the truck for cover and we advanced toward the others. Christopher Martin mounted the truck and took control of the machine gun on the cab.
As we approached the ambush, we could see Chucho and Ragnar coming out of the trees. The machinegun in the nest was no longer firing. Chucho was limping. Ragnar was bleeding from a gash along his hairline. But they seemed to be okay and didn’t expect to see this truck coming, and immediately dropped down into the grass on the far embankment, training their weapons on us from prone positions.
Christopher Martin stood as tall as he could and waved to them, a stupid method, to be sure, but it worked, since neither shot him; and as we rolled past, they fell in with us, and a minute later we came to a stop behind the last of our own trucks.
Jason climbed down.
“How many more do you figure?” he asked Chucho.
“A few up in the trees,” my friend said. “Five?”
Strange how Jason didn’t seem the least bit surprised to hear Chucho speak in English. How many times, I wondered, had they conversed before? and how many others knew about his secret Ingles? I had been wearing the cap Chucho had given me, the one with the totem pole on it, and suddenly I realized I couldn’t feel it on my head, so I reached up, but there it was, right where it had always been.
Jason pointed at the rest of us.
“You and you,” he said: “come with me. You: go with Chucho.”
Before we took off, Ragnar and one of the mechanics behind Jason, and me behind Chucho, stinging at the elbow from some bee or hornet that must have just stung me, Jason radioed his intentions to Starbucks: we were going to head into the woods and draw out the rest of the hideouts.
After signing off, he turned to all of us, told us to check our ammunition.
“Ready?” he asked.
“Gimme a fuckin second,” Huckleberry said, reloading his second revolver.
Before we could even answer, Jason was already bolting into the trees.