By Jack Keller.
Sanchez’ cattle looked up when the Humvee rumbled through, but paid it only scant attention. Cows don’t care about men with guns. They were grazing on blue and golden water lilies, knee deep in the lagoon on either side of the causeway. Dragonflies dipped and darted among them and insects droned in the afternoon sun. Tito was playing futbol with Nacio, minding the cattle. He watched as one team of soldiers set up on a rise near the village, the second on the hill at other end of the causeway. Both teams were facing the road, had their backs to the jungle.
‘The soldiers are setting up a killing place,’ Tito said to Nacio. He ran two fingers over the dark haze on his upper lip, hoping his little brother would say something about it. He would let it grow until he had a real mustachio, just like the jefe’s.
‘They know what they’re doing. They will wait until the vatos guerreros reach the middle of the causeway, then they will shoot. The machine guns will fire first, pinning down thevatos. Then the other soldiers will pick them off one at a time. There will be no place to hide. The vatos’ old rifles will be no match. The soldiers will kill them all. Then they will leave.
‘I think I should tell the jefe what’s happening. You stay with the cows until I get back.’ Tito began striding in the direction of the plaza, but, forgetting his macho demeanor, skipped, then ran with his sombrero bouncing off his back.
When he couldn’t find the jefe in the village square, Tito went to the cantina. There, he told old Miguel what he saw, and Miguel called someone on the telephone.
Now Tito squatted on the hill a few meters away from one team of soldiers. He was watching and listening, looking at their guns.
Three men in camouflage sat together eating combat rations from green plastic packages. In the afternoon light they blended into the surrounding deep greens and shadow. Their weapons were covered. Their faces were smeared with greasepaint the color of the jungle. They had hard faces, empty eyes.
The soldiers weren’t federales. Federales would have set up a roadblock and stopped traffic, looking for contraband and mordida, a few pesos to spend in the cantina. These were gringo contractors, better fed and older than the teen-aged soldiers from the capital. Their guns were new and well cared for. They were paid killers.
The gringo the others called Smitty was talking. ‘Rosa was married, but so what,’ he said. ‘I hadn’t been home in six months, was stuck in a shithole called Yerba Mala. Her old man was a cocaine farmer banged-up in the local hoosegow. The jefe was thinning the competition. The poor bastard was just trying to make a living. So was she – thought I’d rescue his sorry ass if she made the deal sweet enough. I mighta too. Rosa was a natural redhead, and she knew how to sweeten a deal.’
Tito wasn’t hiding, just squatting quietly, looking at the soldiers and wishing he had one of their guns. The youngest gringo, a grone with a shaved head, was leaning in to hear Smitty’s puta story. He fidgeted with his weapon. The third member of the squad, the one with the tripod gun, said nothing. These were probably Americanos, big, beefy men with expensive guns.
Just then the one called Smitty looked directly at Tito. ‘What the fuck you looking at, kid?’ he said. ‘Fuck off, vaya te muchacho.’ Tito looked back at him with a slack-faced grin. ‘You got cigarette, senor?’ he replied. Smitty shrugged, looking at the other gringos. ‘For all I know, this one’s my kid. I spent some time in this shithole a few years back.’ He tossed a pack of Camels to Tito, but then glared. ‘Get outta here now, comprende? You’re under foot.’
Tito patted the air with both hands. ‘Okay, Joe. Good vibes, right. Ondas buenas, si!’ He backed into the jungle, lighting a cigarette.
‘Yah, boo-way-nos whatever the fuck, now piss off,’ Smitty called after him. ‘These fuckin’ village spics, they’re so inbred the gene pool is just a wet spot on the mattress upstairs in the cantina. There ain’t a I.Q. over 65 in the place. Although, I gotta admit that some of them senoritas sure can fuck. Christ, that Rosa, she was a screamer and …’
‘Shut up,’ said the tripod gun gringo. ‘Stop talking cooze. Get your head in the game.’
Just then the distant clatter of an engine interrupted the gringos. They went silent. Their radio crackled, ‘tourists.’ In a few seconds a brightly painted VW van rolled onto the causeway, weaving slightly. Music drifted up to the ambuscade.
‘I’ll bet those kids have weed,’ said the grone.
‘Hippy snatch,’ said Smitty. Without warning, the tripod gun gringo backhanded him, splitting his lip. Smitty wiped his mouth, spat, but said nothing more. All three watched as the van down shifted into Agua Buena.
Mist was rising from the jungle floor as Tito padded toward the other team of Americanos. The thrum of a million insects grew and fell, occasionally punctuated by the screech of a monkey. He could no longer hear the lowing of Sanchez’ cattle and the gabble of water birds. He still smelled the gringos’ tobacco and gun oil mingled with the rot of the forest.
Nacio was hidden, quietly watching the other group of gringos. He silently accepted Tito’s cigarette. ‘Que pasa, chico?,’ Tito whispered. Nacio shrugged. These soldiers, all facing the road, were eating too. Their tripod gun was also camouflaged, not cleared for use. One was smoking a rolled cigarette, tobacco with a little marijuana, and listening in a headset. This gringo was different from the others. He wore glasses and held a little computer with a joystick. He might be controlling the small drone Tito had noticed high above Agua Buena when the sun reflected off its wings. The others ignored the drone gringo and watched the road.
The drone gringo said ‘ETA 40 minutes’ into the microphone dangling from his headset.
After watching for a few more minutes, Tito and Nacio backed silently into the darkening jungle and walked until they reached a little clearing where they met the jefe and a clutch of men wearing ragged military gear. They were carrying rifles.
The jefe whispered, ‘Hola muchachos, que paso? What’s going on?’
Tito stood as tall as he could and cleared his throat. Speaking carefully so his voice wouldn’t crack, he recited everything he’d seen and heard. The jefe smiled when Tito told him that the gringos’ machine guns were still covered and that they were waiting for the decoy group of vatos who were marching up the highway.
The jefe said, ‘Gracias muchachos’ and patted Nacio on the side of his head. ‘Now go home quickly.’ Tito stepped back, but planted his feet, took a deep breath, and looked up at him. ‘Jefe, those gringos have two 50 caliber machine guns and six AKs. They’re Cuban Kalashnikovs. Can I have one of the AKs?’
The jefe paused, then smiled down at him. ‘Si, Tito, I’ll keep one of those guns for you and show you how to use it. It’s yours in a year or two. But until Nacio is a little older we need you for our eyes and ears. You do that job well, hombre.’
Tito stood tall with pride when the jefe called him ‘hombre.’
As they walked into Agua Buena Tito swung his arms and held his chin up like a soldier marching. He grinned at Nacio. ‘The jefe will give me one of the gringos’ rifles,’ he said. ‘The AK is a man’s gun.’
JACK KELLEHER says ” I am an old man who lives alone by the edge of the Celtic Sea. I read, write, and fix bicycles. I travel. Recently, I blogged an around the world trip by container ship, train, and bicycle. You may find this at www.jackkelleher.ie. I have published a few stories locally, but not this one.”