Last time I was in combat was when I stopped in a boutique off a dirt road near the ocean. A desolate region of bush by the beach, sparsely populated. My buddy Hound and I decided to take a look inside, and left our buggy running out front, because it wasn’t likely to be stolen from us. We were the baddest in the bush by a mile, and we didn’t know where the enemy was patrolling. Had not seen them in months. Both sides pinwheeling in small groups in opposite directions through the outback. Most you could see on some days was a dust cloud on the horizon. Orange. Mouth too dry to pursue.
The boutique was small, cluttered. Secondhand winter clothing for the most part. All dirtied and torn. One attendant seated and sorting clothing beneath a loud fan running off some solar generator attached haphazardly to the boutique’s sheet metal roof. It hadn’t always been a boutique, I assumed.
Any socks? I asked the attendant.
He looked up. He was old and his face was wrinkly, his eyes dilated and black.
I’m still sorting new arrivals, he said.
I don’t suppose you get many buyers for this stuff.
I do. It’s cold some nights.
I nodded. Some. Not many.
Hound looked at a white sweater hanging behind the old man. It had large wooden buttons, made to be worn over some other article like a dress or a tank-top.
My wife had that same sweater, he said. I’ll take it.
I turned from the counter while the purchase was arranged and looked through a coat rack. Children’s winter coats. Gore-tex shells. Pea-coats. A leather bomber jacket which looked nice but was impractical.
Do you have a phone? I heard Hound ask. He put the white sweater on over his soiled tank-top.
I turned around and watched the attendant take a phone out of a drawer beneath the cash register and hand it to Hound.
What do you think? The attendant said.
Hound nodded and dialed a number and put the phone to his ear. It was not there for more than a moment. He nodded and gave the phone back to the attendant.
Worth a shot, he said.
The attendant shrugged and returned to folding and sorting the tremendous pile of clothes.
When we left the sad shop our buggy was still running and appeared at first to be unmolested. We started off, Hound at the wheel, and we only made it a hundred yards before we noticed something wrong. The buggy was handling a bit too sprightly. I turned in my seat and noticed both of our water cans were missing.
Our water’s gone.
Hound put the buggy into reverse and we returned to where we’d parked. We stepped out and found tracks in the dirt. Two sets, leading west to the ocean. We looked out over the scrub and bush and saw no figures on the horizon, but knew that the terrain sharply declined to the beach after only a kilometer.
How long were we in there? I asked.
Couldn’t have been longer than 10 minutes.
We climbed back in the buggy and started it, driving slowly to keep an eye on the tracks. We crunched along in the dirt, leveling bushes beneath us. I watched the tracks and Hound watched the horizon. My loaded rifle bounced in the crook of my arm. Before long we could hear the crash of waves and the salty smell characteristic of this region grew stronger until we came to the spot where the terrain sharply dropped and the buggy could no longer proceed. We dismounted, and this time turned the engine off. Still no sign of the thieves.
I wonder why they didn’t take the buggy too, I said.
Maybe it’s abo kids.
I nodded. Maybe. Fast for kids though.
By this point the terrain was rockier and aggressive and the tracks had disappeared altogether. Hound and I assumed a prone position on an outcropping and surveyed the line of beach before us. Only a small stretch of white sand. The rest of the beach was rocky tidepools and boulders. A thousand hiding spots.
Hound had his rifle scope to his eye and scanned the area back and forth.
He put the rifle down and shook his head, his bottom lip protruding.
No, bud. Nothing.
Then a crack and a boom. A chip of rock and dust flew into my face from a bullet impact a few meters in front of me.
Contact, Hound said. He put the rifle to his eye and fired four rounds in the direction he thought the fire came. I stood and climbed down the outcropping to the white sands while Hound continued to fire. When I found a small rock to cover myself behind I fired in the same general direction, and Hound moved down to follow me. I fired without knowing the location of our assailant but I knew the tactic worked because whoever had shot at us had ceased for the time being.
When Hound came back to my side he pointed at a cluster of rocks a little less than five feet high, jutting out of the sand like a meteorite only two hundred meters in front of us.
He’s behind there. I don’t know where the other one is.
Maybe both of them are there.
Hound shrugged. I think I hit him, he said. He may be down. The one behind the rocks.
I scanned the white beach. Desolation. Timeless. A small stretch of diffuse saltwater and earth upon which to prosecute the remaining time in four mens’ lives. White, orange, black and blue. Utterly quiet aside the crash of the light waves and the reports of our rifles dissipating into the open air. Quiet as it had been for eons before and after.
And then: behind us and to our left came the sound of splashing and then a boom. The sand in front of us leapt and we whirled on our haunches.
The perpetrator of the blast was a man of about 40 years old, white hair. He wore track shorts and a white tank top and carried a sawed off shotgun. We leveled our rifles and blasted him until he collapsed face first in the surf with a scream soon extinguished by the waves.
The two of us wheeled back around to face the cluster of craggy boulders, but the second man never came out and we took no more fire. So we walked crouched and slowly toward the rocks, our eyes and rifles forward. We rounded the cracked, algae-conquered cover and found a teenager with a hole in his head, his light automatic rifle of Chinese make covered in wet sand by his side. A lucky shot from one of us as we covered and moved.
I’ll let you have this kill, I said.
Hound smiled and shook his head. Father and son?
I think they didn’t steal the car because they wanted to lure us out here and kill us first.
It was a good effort.
Must have watched us patrolling for a few days.
Our two assailants dispatched, we combed the beach for our jerry cans of water until we found them in a small cave at the far end of the beach relative to our point of insertion. The opening of the cave was about shin-high at the bottom of a craggy rock face covered in algae and thousands of tiny inedible crabs. Our cans had been stuffed inside sideways, and the screw-on caps leaked slowly. Aside the cans we found four pairs of socks, a pair of running shoes, a chipped knife, and a Chinese ammo can with four rounds and a photograph of a bygone era inside.
A caravan in the bush, a fire burning low. Two blurry faces, beer bottles in hand. A setting sun. Not the father and son, other people. One was a woman. I didn’t like the feeling the photo gave me so I left it in the ammo can.
Hound and I took a seat on the beach and removed our shoes and socks to put on the new pairs, careful to avoid wet patches of sand. We stared out over the ocean, feeling something like primitive man, the killing and the utter solitude fresh upon us, and we did not speak for a while, seated with our arms crossed over our knees. Hound’s sweater tails whipped in the breeze coming out over the breakers and my skin chilled in the spray. Evening had come. The horizon reflected the same hue as the endless bush behind us, but brighter, luminescent.
Might as well camp here, Hound said.
Might as well.
Hound stood to collect what scraps of dry driftwood we could find, and I returned to the buggy to collect our supplies. When I returned, fully laden, I saw Hound staring out at the water near the shore, where the old man had fallen in combat.
A shark had arrived from the azure in the sinking light. We could see little of him. A fin, a splash and writhing. In the foam and churn his sandpaper skin gleamed with the reflection of the setting sun and the water around his struggle turned maroon with the blood of the dead father.
Brutal, said Hound.
I watched as the shark’s maw breached the water with some bloody appendage between its teeth, clamping and shearing, before the great carnivorous fish rotated spasmodically to shred the flesh. Then its gills saw the open air, rippling like aspirating fungi.
I left Hound to stare, and walked to where we had let the jerry cans lie in the sand, piling the driftwood and dousing it in fuel. I lit the fuel and felt the fire flash upon my face. Heat and light, but not nearly enough.
— J.J.S.S. is a carpenter from Montana