They came with the rising sun, bringing not warmth and life, but death.
Wind Rising woke, as he always did, in the dim moments before the Sun came back to the sky. His mother had told him he always woke at the hour because that was the time when he first came into the world. Now, as a father fresh from a night short of sleep due to his new daughter, he wished for sleep but knew it would not return. He slipped out from under the buffalo hide he and Lone Walker had been sharing, giving his wife’s cheek a brush of his lips as he did so. She stirred only a little from the touch, drawing their daughter closer to her before settling in to the sleep she needed.
Pushing open the flap of their lodge, Wind Rising looked out on the camp around them. None of the other lodges had smoke rising from their crowns, telling him the rest of the families still slept. Overhead, the sky was beginning to shift from the black of night to the darkest of blues. East, the He Sapa were a black outline against the rapidly-lightening sky. Wind Rising pulled medicine pouch out and poured a small amount of corn pollen from it. A pinch of this he offered to the sacred Four Directions as thanks for the blessing of another day. The tiny remainder he tossed up as a gift to the Earth as a whole for the blessing of having his family. That was when he heard it.
The Horse Soldiers always made too much noise. They talked too much, shouted at each other even more, and made no effort to approach their enemies by stealth. Now, they did something Rising Wind had heard twice before, they made a noise like some strange animal calling. One of the times he had heard the sound, he had seen one of them holding something that gleamed like the Sun itself to his mouth. His chest heaving like he were running, the Horse Soldier had made that strange sound until an arrow had struck him down.
“Everyone, wake up! Horse Soldiers!”
He didn’t have to shout, as the first wave of that sound seems to bring every man in the camp out of their lodge. Wind Rising thrust himself back into his own lodge and found Lone Walker already awake, bundling little New Moon up so she could take their child into the late Winter cold without worrying for her health. Wind Rising was lucky, he had a golden boy and many of the shells that went with it in a satchel he could sling from him shoulder. He grabbed both before rushing to his wife.
“I think the Horse Soldiers are to the East, so go West. The creek bed will help you hide.”
Lone Walker put an arm around him, pulled him tight and kissed his cheek. “Be safe, husband. Come to us soon.” He drew her close, rested his face against her neck, whispered “I will.” in her ear before leaving.
He heard the thunder of hooves as soon as his head was outside. Looking East, he saw the dust of the attacking Horse Soldiers rising behind the dimly visible line of riders. The first rifle shot rang out, then several more. He saw flashes from the dark line approaching the camp, then heard the sound of shots, and ran towards them.
More shots rang out from the camp as Wind Rising came to the last of the lodges. He saw old One Buffalo lying face down outside his lodge, his bow clutched in his hand and blood spreading everywhere around him. The sound of another rippling volley, and the loud zip! of a bullet passing near his ear, caused Wind Rising to drop to one knee and raise his golden boy to his shoulder.
The Horse Soldiers were now close enough that he could make their faces out, even in the dim pre-dawn light. He picked one man out, centered the sight on his chest, and pulled the trigger. The rifle bucked, but the rider did not pitch out of his saddle, he simply ducked to one side. A quick pump of the lever brought another shell into place, and Wind Rising pulled the trigger again. This time, the distance much shorter, he saw the man’s mouth fly open as if he were going to scream, but he toppled instead in apparent silence.
More shot range out from the camp, and Wind Rising saw a Horse Soldier fall with an arrow in his shoulder, but for all their efforts, there were too many attackers for them to stop. Loading another shell, he swept down the line of soldiers, trying to find some indication of who their leader was. One man, smaller than the others, wore a hat with a bright band around it. Wind Rising took careful aim, centering the site on his chest, and fired again. He saw the man go down, but the soldiers kept coming.
He saw several flashes from the line of soldiers, and felt something slam into his stomach. He was thrown onto his back, and when he tried to set up, found he couldn’t.
He heard shouts, even screams, around him, then a horse ran past him. On its back was a horse soldier, reins in one hand, a pistol in the other. Wind Rising tried to move again, but his legs did not want to work. He tried to roll onto his side, in hopes that he could drag himself to his golden boy, which lay just out of reach. Then another horse came into view, but this one stopped. He looked up, and saw the horse soldier atop it looking down at him. He saw the other man’s mouth draw back into a snarl, and his hand go to the pistol on his belt. Wind Rising made a final, desperate effort to reach his rifle, failed, and looked back towards the soldier. He saw the barrel of the pistol pointing at him, saw the man smile, a flash…….
James White Hawk started awake, staring around the inflatable shelter. The images, the feelings, all of it had been so real it was hard to believe he was in Iraq, not America during the Sioux Wars. He saw the shadowy form of Laton Byrns moving on the next bunk, then his best friend rolled over to face him. “Yo, Jim, time to get up?”
“No, Lat, just me wakin’ up too damned early again.” James looked at the clock beside his bunk, saw the time was only fifteen minutes from when he’d expected to be woken, and gestured towards it. “Then again, you might as well get up, not gonna get a whole lotta sleep in fifteen minutes.”
Lat looked at the clock and shrugged off his covers. “Yeah, guess not. So, what woke you this time? The usual can’t sleep?”
“Nope, just one fuck of a nightmare.”
“Nope, one strange one. I was….hell with it, just a fuckin’ dream. Let’s get some chow so we can have a few minutes before the mission briefing.”
“Hey, as long as they’re willin’ to give me my coffee, I’m good. I don’t get my morning hit of caffeine, and I ain’t gonna vouch for what happens later.”
“Heard that, brother. Let’s get our shit over there.”
Salla brushed his wife’s cheek. He saw Amari smile in the dim light of their bedroom. He had been careful getting out of bed, wanting to give her a chance to get what sleep she could. Hassan, their five month old son, had been restless last night, and he had gotten no more sleep than his wife. But she had been the one who had risen to tend to him, and he hoped their child would sleep on for a while longer. Salla moved to the crib and looked down at the small bundle lying in it.
Hassan looked as he always did when he slept, like he had not a single bone in his body. How could something so small be so loud? He smiled as he had the thought, then he repeated the silent prayer he has said every morning since his son’s birth. Allah, thank you for my son, for my wife, for the life I am blessed with. He gave his son a final smile, then left the room as silently as he could.
It was Salla’s day to be on guard for the village militia. He slipped on the jacket that would be welcomed in the pre-dawn cold, then took up the AK-47 he had been issued. After the dark interior of his house, the courtyard seemed brightly lite, even though the Sun would not be up for nearly another hour. His gate gave a screech as he opened it, but he knew the thick walls of his house would dampen the sound. Across the street, Udi came out of his own gate, and the two men exchanged a quiet greeting before heading towards their post on the edge of town.
“So, Salla, do you think the Americans will come today? I heard they raided Burkki yesterday, looking for ‘insurgents’.”
Salla shook his head. Like most Shia, he and the other villagers had no sympathy for the fools who wanted to bring back Saddam’s Sunni-dominated government. The old government officials had been thrown out shortly after the Americans had invaded, and the village had welcomed them when they’d finally arrived. But then the Americans had come back in support of the new, equally corrupt government, looking for supposed insurgents. Salla hoped they would remember the warm reception they’d once received and leave his village alone.
Hakim, their commander, was already in the small bunker that guarded the main road. He was fat, occasionally tyrannical when enforcing his orders…but he was always early, and as the owner of the only coffee shop in the village, he always had a pot brewing for his men. Someone else, probably Saddam Ismal the village baker, had brought a cardboard box full of sweet pastries. Udi and Salla gratefully helped themselves to both while their commander told them what he wanted done.
“We’ve heard that the Americans may be here today. We hope not, but if they do come, do not provoke them! If they aren’t here by mid-watch, I want three of you to patrol the village. Salla, you’ll take Hakim and Falla and walk the main street to the other end of town. You don’t have to do anything…unless someone is stupid enough to break the law in front of you. Just show everyone that we’re doing out job, that’s all you have to do. Now, you and Udi go relieve the men in the forward trench. They’ve been at it all night, and a hot cup of coffee will be even more welcome to them than it is to the two of you.”
The two men didn’t bother to salute. Hakim would have thought they were trying to be sarcastic if they’d done something like that. The forward trench was a left-over from Saddam’s days. Thrown up during the war with Iran, it was lined with concrete and had a reinforced concrete ridge that faced away from the village. Saddam had bee too cheap to build in steps to get in and out of the chest-high hole, so the two men took turns holding each other’s food while one of them climbed down a wooden ladder that looked older than the village. The two men on duty waited until they were down, then filed past them to climb out. Salla almost missed the fact that neither of them was carrying the ‘honey bucket’, the improved toilet men on duty had to use rather than leave their post. Udi didn’t miss that detail.
“Hey, where are you two going? Think we’re going to dump your shit out for you? Get the hell back here and take care of your own mess if you don’t want to come in tonight and find we’ve left you a few ‘surprises’.”
Osman, the older of the two night men, turned to give them a baleful stare. “We’ve been up all night, and you want us to take care of that before our morning coffee? What next, are you going to demand we scrub it out and make it smell nice for you too?”
Udi had a sense of humor. He smiled and nodded. “That would be nice…but I’ll settle for you emptying it and bring it back.” He grabbed the odoriferous bucket and sat it on the back lip of the trench “And I’m even willing to save you the trouble of climbing back down to get it. Now, am I not a nice man?”
Osman looked like he wanted to empty the contents of the bucket over Udi’s head, then with a glance towards the bunker, he returned to haul the waste away.
“Udi, one of these days, you’re going to push that man too far, and I’m not sure I’ll rush in to save you. It’s not like we have anything to do right now. One of us could have taken care of that.”
His neighbor looked Salla up and down. “And why do I suspect that you’d have volunteered me to take care of the mess?”
“What are friends for?”
As they shared a laugh, the Sun rose over the horizon, and they heard it. The clanking, rumbling sound of a tracked vehicle rolling along the pavement. Nobody but the Americans drove around in armored vehicles, so they knew the long-feared visit was about to happen. Udi climbed the first step of the ladder and waved his hands. “The Americans are coming! We can hear their vehicles.”
The shout had the desired effect. Osman, who’d been slowly trudging towards the latrine everyone in the bunker used picked up his pace. His partner stopped, turned and shaded his eyes to peer into the light of the rising Sun. There was a ripple of gunfire Salla recognized as one of the American machine guns, and the man was picked bodily up by the impact of bullets slamming into his body. Another burst of fire caught Osman as he dropped the honey bucket and tried to run for cover. His blood and the shit in the container splashed everywhere. Salla turned towards the direction of fire and saw one of the American armored personnel carriers rushing up the road, a pair of Hummers and a second armored vehicle close behind.
Why are they shooting at us? We haven’t done anything? Salla barely had time to form the thought before he saw the gun atop the lead vehicle traverse towards him. He made a grab for Udi, trying to pull him deeper in the the trench, but he wasn’t fast enough. Bullets tore into Udi’s body, one striking his head, causing it to explode. His corpse fell on Salla, knocking him down hard enough that his head struck the concrete bottom. The world faded, nothing of it coming through but the noise of gunfire and the stink of blood and shit from his friend.
How long he lay there, Salla wasn’t sure. When his senses cleared again, he pushed Udi’s body off him and started picking himself up. That’s when he saw the American. He was standing above the ladder looking down at him, his gun pointed directly at his chest. His face didn’t look like any of the Americans Salla had ever seen. It was a dark copper color, and his nose broad as the black Americans he’d seen.
Moving slowly, Salla brought his hands out where the American could see them. He tried one of the few English words he knew.
The weapon wavered, lowered, and the American motioned for Salla to come to him. He climbed the ladder slowly, not wanting to alarm the other man, but when he reached its top, his own anger came boiling up. Fat Hakim lay beside the bunker, his arms outstretched as if he’d been trying to surrender when he’d been killed. Osman’s partner lay nearby in a pool of blood. Another man he couldn’t recognize from where he stood lay dead in the road, and several others knelt near him, hands restrained behind their back. An American knelt beside the immobile figure of a woman, his hands pressing a dressing to her midsection as another man spoke to her in bad Arabic.
A stutter of gunfire told him the American were still not done shooting and killing people, and he hoped Amari and Hassan were safe. Surely the Americans wouldn’t shoot a woman with her child. But as he thought that, the image of Udi’s head exploding flashed through his mind, and he was not so sure. He looked at the American, who was looking towards the village as he had been. He shook his head, said something Salla couldn’t understand, then looked towards him. He motioned for him to sit down, then raised his hand and put it behind his head. Salla understood, taking a seat on the hard ground and putting his hands together behind his head. But the American didn’t restrain him as he’d expected, he just turned his attention back towards the village and grimaced when another burst of gunfire shook the early morning air.
Allah, please protect my family!
It was an unworthy prayer, with so many dead and so many more in danger, but that was all Salla hoped. He looked up at the American, and saw a tear in his eye. Did he feel guilty for what was happening? He might not understand, but Salla asked the questions he’d had since waking up under the other man’s gun.
“Why am I alive? Why didn’t you kill me?”
James looked at the Iraqi he’d found in the fighting position. His Arabic was non-existent, but something in the tone of his voice, the haunted expression on his face, told James what he was asking. Why am I alive?
James had been surprised when the gunner on the Bradley had opened up, and he still didn’t know why he had. His Hummer had been ordered to secure the small bunker and the forward fighting position, while the rest of the team had moved into the village, convinced that their intel about this being a hotbed of insurgent activities was correct. He’d been ready to climb down into the trench when he saw the very dead body move and realized there was another man under it. The fear on his face told Jim all he needed to know about the other man, and the village too. They weren’t hostile, they were confused and scared. The dream he’d had, the horse soldier looming over him with hatred in his eyes, had come back to him at that moment.
He couldn’t kill this man, not in cold blood. He would not do to him what was done to his ancestors. All James could do was hope his fellow soldiers would show the same restraint.
(For more of what inspired this story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX3jACSixA8)