Greetings, fellow Soldiers!
In honour of July 20, I wrote a short story that tells in a fictionalized way what Chester means to me, exactly 1 year after his tragic passing. If you don’t have time to read all of it, you can scroll down to the most important part called “This is Not the End; This is Not the Beginning.” May we all make Chester proud!
The War Within: A Short Story Inspired by One More Light
“Daddy, are you going to die?” inquired the small child as he stood dwarfed by his father’s imposing stature.
“No, son. I’m going off to fight bad guys and then I’ll come home again,” Sergeant Benjamin Fort said, kneeling down so he could look into his child’s beautiful brown eyes. “I’ll be back. I promise. Just remember that, Hawk. Remember you’re loved and you always will be. You’re my son and I love you more than you can ever know. So make me proud while I’m gone,” Fort stroked his son’s cheek before standing up to meet his wife’s angry eyes.
“Ben, you shouldn’t make promises like that to the kids. You of all people should know there’s no guarantees in war.” Lindi’s eyes flashed with indignation at the unfolding situation.
“Baby, this is my third tour of duty. I’ll do my time and I’ll be back before you know it. Then we can finally take that Fiji vacation we keep talking about.” Lindi felt a hot flush of rage flowing through her veins, but she carefully kept her feelings to herself. Every time he leaves, I wonder if I’ll ever see him again. He’s missing out on seeing his kids grow up. Lindi knew that merely mentioning her feelings about her husband leaving yet again on another dangerous military mission was fruitless. Sometimes, I just feel like I’m talking to myself; he’ll do what he thinks is right, no matter what the cost. I just hope he comes home.
Fort felt a brief tug at his desert camouflage uniform.
“Daddy, I know your job is dangerous and I don’t want the bad guys to hurt you!” Hawk hugged his father with all the might of a six-year-old as tears drifted down his cheeks.
“Hawk, how many times to I have to tell you?” Fort said, temporarily losing his usually stoic demeanor. “The bad guys won’t hurt me – I won’t let that happen. The bad guys are strong – but I’m stronger. Hey,” Fort said in an obvious attempt to change the subject. “Maybe I’ll bring you back something, like a souvenir. When I get back, I’ll take you to the planetarium and we’ll look at all the stars.”
“And Mars!? We have to see Mars, too! ‘Cause I’m gonna be an astronaut one day and be the first ever to walk on Mars!” Hawk’s face brightened.
“Yep! If you try hard enough, you can do that. Do something that no one has ever done before – reach for the stars!” Fort playfully swept his hand through his son’s short brown hair before kissing him on the cheek. Fort looked into his son’s eyes for what he knew might be the last time. “Listen to your Mama and do everything she tells you to do. Don’t run…”
“With scissors. You’ll hurt someone.” Lindi interjected, finishing Fort’s thoughts. “Think before you speak. Look before you leap; watch the friends you keep. And don’t talk to strangers…” Hawk knew all this information; his mother had repeated this advice to him so often he could recite it nearly word for word.
“Yes, Daddy. I will.” Hawk wiped away his tears with his sleeve. “I’m gonna miss you a lot!” Hawk gushed.
“I’ll miss you and Mama.” Tears continued rolling down Hawk’s now tear-stained face. “Awww, kiddo…It’s ok. I love you. I’ll be home soon.” Fort had no idea of the truth contained in those words.
At the same time that Fort was kissing his wife and kids’ goodbye, Corporal Miguel Estrella was already on a flight east-bound en route to a sun-scorched strip of land that was teeming with sundry types of terror. From his window seat, Estrella casually gazed out upon the left wing of the Boeing 747 aircraft. In the spangled sky, condensation formed raindrops that pixelated Estrella’s view. He could barely make out the plane’s landing gear that alternatingly blinked red and white. Not much to see. With over 10 more hours to go, Estrella settled back in his seat and stretched his already cramped legs. The plane hasn’t even landed yet and I’m already missing my kids. Figures. This war won’t be over soon enough! Estrella sighed before drifting into a dreamless sleep.
Estrella awoke with a start and out of sheer instinct, reached for where his rifle would have been had he been equipped with one. The plane tilted forward as the pilot applied the brakes and the roar of the engine finally ceased. “Welcome to [country name redacted]. The local time is 3:20 in the afternoon. Please make sure you have all your belongings before exiting the plane.” Darn flight attendants. I wonder if they ever get sick of saying the same speech over and over and over again. Estrella ensured he had his wallet, cell phone, and rucksack and ambled off the plane in the direction of a makeshift military post on the edge of an ever-encroaching desert.
“Ok, ladies! Let’s move! MOVE! One, two! One, two!” Fort barked his orders to the 12 men in his squad. He sometimes used harsh language not out of any desire to demean anyone, but because experience had taught him that if he wanted to live to see another sunrise, he had to become tough. As his squad performed the typical military calisthenics in preparation for their first day on the battlefield, Fort thought about the task set before him and his men. He knew that the guerillas that appeared, disappeared, then reappeared again, like phantom ghosts, only understood one thing: violence. Fort and his squad were tasked with clearing out any remaining guerillas in the village; his squad would have to go house to house searching for any weapons and guerilla fighters all the while avoiding any ambushes or booby-traps.
“Sgt. Fort, sir. May I have a word with you?” A skinny, yet well-built man of average height saluted his superior officer and was granted permission to speak. “Sir, I was just wondering when we were all going to introduce ourselves.”
“Your uniform says you’re Corporal Estrella. That’s all I really need to know. I don’t really care who you are or where you come from. You’re a soldier in my squad and that’s all that really matters to me. Besides, we didn’t come halfway around the world to chit-chat and have an ice cream social. We came here to kill the enemy so we can win the war so we can all go home to our families. Understand, soldier?” Fort stared squarely at Estrella’s unflinching eyes.
“Understood, sir.” Estrella saluted Fort again and returned to his cardio exercises.
“Let’s go, ladies! My grandmother can run faster than that, and she’s in a coma!”Estrella saw his commanding officer as unnecessarily aloof; cut off from the rest of his squad mates, and, even more alarming, cut off from himself. For the time being, Sgt. Fort was impregnable, with thick stone walls several meters high. The walls kept Fort safe, but it also kept people from getting too close to him. Only the cacophony of battle could cause Fort’s carefully constructed walls to collapse.
The sadistic sun mercilessly beat down upon Fort’s squad as they trekked along the windswept sand dunes. Each soldier shielded their face from the ubiquitous dust and sand with a piece of protective cloth tied around their entire face except their eyes; aside from their desert camouflage uniforms, they might be mistaken for bandits.
“Almost there, ladies! Just a few more miles.” Fort’s men marched two-by-two; each soldier had a battle buddy to whom they were held accountable. If one soldier got in trouble, so would their battle buddy. Like Estrella, Private DeeJay perceived that his sergeant’s overly-businesslike attitude could be a liability on the field. A good leader spends time getting to know those under his command and learns their strengths and weaknesses so that each soldier’s talents are used for maximum effect against the enemy. Unfortunately, DeeJay concluded, Sgt. Fort didn’t seem to care for people very much. After all, no one rises to the rank of sergeant by hosting ice cream socials; Fort must be a killing machine…
Fort instructed his squad to halt just below the ridge of a sand dune. Just over the next dune lay a village occupied by radical guerillas. He had to prepare his men for the hardships of war.
“Welcome to war, ladies! One the other side of this ridge lies a sparkling resort town chock full of fancy temperature regulated Olympic-sized pools, pizza places, hot babes in skimpy swim suits, and movie theaters on every corner. Just kiddin’!” No one laughed. Fort’s sarcasm whooshed right over the heads of his men. All simply stared at their commander with stone faces. Fort cleared his throat.
“Ahem! My guess is that except for Corporal Estrella, none of you have experienced war before. So let me clue you gals in. As the great General Patton once said, ‘No one ever won a war by dying for their country. You win wars by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.’ Our mission is to get rid of the radicals in the village. As guerillas, they are used to fighting at night, so sneaking into the village during the day and blending in with the locals is our first step. The bandanas that cover our faces are a good start, but with our desert camouflage, we’ll stick out like an orange tractor at a flea circus. So if any of you happen to conveniently stumble upon an extra set of local’s clothes, feel free to ditch your camo. Gotta blend in, remember?
“There’s a safe house that we should get to ASAP. We can regroup there and I’ll give an update on mission status to the Commanding Officer, our CO. Oh, I almost forgot. The first time anyone shoots at you, you’ll probably puke and shit yourselves. Which is another wonderful reason why each of you should find a new set of clothes ASAP. I love the sound of a gun battle; it’s like a symphony – a battle symphony! You ladies ready for war? You’d better be, ‘cause here we go! Follow me to the safe house!” Fort’s squad leapt over the sandy ridge and bolted toward the village.
“Alright, ladies! You heard the CO: We’re here to clear this village of the radicals. Our first step in doing this is enforcing curfew. Any locals out past 01:00 is violating curfew and must be dealt with as situation dictates.” Sgt. Fort continued giving instructions to his crew. “We have a few hours till then, so I’d advise you to get a new set of clothes in order to blend in with the locals. Split up; walking around with a group our size looks hella suspicious, so explore the village and get to know the territory before it gets dark. That way, when you’re on patrol later tonight, you’ll have a rough idea of where rebels might like to hide. At 01:00, we start patrolling the village and making sure no rebels are out causing trouble. If you spot them, shoot first and ask questions later. Citizens are well aware of the curfew and no mercy should be given to them.” Upon hearing this, Estrella thought the Sgt.’s words seemed harsh, but then again, he thought, this was war, not a high school musical. “Let’s meet back at this safehouse at 05:00 and we’ll get our next objective from the CO.”
After asking careful questions of some locals in the village, Fort made his way down some lonely crooked paths that passed for roads in that developing country and presently stood in front of what appeared to be an abandoned shack. A subconscious craving had driven him there in search of that country’s most profitable export: a highly potent narcotic. Fort knew the rest of his crew was busy getting a feel for the lay of the land, so he wasn’t worried about getting caught making a potentially career-ruining purchase from the burly bearded man who now stood in front of him. The muscular man eyed his potential new customer from the top of his shaved head to his combat boots.
“Are we going to have a problem?” Fort said, flashing a thick stack of currency in his hand.
“No, sir. Your money here is just as good as mine…Of course, we also accept other forms of payment…” leered the man as he slowly licked his lips as the Sgt. Stood deadpan in front of him.
“No thanks. I’m not fucking around here.” Fort smiled slightly at his double-entendre. His attempt at humor was lost on the man. After carefully counting out the bills, the man handed Fort a hypodermic needle and syringe. “There’s some rooms in the back. Make yourself at home. I’m always happy to have a new customer.” Fort walked towards the back of the rickety house, sat down on a small chair, and began unlacing one of his boots. Using of his shoelaces as a tourniquet, Fort carefully inserted the needle into his vein. A sigh of contentment escaped Fort’s lungs, for he knew that for the next several hours, he wouldn’t care about anything else other than the warm feeling slowly radiating into every part of him. I don’t like drugs. Drugs like me. He smiled in resignation of the fact that one day, perhaps in a few minutes, this lifelong habit of self-medicating might kill him. Who cares? At least then, I’d die on the biggest rush of my whole goddamned life. At least then, I’d die happy. Fort suddenly had a realization of his potentially fatal decision and mumbled to no one in particular, “Please don’t let me die here.” Soon, his meandering thoughts became fuzzy and he drifted off into a heavy drug-induced slumber.
Having completely lost track of time, Fort woke up from his deliriously happy dream in a panic. Judging by the angle of the moonlight that now streamed into the abandoned flop house, it must be at least 01:00, which meant his crew would already be out patrolling the streets in search of rebels. Fort quickly grabbed his rifle and other belongings and ran out of the house so fast that he didn’t even notice that the burly man who has sold him his narcotic lay dead in the corner of the same room. A needle protruded from the bearded man’s arm.
From his high vantage point of the safehouse roof, Fort surveyed his surroundings. Scanning for any rebels, he reached for his rifle when he saw a suspicious gang of traditionally garbed men with what looked like weapons slung over their backs. Rebels! Peering into his rifle scope, even with his poor eyesight, Fort could make out the rifles on each of the rebels’ back. Unnerved and yet exhilarated for the inevitable adrenaline rush brought on by the thrill of combat, Fort aimed his sniper at the head of one of the rebels.
The bullet thundered through the air and hit its target. As the high caliber cartridge case fell to the ground, the remaining rebels shrieked and found cover. Fort raced for cover behind a nearby concrete wall and continued firing. The rebels and Fort exchanged fire for what seemed like hours. When the rebels finally ceased shooting, dawn was just beginning to caress the sky with pink and yellow streaks. Exhausted by the gun battle and lingering grogginess from his foray in the abandoned house, Fort fell asleep once more.
“I’ve found him! He’s over here!” Corp. Estrella motioned to his comrades. Quickly forming a circle around their leader, Sgt. Fort groggily opened his eyes and blinked a few times as the corporal towered over him. Before Fort could say anything, Estrella’s panicked words assaulted Fort’s ears:
“Holy shit! Shit! Half our crew is gone!” Estrella’s eyes were as wide as saucers.
“Gone? What do you mean, ‘Gone?’”
“They’re dead, Sgt.! We did everything you told us to do! We each got a new set of clothes so we’d blend in better. We were out patrolling a little past 01:00 when…” Estrella’s voice cracked with emotion. As if to lessen the impact of what he would say next, Estrella hastened on, “…when one of our guys got hit by a sniper! His head fucking exploded like a smashed pumpkin right in front of us!!!” Estrella shook in shock and disbelief.
Sgt. Fort’s heart dropped into his boots. The gun fight last night wasn’t with a bunch of rebels – it was his own men! Fort covered his face in shame and silently wept because of his colossal mistake.
“Six men, Sgt.! We’ve lost half our crew.”
Nearly on the verge of vomiting, Fort took the biggest breath he had ever taken and told his surviving crew of 5 soldiers the whole awful truth.
“Friendly fire!? I’ll be damned if you have a job tomorrow, Fort! I oughtta FIRE your army ass!” Sgt. Fort’s CO barked. “Jesus H. Christ! This isn’t just some small mistake like forgetting to clean your rifle. We’re talking about 6 brave soldiers DEAD – all because of YOU!! I swear to God if I ever see your ass again I’ll blow your fucking head off myself! Fuck it. Finish the mission. But when you get back home, I’ll make damn sure you are stripped of all your medals and are dishonourably discharged from military service. Thanks but no thanks for your service, Sgt.! I hope you die out there in that hellish desert.” Tears rolled like rain down the cheeks of every member of the now 6-man band. Fort wondered if he’d ever be able to wash his hands clean of the blood he had so mistakenly shed.
About a week later and after much self-reflection, Fort called his men to a meeting in the safehouse. Having thoughtfully Sgt. reflected upon his actions thus far with his men, he decided that a massive change in priorities was in order. He had to win the trust of his soldiers again; once lost, trust is one of the hardest things to regain. A simple way of starting this process is to get to know the members of his small band as individuals, Fort reasoned.
“Let’s start with our names and where we’re from. I’ll start. My name is Sgt. Benjamin Fort and I’m from a little town in California called Lincoln Park. Corporal Estrella, you’re next.”
Estrella smiled at this seemingly childish way of conducting introductions. “Hi. I’m Corporal Miguel Estrella. This is my second tour of duty in this lush, green country.” Responding to the corporal’s sarcasm, a small chuckle arose out of the small crowd. “My parents immigrated to America when I was 7. Growing up, my dad would always remind me that my last name meant “Star” in Spanish, so he’d always tell me to reach for the stars.” Estrella was just about to say something else when he was interrupted by a deep, commanding voice:
“And yet, here we all are, right in the pit of hell fighting a war that nobody agrees with.” Five pairs of eyes fell on the owner of the voice who had the courage to speak that uncomfortable truth. Fort read the private’s name tag.
“DeeJay? Please tell us about yourself.”
“Well, um…” DeeJay stammered. “I’m DeeJay and I’m also from California, um, from the City of Angels.” Not knowing what else to say and having lost his self-confidence due to being put on the spot, DeeJay concluded his introduction by adding, “This is my first tour of duty. And I need ANOTHER set of clothes!” DeeJay difficult truth made him grimace.
“Don’t worry,” Fort reassured. “We’ll get you some.” Turning his eyes toward yet another unfamiliar nametag, Fort asked, “Who’s next?”
“My name’s Bob and I really am from Hell.” At this statement, some wore confused looks while others softly chuckled. “No, really. I’m from Hell!” Bob said with a gently smile. “Hell, Michigan! It’s a real place!” The small band roared with laughter.
“Haha!” another soldier chuckled. “And I thought Phoenix was hot!”
Fort’s eyes turned towards the soldier who had just spoken.
“And you are?”
“My name is Dawid and I’m from a really hot place called Phoenix, Ari-“ Fort saw yet another opportunity for humor and interjected,
“Phoenix, huh?” Fort smiled kindly. “I think I’ll call you Firebird.” Firebird smiled and nodded with amused acceptance of his new name.
“Ok. There’s only one soldier who hasn’t been introduced yet.” Fort and the rest of the band looked toward the as-yet silent soldier. Reading what must have been a misprint on the soldier’s nametag, Fort looked expectantly at the soldier.
“Hi. My name is Brad, but as you can tell from reading my nametag, the genius bureaucracy that is the military, can’t even spell my first name right.” The band snickered, knowing Brad was correct in his assessment.
“I actually like the misprint. Bard, not Brad. I’m pretty sure that makes you smarter than me,” Estrella chimed. The soldier stood in silence for a moment, contemplating the sound of his new name.
“Ok. I’m Bard!” the soldier smiled playfully. “I’ve always been a fan of Shakespeare!”
“Well, now that we all know each other, it’s time I tell you a little bit about life in the military. Corp. Estrella, this may be old hat to you, but please listen up and follow me into the desert…as thirsty as you all are!” The band grabbed their heavy rucksacks and trudged out of the safehouse until they were on the edge of the village. The infernal desert that seemed to endlessly stretch out before them.
“Now, I want all you guys to stand next to each other in a line facing me. I got important stuff to tell you.” The band did as they were told.
“War is probably one of the most intense experiences someone can have. Nothing can solidify a relationship faster than war. We’re gonna see a lot of bad shit. People will get hurt. People will die. So I really need you guys to trust me again, even after…” A large lump lodged in Fort’s throat, “Even after my past mistakes. I’ve never been perfect. But neither are you.” Fort’s posture straightened, despite the 50-lb rucksack that weighed heavily on him. “So I guess that makes us even, right?” he added, his voice brightening.
Fort bent down to rest his rucksack on the sandy desert ground. Taking his left index finger, he traced a word in the sand before drawing a line in the sand separating him from the rest of his band. As Fort did so, Estrella noticed track marks on the Sgt.’s right arm. Estrella immediately recognized the needle marks for what they were. He looked upon his leader with a mix of concern and compassion, but said nothing.
“Guys, I’m sure you know by now that we’re not playing games here. I have to know that you guys are gonna back each other up and fight for each other; no matter what. So, I want everyone who is willing to give their all, no matter what the cost, stand over here on my side of the line. If not, fine. I won’t feel insulted. I won’t think bad of you. Just means you’re not ready to take one step closer to the ideals that we soldiers try to live up to: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and trust. You gotta be willing to put yourself on the line here. Everyone willing to stand strong with me, cross the line now.” As if they were one soldier, not five, every member of Fort’s squad took one step forward. All had crossed the line in the sand. Heartened, and somewhat humbled by their unified solidarity, Fort looked with pride upon his willing comrades, and said, “Let’s go get those rebels!”
Through the static on Sgt. Fort’s radio, he could barely make out the words of his Commanding Officer saying that the rebels had been spotted regrouping at the Salt Sea, several miles across the infernal desert. Their new mission was to trek across the desert and attack the rebels’ stronghold at the Salt Sea. Briefing his fellow soldiers on their new mission, Fort inquired,
“Everyone has all their stuff right? You guys got compasses?”
Estrella saluted his superior and said, “No. I think I lost mine somewhere in the village.” Estrella looked down at the ground sheepishly.
“No worries. I’m sure the locals need that compass. Here, you can have mine. I’ll just navigate using the stars. You can’t afford to get lost in this desert.” Fort tossed his own compass to Estrella. Estrella used a carabiner to clip the compass on his belt loop, ensuring he would never get lost again. After making sure his crew was adequately prepared for the harshness of desert survival, the band of brothers began the trek to the Salt Sea, a distance of 150 miles.
Trudging across sand dunes, the soldiers grew bored of the nondescript scenery and told each other stories to stave off ennui.
"I had a fucked up childhood,” said Fort to Estrella. “Like, when I was a kid, my crazy Aunt would dress in these disgusting mink coats made out of real animals. Then she’d beat the crap out of me, and afterwards, when I was crying in the corner yelling at her to leave me alone, she’d make me kiss her hand. Her hand! The one she just hit me with! And she’d make me thank her for beating me. What a sick fuck. Other bad stuff happened too…”
Estrella tried his best to put himself in his Sgt.’s shoes and imagine what a terrifying experience that must’ve been for a little kid. Then he remembered the track marks he saw earlier on Fort’s arm. _He was just trying to cope…_the corporal thought to himself. As an immigrant, Estrella’s struggles were not the same as his Sgt.’s, but he did know what it was like to feel like he didn’t fit in anywhere.
Listening to his Sgt.’s words, Bard remembered one of the things that made Shakespeare (the original Bard) so great was his ability to speak to the human condition; everyone could relate to his words.
DeeJay remembered a time in his life when the people who were supposed to love him, failed to accept him; he could relate to Fort’s experience even though he had not gone through the same situation.
After a few weeks of trekking, the comrades’ water supply had begun to run dry. The sadistic sun mocked them from noon till early evening when the cursed cold would take its turn.
DeeJay’s lips stuck together; all he could think about was water. He imagined torrents of waterfalls, a gentle rain, a peaceful brook. Turning his canteen completely upside down, he shook it in a desperate attempt to get some kind of moisture, but received none.
“Um, is anyone else thirsty?” DeeJay asked.
All the soldiers responded affirmatively, as though they had been waiting for someone else to speak up first. The thirst bothered Sgt. Fort too, but he didn’t want to say anything for fear of inconveniencing anyone. Now that his soldiers had acknowledged a problem, Fort intended to fix it: He needed to find water in what was called in the local language, “The Waterless Desert.”
Rising up early, Sgt. Fort was the first to pack up the tarp that the soldiers had been using as part of their lean-to shelter, and set off to find a source of water. The entire squad was searching for water, but only Estrella and Sgt. Fort had the experience needed to find it quickly. Remembering his survival training, Bob lifted up a large rock in the hope that dew had been trapped underneath it. Instead, he found a scorpion. Surprised by the arachnid, Bob dropped the rock and the scorpion scuttled away.
Estrella saw this incident and noted which direction the scorpion was headed. Where animals gather, there’s bound to be water nearby! he remembered. He motioned for his comrades to follow the scorpion. Unfortunately, the squad hadn’t been tailing the scorpion long when it found refuge underneath yet another rock.
DeeJay’s patience was wearing thin.
“Uh, are we looking for water? Or are we just chasing bugs? I’m fucking hot. Where’s the water, Sgt.?”
Fort’s biting sarcasm rose to the surface, “You must think the rest of us have a secret stash of lemonade hidden away somewhere. Yeah, it’s fuckin’ hot. Deal with it. Matter of fact, why don’t you guys find the water? Here’s my canteen; fill it up for me and bring it back.” To DeeJay’s astonishment, Fort gracefully tossed him his canteen.
“You’re really serious.”
“Damn straight, I am.” Cursing under his breath, DeeJay slung the empty canteen over his shoulder and joined Bob, Firebird, Estrella, and Bard in what seemed like a futile search for water. Alone, Sgt. Fort knelt on the infernal sands, his eyes scanning the sand. He too was looking for a clue as to where water might be found.
Hours passed, and the 5 soldiers’ blood ran hot with frustration. Finally, Estrella lifted his eyes towards the horizon and saw a large tree in the distance! “Look! Two o’ clock! I think that’s a cactus!” Firebird looked in the direction Miguel indicated.
“What cactus?” Firebird replied, wiping sweat from his eyes.
“There’s a big friggin’ tree, right there, Dawid. Its roots must be storing water! We’re saved” Estrella spouted excitedly.
Firebird pulled Bob aside and covered his mouth with his hand so that Estrella couldn’t hear their conversation.
“Fuck, Bob. Corporal is hallucinating. And Sgt. left us here to die alone in this desert. We’re fucked.” Bob sighed, but tried to give his battle buddy hope.
“It’s heat exhaustion. He needs water ASAP. Look. Tell DeeJay and Bard to stay with Estrella. You and I will go find the Sgt.! He’ll know what to do!”
Dogged by a heat-induced headache, the 2 battle buddies walked back to where they had left Sgt. Fort. To their surprise, he had found a small sapling and using a hollow stick as a straw, was sucking water right out of the ground and using the tarp to hold the water. Fort heard the approach of the 2 soldiers and looked up from his life-saving task.
“So…how’d it go?”
“Terrible!” Firebird blurted out. “Corporal has heat exhaustion and Bard is trying to convince him not to hike towards a tree that doesn’t exist. And DeeJay-“
“Hm. Sounds like a fun time was had by all,” Fort said with a smile. “What’s more fun than dying of thirst?” Firebird stood mute in the face of Fort’s humor under such dire circumstances. “Finding water, of course! Here, sit down by me and lemme show you how this works.”
“But Estrella is losing his mind!”
“And I’m going to lose my patience if you don’t shut up and listen.” Fort said, harshly. Then, quickly regaining his usually calm temperament, he advised, “Ok. Use this stick to dig under the sand and reach the ground water underneath. Any water you find can be soaked up with your bandana and then squeezed onto this tarp. Keep doing this till I get back. I gotta go help Estrella.”
Within an hour, the 6 soldiers had all rendezvoused around the sapling. Estrella was the first to receive the life-giving water so carefully procured by Fort and Firebird. Fort looked at Firebird with pride, knowing he had taught him a life-saving skill.
“See Firebird? And you thought we all were gonna die!” Fort’s dismissive words added to the levity of the situation, now that they all had full canteens again. DeeJay dutifully filled Sgt.’s canteen and handed it to him.
“Hey Sgt.? How much longer until we reach the Salt Sea?” Bard inquired.
“I dunno. When the stars come out, I’ll have more of an idea. Till then, let’s get some sleep. Once the sun goes down, it’ll be easier to travel since there’ll be less heat.”
As the soldiers napped, Sgt. Fort had a nightmare in which he was shackled to a flagpole and the only way to free his feet from the heavy chains was to pick up the hack saw that lay at his feet and hack away…
Fort awoke with a start. Glancing up at the sky and feeling the cool air on his face, he knew it was time to continue the trek towards the Salt Sea.