As the pock-marked scout leads Earl away from the teetering bulldozer, Merrill surveys the wreckage. I hear him swear under his breath.
Soaking with sweat and the rain, I lash back at Merrill. “Sir, you told the men to stop playing cards. Earl did as he was told.”
“Who asked for your opinion, Lieutenant?” Merrill’s anger found a target.
“These men never make decisions on their own,” I snap back. “They’re not allowed to think around here. Didn’t you hear Earl? He does what he’s told.”
“Did someone tell him to drive that rig off the road?” Merrill points at the tractor, barely visible now in the downpour. His glasses are splattered with rain and mud. “If either of you had a half an ounce of sense…”
Ready to go toe-to-toe with Merrill, I shout, “You calling somebody brainless? I ain’t the boss. And Earl’s only mistake was to obey your order.”
Merrill looks once more at the hulking piece of road equipment sinking deeper in the mud before he squeezes his eyes closed. “I’m mad at myself, not Earl,” he admits quietly.
“Nobody in their right mind would dig up a mountain in this kind of weather,” I holler. The wet wind pelts me with rain. “I know what happens to the land when you don’t treat it right. You lose it all. By the time this road is built, the war will be over and the only thing to come from it will be a bunch of gravestones.”
Slamming his fist on the upturned dozer, Merrill yells back. “Well, Lieutenant, you’re obviously so smart—how would you build a road to China? The Japs have cut off all the eastern sea routes. And I’m sure you’ve seen the picks, hoes, and axes the 10th regiment use as weapons against the Japanese army. How the hell do you suggest we get help to China?” Out of breath, Merrill sucks in a lung full of air.
“You can’t even get us the right equipment or spare parts to construct this road. What makes you think we can help China?”
“Because we have to.” Merrill’s jaw tightens. “Can’t you see? No one’s stopping the Japanese in China.” The rain beats down on both of us. “China is our wall between the Atlantic and Pacific. The road is the only way we can supply their troops and stop the enemy.”
I feel like I’m ready to explode. “If you really want to win this war, you’ve got to stop thinking like an American. Kill the Japanese by taking away their honor, not building Stilwell’s Road.”
Merrill hangs his head, takes off his glasses, and shakes the water from them. “Lieutenant, meet me at road headquarters in one hour so we can finish this discussion.” He turns to go, then looks back at me, “And I have questions for you about the supply hut.”
The rain and road are erased from my mind immediately and replaced with nervous fear.
What did Merrill find? Once he’s out of sight, I beeline to the supply basha.
I scan the room as I enter. It smells like moldy bread. Spare equipment parts are piled high in the back of the shed. It’s hard to tell what we have and what’s missing, with stacks of motor parts and spark plugs mixed in with the electrical gear. I shiver, but rather than turn on the generator, I light a kerosene lamp.
Smoke follows the lantern’s arc as I swing it around the room. Nothing seems to have been opened. The boxes of oatmeal and coffee are stashed in a corner, safe from roof leaks. The typewriters and sheaths of paper sit on the makeshift tables of bamboo and plywood, ready for the next order.
POP. POP. My shoulders tighten at the noise, which sounds like distant gun fire. My eyes inch around the room, searching for the sound, while I feel like a target with the lantern as a beacon. Finally, I notice it’s coming from a leak dripping on a tin can.
Strangely, none of the illegally stockpiled guns in Ledo that Schmidt sent me out here to track have made it to the construction site. Did Schmidt have something up his sleeve by sending me out here? Now’s not the time to brood about that. I laid most of my dynamite stash earlier in the month and made mud soup of the traces. They’ll have to start from scratch, setting the schedule back months. My satisfaction is fleeting. I still have grenades, a couple of Thompsons, and a belt of ammo to ditch. And there’s only a half hour before I’m to meet with Merrill and the guillotine falls.
When I enter my barrack, it’s empty. My guess is the men are still in the mess hall. It’s better to be playing cards, ready for action, than to be sleeping on the job. I lie down on my rope cot and pull my pillow over my face so I won’t be disturbed.
In thirty minutes, I may be thrown out of the army for defying an officer. But I don’t give a damn. No one even remembers we exist. We’re the forgotten front.
Bob, Earl, Charles, and Bernie would never understand the logic behind my thinking. But nothing great comes of doing what’s expected unless you’re the enemy and can take advantage of it.
“Most honorable Lieutenant,” Lin squeaks as he enters the barracks.
Peeking from under my pillow, I see him hurry into the basha out of the rain.
Lin bows up and down like a bobbing sandpiper, trying to stir me from my isolation. I know it’s more out of habit than respect.
Water drips from Lin’s jacket as he bends over to rouse me. “Go away,” I answer, then turn on my side towards the wall.
“Lieutenant Flynn, may I have moment of time?” he says in staccato English.
I toss the pillow away, swing around, and sit up. Without saying anything, I glare at Lin, jaw clenched.
“I hear you to speak with Colonel Merrill.” Lin waits for an answer. It seems he mistakes my anger for fear. He tries to console me in his gentle sing-song voice. “In China, we say: cannot catch bees with vinegar.”
I say nothing.
Lin continues. “Colonel knows one word of advice from man with wisdom is better than a hundred from man who only read books. Like young boy, your words of passion miss target.” Before he goes, he adds, “You brave man, Harry Flynn, but you dream like poet.”
Thirty minutes later, I don’t even feel the water sloshing in my boots as I ascend the steps to road headquarters. I push through the door, heart pounding in my ears. I walk to the front desk and am relieved and irritated to find it vacant. The soldier on duty appears while I’m studying the envelope on the desktop addressed to Harry Flynn.
“You Flynn?” he asks. I nod. “Merrill got called away. But he left this for you.” Nonchalantly, the soldier passes the letter to me, then goes back to his business.
I rip open the seal. The letter reads, Thank you, Lieutenant. I got what I came for. You and Earl helped me figure it out. Colonel Merrill.
Eyes closed, I roll my neck to release the tension. I feel the cracking all the way down my spine. “Thanks, buddy,” I say to the clerk.
My foot is halfway out the door when the soldier adds, “Oh, yeah—Merrill said to clean up the mess in the supply hut.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish