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WARPAINT
#1
Disclaimer
  The events described in this story can neither be confirmed nor denied. However, if any such thing had ever occurred, rest assured that the names and some of the details would have been changed to protect the innocent…

       … and to shield the guilty from shame.

   Any resemblance to any actual persons, either living or dead, is purely coincidental.



Departmento Zelaya, Nicaragua, July 1979


   Jim was a ghost.  The guerrillas called him "El Espectro", and they knew damn well he existed only as a spirit, because they had killed him – twice. In spite of that, he still had the disconcerting habit of showing up apparently alive where and when they least expected, or wanted, him to. Guerrillas used an area near the mine where Jim worked as a sort of resting place, but the mine itself they gave a wide berth for fear of the security patrols of El Espectro.  Some said that dead men made up his entire patrol, with El Espectro in the lead.  The patrol appeared from nowhere and returned thence – always leaving a few dead guerrillas behind. The Sandinistas held no special dread of the rest of the mine’s security forces, who usually stayed inside the wire, only the squad of El Espectro, who usually stayed outside the wire and thus posed much more of a threat which was harder to avoid.

   Soldiers associated with Jim in the mercenary enterprise of providing security for La Bodega Mine in the eastern department of Zelaya, Nicaragua, generally called him "junior" in view of the fact that a younger sergeant had never led a patrol at the mine.  Had the recruiters known just how young he really was when he signed on at the age of seventeen, it probably would not have mattered, so long as he pulled his weight. Jim carefully concealed that bit of information from them nonetheless.  He suspected that they only cared about his ability to shoot and sneak through the woods, but did not care to bet his job on that suspicion. The money was too good, compared to what he had been used to before.

    Back home on the reservation, Jim’s father taught him all about the fine art of hunting, a time honored tradition among Jim’s kin.  Still,  hunting made for a poor way to blaze one's trail in the  alien  world  that  whites had  built  around  the  Indian’s enclave. When Jim struck out on his own to explore that world, he found that the only real skills he possessed could be converted to profit making enterprises through the recruiters of the mercenary underworld.  He merely switched from hunting animals to hunting men, nothing his ancestors hadn't done for thousands of years.   The transition came relatively easily to Jim,   as transitions usually are for the young. He landed in Nicaragua as the result of answering a newspaper ad, curiously enough.

     One  sultry July day,  as jungle days always are when it’s  not raining,  Jim  headed  down  to the village at the  foot  of  the mountain  where  La Bodega Mine rested.  The village contained a hodgepodge of Nicaragua's poor – campesinos, Miskito Indians, and half breed mixtures of the two – that made the daily trip up the slope to work the mine.

    Jim’s business in the village involved a half-breed Miskito girl who Jim called "Melassa". The word meant "sugar" in the language of his forebears, and he thought the application fitting. He had not originally intended to fall in love with Melassa; it was supposed to just be a hormone thing. Nevertheless, fall in love he did, head over heels ("ass over appetite" is how his father would have phrased it). The two had a common ground in their status as half-breeds, and they built up a relationship from there.  When Jim went back to The States, Melassa would be going with him.
 
     During   his long hours spent in the woods Jim had developed a "sixth  sense"  for  when something was  not  right,  and  as  he approached  the  doorway of the scrap lumber shack  of  Melassa’s grandmother,  a  nagging feeling crawled up the back of his scalp with the tickling sensation of a jungle mosquito.  As he stepped through the doorway, scuffling the dirt floor a little with the toe of his boot, Jim absently swiped at the back of his head as if to dispel the presence of one of the Cessna-sized insects, but he knew he would find nothing.  Something was wrong, but he could fix anything that concerned Melassa.  Her whole family thought he had strong medicine because of the joy he brought into the life of the previously serious, grave girl.  Jim found no one inside, although a fire burned cheerfully in the tin stove Melassa's grandmother used to cook the family meals.  He stepped back outside and nearly got knocked over by a seventy pound ball of energy disguised as Melassa’s little brother.

    "Jim!  Jim!  The soldier men from the mine, they say you was here.  Come! You hurry, you fix!  Sandies come, hurting Melassa! Run Jim!" the boy unnecessarily spoke the last two words.  Jim used the term “sandies” for the Sandinista guerrillas, and he knew he couldn't waste any time.  Jim sprang into motion at the heels of the younger boy, and both ran as if the hounds of hell nipped at their hinder parts. Jim could run no faster only because of the need to follow Melassa's brother.

      Three hundred meters outside the village, just inside the edge of the jungle, Melassa’s grandmother huddled on the ground clutching a bloody, tattered bundle of rags, trying to cover what was left of a mangled, naked body with them.  Her whole body quivered and quaked as if she gasped for her last breath, but not a sound issued forth. Jim skidded to a halt, tearing his pant legs and scraping his knees raw on the ground beside the old woman. He knew before he looked that there was no hope for Melassa. Live humans just weren’t that small and limp.  He couldn't fix it this time. Tears welled up in Jim's eyes, rolled down his cheeks, and dripped off his chin.  His lower lip quivered, but the muscles in his jaw bulged out as he bit down on his rage. Judging by the damage at her crotch, the bruises and abrasions to her face and body, and the fact that there were no entry gunshot wounds, only exit wounds, Jim determined that Melassa had been beaten and gang raped, and then shot with a gun aimed in a very novel way. Jim could not even imagine the surreal, helpless terror Melassa must have felt when her torturers dragged her into the jungle. It gave him an odd, painful feeling to even try.
 
      El Espectro knew what he had to do. He left the living to bury the dead, for he belonged with neither now. Standing up to his full six – foot, two – inch height, he cast a practiced eye to the ground and ascertained that five men had participated in the atrocity.  El Espectro followed their trail long enough to determine their direction of travel and memorize the peculiarities of their boot prints, then headed back to the mine.
 
   Upon his arrival at the mine, a couple of the guys greeted him, their greetings going unreturned.  A mission haunted Jim, absorbing his being and dogging his every step.

     "Junior's in one of his damn injun moods, don't fuck with him" he heard one of the guards tell another as he passed by on his way to the operations shack. Once inside, El Espectro grabbed his "sawed-off", as he called the shortened M-16 carbine (“officially” a CAR-15 variant) that he carried on patrol in the woods.  Jim believed that modern man had yet to invent a deadlier implement for jungle combat. It was based on the M-16  US service rifle, but had a barrel cut down to 15”, with the front sight moved slightly backwards accordingly. The weapon was finished out with a collapsible buttstock and the round handguards normally found on an XM-177E1 of the Vietnam era. She was short, light, and maneuverable in the sometimes close confines of jungle warfare, and was a very, very deadly team mate for Jim.

      His next steps made a beeline for the shack he bunked in. Opening the wall locker  at  the  head  of his  bunk,  The  Ghost  grabbed  a  kit containing his camouflage greasepaint. Jim stripped down his web gear, leaving only his jungle knife, two canteens, six 30 round magazines of ammo, and a poncho strapped to the web belt. He carefully moved those items to the sides and rear of the belt, leaving the front uncluttered so he could lie flat on his stomach. A dagger, compass, and sterile field dressing were attached to the shoulder straps of his web harness.

       Next came the war paint. In days of old Jim's people had painted their faces in particular patterns before engaging in the hunt or in war.  Whites had always assumed that the paint had ritual   significance,   or that Indians did it merely   for decoration.  Jim knew the real purpose of the blacks, whites, and dull reds and yellows his ancestors smeared on themselves at such times was camouflage, just as the “decorative” feathers on Indian weaponry served a utilitarian purpose, to gauge wind speed and direction.  He  always called the  cammo  sticks  his “warpaint”,  and his white buddies always got a kick out of it, but they   never   understood   the  simple   significance   of   his identification  of  the present with the past – it tied him to  a home that had vanished long before his birth.

     Jim painted the right half of his face black and the left half green, streaking each color diagonally to the other side in stripes reminiscent of the tiger. When he completed that pattern, he added dabs of brown here and there. As he put on the finishing touches, Ace Jackson, the closest thing Jim had to a friend among the mercenaries, stepped into the shack.

     "Where you going, Junior?"

     "Goin' for a walk, Ace."

     "What's the cammo about?"

     "Don't want nobody to see me walkin'."

     "Mind if I come too?  Sometimes a fellow can get hisself in a bind all alone in the big dark woods.  Helps to have a friend along.  You look like a fella might be lookin' for a bind to get into."

     "No."

     “‘No’ you don't mind, or ‘no’ you ain’t lookin’ for a bind?"

     "No you can't come."

     "Listen, Junior.  The kid told some of the guys about what happened. He’s afraid you might go out and get yourself hurt too.  They  sent me in here to talk to you,  to let you know we're  all  sorry about it and to tell you that if you  can't  be talked out of goin' out,  at least don't go out alone.  We're all behind you, and the squad stands ready to go patrollin' for the bastards what done it. We'll go out with you."

     "This is a private war, Ace. You guys ain't invited."

     "C'mon Junior. You know that…"

     "I know that I'm goin' out to die.  You go out with me, your gonna die too. This is my war. You guys stay on 'the porch'."

     With his use of the radio code phrase the mercenaries used in referring to the mine, Jim picked up his rifle, slapped his 40 round “ambush” magazine into it (he liked the idea of having an extra 10 rounds to be obnoxious with in ambush situations – it helped buy time for fight or flight without having to worry about re-loading), and headed out the door. Almost as an afterthought, he grabbed his trophy bag – a canvas pouch filled with a layer of salt at the bottom – and tied it to the side of his web belt. Just before he reached the main gate, Jim spied a bucket of black paint that recently had been used to paint I.D.  marks on the mine vehicles.  He paused long enough to remove his shirt and slap  wet  black hand prints on his arms from shoulder to  wrist, put  his tigerstripe camouflage fatigue blouse back  on,  tied  a green  triangular  bandage around his head bandanna  fashion,  and then set off out the gate.  Within seconds, El Espectro literally vanished into the jungle as if he had turned to mist.

     Slipping through the dense undergrowth with the fluid, sinuous silence of a jaguar, El Espectro cut the trail of the guilty parties within minutes. Within three hours he had them in sight. They had set up a small camp for the night, and El Espectro lay down on his belly in the underbrush on a small knoll overlooking the camp about twenty  five  meters away, settling in to observe. Whenever his face was this close to the jungle floor the smell of death, as green decayed to black, wafted thickly.  Higher up, at walking level, the dominant smell spoke of life, as if pure, sweet oxygen prevailed in testimony to the riot of life all around.  Up there, you could smell the fresh, clean breath of the jungle, but down here it digested its meals and only the smell of death penetrated.  He could hear the laughs and crude jokes of the men before him clearly, some of them referring to his own Melassa.  "That one's gonna cost you extra" he thought, as one of the men made a particularly cruel comment about Melassa's enjoyment of her last few seconds on this land.

    As the evening unfolded El Espectro marked the guerrilla who would have to pay extra as the leader of the squad, and somehow that gave him a little extra satisfaction. The hunted, unaware of the hunter a stone’s throw away,   continued to feed   him information that he could put to use in their destruction.  They talked about their destination and discussed possible routes from the current camp, all of which El Espectro filed away.  He noticed that periodically a man would disappear into the darkness on the other side of the camp, first one, and now another, and return empty handed. He mentally marked the spot of their latrine.

     In the wee hours of the morning, just before dawn, four of the guerrillas slept and one stood watch.  El Espectro took the opportunity to glide around the camp in darkness to the latrine spot, knowing that it would be a popular place for the guerrillas to visit upon arising in the morning.  It was far enough from the camp that a few small noises would probably go unnoticed.  

     A little later in the gray twilight of approaching dawn, the sentry arose and stretched, snapping a couple of small kinks out of his back.  He looked at his sleeping companions to make sure they were all sleeping soundly (it simply wouldn’t do for them to catch him away from his post!)  and trudged off to the latrine.  The sentry faced the camp, dropped his trousers, and squatted over the cat hole in the ground. With his pants around his ankles and what little attention he had left after his stand at guard duty riveted on the camp to warn him of discovery of his absence by his companions, the sentry was an easy target.  

     El Espectro crept a little closer to the man and sprang at him from behind.  he  caught  the sentry's  chin in his right hand and, snapping his head back and a little to the right, jabbed the point of his jungle knife into the side of the man's  exposed throat in a quick motion  with  his  left, then quickly sliced it out the front, severing the carotid artery and windpipe. The sound which burst forth was an awful wheezing, coarse cough – almost a grunt, like a “whooping” cough – that rapidly became a gurgle as breath fought to penetrate thick sticky blood. The guerrilla’s eyes went wide with shock, the “this can’t be happening to me!" stare.  After several seconds of blood spreading over the sentry’s chest and Jim’s hands, and spurting onto nearby leaves, the torso went slack but the legs still twitched in a vain lifeless effort to run away from the sudden horror which had overcome him.  

     El Espectro stared intently at the camp for a little time, checking for any telltale stirring among the sleepers, but found none.  The hit had gone undetected, for the time being. He knelt over the corpse and, using the same jungle knife, severed his trophy from the dead guerrilla’s crotch. That particular “trophy” seemed fitting at the time, considering the man's crimes. Dropping the “trophy” into the salt bag at his belt, El Espectro disappeared into the lightening jungle dawn.

     Over the course of the next three days, the hunter picked off his prey one by one, pausing to take his “trophy” each time. El Espectro catnapped at night between bouts of gaging the mental effects of his handiwork on the guerrillas and planning the next foray. The constant fear of a phantom they could not see, and therefore could not fight, and one who seemed to somehow KNOW just where they would be at any given time, weighed heavily on the minds of the guerrillas.

    Two of the remaining four fell to booby traps made from local materials and set on the jungle trails trusted by the guerrillas as escape routes.  One  other  fell  to  a single shot  delivered  from  an overhead vantage point at the brow of a cliff overlooking a  bend in  the  trail.  Finally, only the squad leader remained.

     The lone guerrilla trudged along the path doggedly.  Sleepless nights and constant fear had taken their toll on him. As he neared the end of his rope he felt sure that he wouldn’t make his destination, but possessed a fatalistic determination to try.  He had no other choice. The previous night he had dozed off briefly, only to be awakened by a bloodcurdling scream the source of which he couldn’t detect before it trailed off in the night. Whatever the scream's origin, it effectively set him on edge and prevented any further sleep. He was grateful for that.  The demon stalking him would have  a much  tougher  time  at  the kill  if  only  he  remained  awake.

   Suddenly,  right  there  before him as he shuffled along,  the morning mist and shadows of  the  jungle themselves stirred and coalesced into a human form, a form with a half  black  and  half green striped face.  Without  a  word,  El Espectro  (the guerrilla had no doubt it was he)  shouldered  his rifle  and  fired,  destroying  the guerrilla's right knee  in  a bloody  spray  of bone chips.  The guerrilla dropped to the ground as the leg collapsed under him, but reacted relatively quickly with a minimum of fumbling.  He pointed his rifle at the specter’s chest and pulled the trigger.  The weapon only clicked in response.

     "You need these to make that thing work" said El Espectro as he tossed a handful of cartridges to the ground at his feet.  "I took 'em last night while you were asleep. Figured you might hurt somebody what with all the sleep you been losin'." The guerrilla could not understand all that chatter in English, but he fully understood the significance of the cartridges spilled on the ground. " 'Course I had to wake you up right after that.  It ain't safe to sleep out in this jungle, don'tcha know.  Had to scream like a fuckin' banshee to wake you up.  You’re a pretty sound sleeper."

     El Espectro drew a bead and destroyed the other knee of the guerrilla.  When the screams of pain subsided, he spoke again. "You’re a pretty fair screamer yourself." The rifle bucked again and the guerrilla's left shoulder became a useless piece of meat.

     When he had brought the guerrilla back to consciousness, El Espectro said "You're quite the bad ass, ain't you?  Goin' around pickin' on girls with a bunch of your buddies".  For this last comment El Espectro had switched to Spanish so he would be understood. He wanted the man to know why judgment had been passed and execution was nigh. The  only  response  he  received  was  numb – minded whimpering,  so  he  shot the man in his right shoulder and  once again aroused the doomed guerrilla.

     "I'm a mean fucker, ain't I?" said the hunter in Spanish as he knelt to sever his “trophy” from the final prey while he still lived. The guerrilla leader had seen the other corpses, and Realized with a terrible clarity what El Espectro’s intentions were. He was unable to physically defend himself because of the destruction of his primary joints, and the ruined guerrilla suddenly came alive with begging, pleading to no avail. The knife flashed and the trophy lay in the hand of the victor, affording the guerrilla a prime view of the oozing appendage just prior to its placement in the salt bag.

     "Now I'm gonna watch you bleed to death like a yapping street dog." The guerrilla could not survive his wounds now, not here in this septic jungle miles from any sort of medical help, but he redoubled his begging, heedless of his imminent demise.  After a few moments,  when the man's begging and increasingly glassy eyes began  to  show  evidence of his weakening condition  and  became interspersed with low animal moaning,  El Espectro said "Aw  fuck it." The jerking bark of his rifle ended the conversation. In slow motion, a piece of the guerrilla’s skull the size of a man’s palm peeled back from above his left eye and flopped over the top of his head, allowing the pinkish matter contained within to splash on the ground. The whining, moaning, and pleading came to a halt.

     Only now did Jim sit down in the lonely, life-filled jungle and mourn his loss.  He cried like a baby for hours where none could see.

     It took two days for Jim to get back to the site of the mine. As he approached, that prickling warning attacked the back of his head once more, and he became even more cautious. Shortly after, he  saw  the  column  of  smoke rising  from  the  ashes  of  his livelihood. Jim crept forward on his belly until he could see the mine, and knew that he would never enter those gates again. Sandinista  guards  patrolled the grounds where only days  before his  buddies  had sat around between patrols  playing  poker  and swapping stories. There must have been a massive assault while he was gone.  In the foreground, a bulldozer shoved earth over unthanked mercenary bodies in a mass grave.  Jim needed to see no more, in fact could stand to see no more.  He headed for the village.

     Entering the village from the jungle and avoiding the road which almost certainly crawled with a Sandinista infestation, Jim took a   circuitous route toward the shack of Melassa's grandmother. He never made it.  A pair of hands shot out of a doorway he was passing and hauled him inside.  To his relief, it was Ace.  That relief lived no longer than it took to look at Ace's eyes.

     "The old woman is dead. The boy too. They raised hell when the Sandies came to town, and got summarily shot for their trouble along with a few other upstanding citizens.  Since these people are needed by the new government to work the mine, they just made an example of a few of them, and the rest fell into line."

     "New government? What the hell are you talking about?"

     "The Sandinista government.  They took Managua on the 19th or 20th, I ain't too sure – news doesn't get out here very well these days – and took the mine yesterday. We're in Indian country now, no offense, and it don't look good for us.  They've been shootin' American military types on sight, no questions asked. I knew you'd come here to check on the old woman an' kid, so I came here to wait on you. I felt pretty sure you’d be back. We gotta get the hell out of Dodge."

     "What about the others at the mine? How many casualties?"

     "What others?  We're it.  Nobody else survived.  They’re all dead, every last man."

     Forty seven souls perished at the mine, from several nations and at least three, maybe four, continents.  They would never be sung about, never see their families again, and no one would ever know what happened to them. Such are the vagaries of politics that no one would claim them; no one would ever even admit their existence.

     after rounding   up  campesino  garb  to  disguise   themselves   with, Ace and Jim buried their identity papers in the damp,  rotting Nicaraguan   soil  along  with  their  military  trappings. Camouflage comes in many colors.  Since they had no Identity papers, the two did not officially exist. Essentially, forty nine men had not died in a battle that did not take place in a jungle that would not give up its secrets.

       Immediately after constructing their disguises, Jim paid a visit to Melassa's grave site. He dug a small, shallow hole at the foot of her grave, and buried the trophy bag at her feet, salt, trophies and all. Straightening up, he said "I got 'em for ya. It don't help nothin', and it won't bring you back to me, but for what it's worth, they paid for it. There's the change from the price they paid" he stated, pointing to the new mini-grave at her feet. "I mis... " – his voice cracked, and he was unable to say any more. Jim turned and left the grave, and never looked back.

     The pair, Jim and Ace, headed north, and after a little over two weeks of dodging Sandinista patrols and receiving unsolicited help from sympathetic campesinos and Miskitos, arrived at the Honduran border. After they had crossed a river into the relative safety of Honduras, Jim sat down on the riverbank and stared back into Nicaragua. Gazing into the treeline on the far side of the river, he suddenly realized that he had turned 18 in that damndable jungle over there, while he was on his last hunt.

      Jim would never again be the same boy who had arrived in Nicaragua, the same boy who had left home at seventeen to seek his fortune in a world he could not understand. Home, for that matter, would never again be the same place it had been before he’d learned to apply the skills he  learned there to hunting men. He had left that boy in Nicaragua, the casualty of a war with no purpose, in a land with no future, populated by a people with no hope.

      Would his father even know him when they met again? Jim doubted it. The boy his pappy had raised had died, the man returning in his stead was scarred from invisible wounds which Jim feared would never heal. Home never stayed the same, principally because the heart carrying it changed constantly, fluidly from one day to the next as the winds of time bore it along.

    No, Jim knew he would never see his home again, even though he carried it with him always. A single tear rolled down his cheek in memory of the son his father had lost.
" I don't mind killin' a man in a fair fight... or if I think he's gonna start a fair fight... or if there's money involved... or a woman... "

 - Jayne Cobb, Hero of Canton
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#2
minusculeclap
Once A Rogue, Always A Rogue!
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#3
Beautiful.
minusculethumbsup
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#4
Great story and very well written.   minusculeclap     minusculegoodjob
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#5
I am deeply appreciative of the story and your writing skills. You took the time and the effort to flush out the story with enough detail to make it compelling and interesting. Thank you  minusculebeercheers
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#6
(01-08-2020, 12:01 PM)727Sky Wrote: I am deeply appreciative of the story and your writing skills. You took the time and the effort to flush out the story with enough detail to make it compelling and interesting. Thank you  minusculebeercheers

To be honest, it took about 20-odd years to write that little bit o' short story. What I've posted here is, I believe, the third version of the 8th revision. The second revision was for a grade in a writing class I took under Robert Gingher in about 1992 at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, while I was there studying Physics and Astronomy. I was in my 30's at the time, a little long in the tooth for a college student. I took his criticisms and suggestions to heart, and worked it over and re-worked it over in the subsequent years, and can only hope the final product approached his goals for it.

The comment Gingher wrote on that version that I recall the most clearly is a single word - "Horrific". I read that, looked at him, and said "It's a war story - should it be anything but?" tinycool
" I don't mind killin' a man in a fair fight... or if I think he's gonna start a fair fight... or if there's money involved... or a woman... "

 - Jayne Cobb, Hero of Canton
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#7
(01-08-2020, 10:11 PM)Ninurta Wrote: ...The comment Gingher wrote on that version that I recall the most clearly is a single word - "Horrific".
I read that, looked at him, and said "It's a war story - should it be anything but?" tinycool

The next time, your thoughts on Teddy Bear collecting or the benefits of home-made cheese-making.
tinysurprised

A great tale and I'm sure it helped Mr. Gingher to see part of the real world we live in.
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#8
(01-07-2020, 04:40 AM)Ninurta Wrote:
Departmento Zelaya, Nicaragua, July 1979


   Jim was a ghost......

@Ninurta - That was an awesome piece of writing!
Well done you.

G

minusculebeercheers
tinybighuh Being Rogue is WEIRD, But I LIKE IT!tinyfunny 
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