Andy’s vision became accustomed to the thick forest. He scanned the greenery,
looking for anomalies, feeling his heart begin to beat strong and fast. Adrenalin
sharpened his eyes and made his skin prickle, and he moved through the forest
like a green ghost, not making a sound. Slowly and carefully, he pushed each
branch away. He could feel the Serbs out there, scared in their bunkers, trying
to hear the whisper of pant legs on pine needles. He could imagine the men
gripping their rifles, the machine gunner in the middle, peering out the firing
ports, sweat running down the hollows of their backs even though it was cold
as a witch’s tit.
They came to a small clearing and Andy signaled the men to stop. The Croatian on his right looked relieved and immediately sank down onto one knee at the wood line. He looked incredibly young to Andy, with his pale earnest face flushed red only on his cheeks. Archie stopped too, and signaled on down the line. The brightness of the clearing turned the woods on the other side into a black, featureless hole. Andy intended to do a recce of the other side before letting the men cross the clearing, but before he could head out all hell broke loose. The ground shook with the whoosh and thump of artillery, machine guns, maybe two, chattered, and a wall of bullets came from somewhere beyond the clearing. The Croatian on Andy’s right went from one knee to flat on the ground, his hands laced in prayer.
Bullets cracked viciously over Andy’s head as he hit the ground. Several snatched at his webbing and one hit the canteen riding high on his back. Andy checked the young Croat and saw he had crawled under a thick bush and had his hands over his ears. Andy grinned. It took practice to sort things out in a battle, and most men’s initial reaction was to be overwhelmed, to dissolve in the face of such fear. The trick was to make the fear work for you, to use its high wire energy to focus your heightened senses and filter the environment. You could ride fear like a fast horse as long as you didn’t keep tugging at the reins and trying to slow down. You had to go with the wildness and then you became the hunter, not the prey.
Andy was about to signal Archie to wait, when he saw Archie’s mouth drop in surprise, then frame the words, "What the fucking fuck!" With the slowness of time in a battle, Archie looked down at his chest, spun gracefully around, and fell face down, half in the clearing but with his feet still in the woods. A shredded hole appeared in the back of his parka, and a circle of blood stained the camouflage.
Shells continued to land all around, cracking the trees and making the ground tremble. Andy guessed they were big mortars, maybe Russian 82mm’s. Keeping low, he started to crawl toward Archie, meaning to pull him back into the woods and organize his evacuation. He was reaching for the morphine he always carried on his webbing when, over the din, he heard Tony yelling from behind him in the woods.
"Go back! We’ve got to go back! They weren’t supposed to have any artillery!" Andy stopped and looked back, wondering briefly how Tony had gotten so far out of the line.
"Archie’s hit," he yelled. "I’m going to go get him."
Another round hit with a deafening thump and the concussion waves erased Tony’s screaming. He staggered forward, and raised his rifle. Andy watched in amazed horror as he took aim at Archie and fired a burst on automatic.
"What the bloody hell!" Tony got off another burst before Andy tackled him and knocked him flat onto the ground.