It’s September 1st 1945, and we’ve been hearing rumors that surra, a contagious blood disease, has broken out among the herd. I worry about my mule Lucky, but no one knows what’s going on. There’s talk of a new drug being developed stateside that could be used, but all I’m hearing is gossip, nothing’s for sure.
We’re eating lunch, and Sarge comes into the mess hall and orders us to the corral. “Chow time’s over, assholes, get there on the double!” His face is scrunched up and he seems really pissed. I wonder if it has something to do with Lucky.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Just the same old shit,” he snarls. “Those mules never hurt anyone.”
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he snarls. “Get over to the corral, now. Move it!”
Bradson, Holt, and me gather our stuff and head out, but I’ve got a bad feeling. When we arrive, the veterinary officers are gathered at the front. There’s about fifty of us just standing around.
Finally, a sergeant speaks. “The animals are sick. They got a blood disorder and it’s spreading quickly. We’ve been collaborating with Chinese Combat Command, executing a strict program of testing and isolation. But we just got word to destroy them.”
My heart stops. Shit! I hope Lucky’s not sick.
“Your orders,” the officer continues, “are to herd them to the gorge. We’re gonna slaughter ‘em there.”
Nausea passes through me. Not again, I think. When will this killing stop? I’m sick of burying the ones I love.
Bradson just grins. “Sounds like fun! How’re we gonna waste ‘em?”
I glare at him.
“Gonna blow the mountains above the gorge. It’ll crush the mules and bury them in the rubble.”
I’m stunned by the brutality. This must be what’s eating Sarge. He’s an ass, that’s a given, but that prickly cactus he calls a heart’s got some feeling. And he should be mad; slaughtering these mules is just wrong. “That’s not right, killing them,” I whisper to Holt. “They’re as valuable as us gunners. Shows no respect!”
Holt nods, his face white with shock.
This is unbelievable! I think. How can they give us these orders?
Bradson just spits. “You morons don’t know how to have fun,” he says, nastily. “This is gonna be one helluva mission!”
“Yeah, one helluva mission all right!” I’m so furious I could deck him. This is insane, I’m filled with rage—fuming like a one-legged cock losing its fight.
The sergeant isn’t finished. “We’ve got our demolition crew out there now, setting the charges. Orders are to get the sick mules over to the gorge. Make it snappy!”
About an hour later, we’re standing at the bottom of the canyon with close to two hundred mules. The steep, rocky cliffs surround us, and I shudder. My stomach’s as tight as a fist. I look up. The mountainsides are riddled with TNT. Killed me when I found out Lucky’s one of the sick ones, but according to the vet’s diagnosis she’s got the disease. I refuse to believe it. “I’m so sorry, babe,” I whisper in her ear. “I’d give anything to save you.”
Holt looks over with wet eyes. He seems to know what I’m feeling. It’s only natural. Been caring for our mules eighteen months.
Sarge must’ve seen this coming. But if he knew they were going to kill them, he would’ve tried to stop it. Failing to make a difference must be what’s eating him.
I look down at Lucky and my heart sinks. She senses something’s up; she’s pulling on her tether and braying loudly. Every pitiful whine shatters me.
“Hurry up!” a high-flown sergeant orders. He tells us to secure our mules with the makeshift shackles we’ve fashioned.
My hand shakes as I tie Lucky down and give her one last pat. “So long, angel,” I whisper, and I scramble up the mountainside.
After we’ve all gathered at a safe distance, the demolition crew blows both sides of the pass. The sound is deafening as rubble thunders down. I smell dust as it rises from the gorge, while boulders crush the helpless mules. Debris thrusts into the air, then settles back to the rocks below. A hard, tight mass fills me as I realize Lucky’s gone, and my already broken heart rips open once again.
“Holy shit, that’s a sight!” Bradson whoops.
I clutch my fist to keep from smashing it in his face. He’s such a bastard! I just want to deck him! Then, my anger’s too strong, and I aim my fist, slamming him with a solid one-two punch. It lands smack in the face, and knocks him flat. He quickly palms his bloody eye. Gonna have a bruiser, that’s for sure. But the asshole deserves every purple inch.
Bradson’s furious and gets up, grabs me by the shoulders, and pummels me.
I taste blood as it streaks down my face, but I blast him again with ferocious venom.
He doubles over. “Gonna kill you, cocksucker!”
Holt squeezes in between us. “Cut the crap!”
But we’re still pushing hard to get at each other, with Holt stuck in the middle. “I said cut the goddamn crap!” he screams. He’s so loud my ears hurt. “We’ll get thrown in the brig, you assholes!”
I finally step away, look Bradson right in his swollen eye, and scowl. “Tell me you don’t deserve that!”
He thrusts his body at me, and is just about to hand me another knuckle sandwich when he stops, spits, and glares out his bloody eye. He swallows hard, then takes a step backwards. “Okay, okay, I give up! I know how it was with you and that mangy beast. It’s a tough break, Holloway. I get it.” And with that, he storms off.
Holt’s just standing next to me staring down at the jumble of rocks below and shaking. “We’re always burying someone,” he sputters. “I’m sick of it, just fucking sick!
© 2019 Jeanne M. Halloran, all rights reserved