Lord knows I didn’t want to shoot Mendez. Hell, he was only a green kid, a frontline infantry replacement just up from boot camp. He acted gung-ho, but he’d never been exposed to live action before.
I knew the stark terror he must have felt a few days ago when the enemy tanks rolled over the ridge in front of us. It wasn’t a mystery to anyone; we’d all been there before. Were there again at that moment, in fact.
Yet, by the grace of either God or Satan — who can really say which? — none of us had ever succumbed to our finer human instincts. Which is to say that none of us had ever bolted. I don’t know why. We’d all wanted to, often enough.
Mendez had run, and that had been his crime: cowardice in the line of fire. And that is why he now stood before a field firing squad at our rear command post, wrists bound behind him, shaking and sweating in front of me and five other soldiers from our platoon. I could hear him praying to God, could see tears flowing down his cheeks.
I wanted to comfort him, not kill him. He was just a kid! If only he had held it together for another few minutes, when we finally got our air support and pushed back the enemy incursion.
Lieutenant Jamison, our platoon commander, was in charge of the proceedings. I can’t remember his exact words, but he tried his best to buck us up for what we had to do. A nasty business, he said — but necessary to maintain military discipline, set a proper example, one bad apple, et cetera, et cetera. He didn’t have his heart in it. But I knew he had to follow orders, just as we all did.
He gave a “present arms” command, walked down the firing line and inserted a single round into each of our carbines. I knew one of them, by protocol, was a blank cartridge — so that each of us might convince himself that he hadn’t been the one who had taken the condemned man’s life.
Jamison then moved to Mendez and placed a hood over his head. I heard Mendez’s muffled wail, heard him apologize to all of us and swear to do better, heard him pleading for another chance. But it was too late for that. My heart sank another increment. It could not go any lower.
I hoped against hope that someone would miraculously intervene. A last-second reprieve from the battalion CO, an angel swooping down from on high — something, anything. I chambered my round.
Blast it all. Where is God when you need him most?
I drew a bead on the center of Mendez’s chest. Then I thought: Sure, one of us has a blank in his rifle. But odds are that mine is live. There’s no way I can chance shooting this man for what he’s done. Anyone could suffer a moment of weakness under extreme stress. I re-aimed slightly over the top of Mendez’s head.
I didn’t worry about Mendez being executed per the order. The others in the firing squad would get the job done. Certainly Corporal Groznek would. He stood at the far end of our line, the only one who had volunteered for this duty; the rest of us had drawn short straws. He’d hated Mendez ever since the kid got here. I don’t know why — other than that Groznek seemed to have it in for every living thing.
Groznek relished killing. And that went beyond killing enemy combatants. Some of the men whispered stories about him raping and murdering civilians. One said he was with Groznek when they stormed a house, a suspected enemy command post that turned out to be just an innocent residence. He heard Groznek curse in frustration, then watched him smash open a woman’s skull with the butt of his rifle and skewer her baby with his bayonet.
I don’t know if that story was true — I didn’t really want to know — but I’d seen some things with my own eyes, and it would’ve fit Grosnek’s style.
Lt. Jamison probably didn’t want to know, either. The fact is, that same bayonet had saved our hides in a couple of tight spots. It’s hard to remove one of your best killers when you’re ass-deep in alligators. I understood why the Lieutenant hadn’t lowered the hammer on him. I understood it, but that still didn’t make it totally right.
I let my round fly. Mendez fell to his knees, leaned his head back and called out to God.
There wasn’t a scratch on him.
I laughed out loud; I couldn’t help it. Everyone did the same thing I did? And Groznek drew the blank? I heard him sputtering and growling at the far end of the line.
“You chicken-shit bastards,” he said. “You’re all just as cowardly as Mendez!”
He tossed his carbine aside, pulled out his personal .45 sidearm and strode toward Mendez. Sidearms weren’t sanctioned weapons for an enlisted man to carry, but Lt. Jamison had been lenient about the practice. Many of us carried them and owed our lives to his forbearance.
“Stand down, Corporal Groznek,” Jamison said. “I haven’t given the coup de grâce order yet.”
“Bastards! Cowards! This is the way you kill a man. Eyeball to eyeball.”
Groznek yanked off Mendez’s hood and pressed the business end of his pistol between the kid’s wide eyes.
The crack of a .45 caliber shot rang out. I can still hear it reverberating inside my head, even as I write this.
Tomorrow morning, I too will stand in front of six of my fellow soldiers while military field justice is served — in my case, for the murder of Stanislaw Groznek, Corporal, U.S. Army.
Some would say I should be spending this time finding peace with God. But quite honestly, I think I already have.
Gary Cuba lives with his wife and scads of mooching critters in the middle of South Carolina, perilously close to a swamp where big-footed “Skunk Apes” are said to lurk. His short fiction has appeared in numerous speculative and mainstream publications, including Jim Baen’s Universe, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Fictitious Force, and Brain Harvest. He unwraps his inner world on his website at thefoggiestnotion.com.
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