5. Fagen's first taste of combat|
It happened so suddenly the startled American soldiers barely had the presence
of mind to take cover. On some unseen signal forty rebels opened fire,
and in a second the silent field was shattered by the harsh bark of Mauser
rifle fire and the air filled with gun smoke. Fagen knew instantly this
was the moment he'd waited for. He'd always wondered how he'd feel when
he first experienced real combat, and now he'd find out.
His first sensation at being shot at was the unreality of it, the semblance
of illusion, as though it happened to someone else, or perhaps to him, but
not in that time. Later, he remembered thinking the bullets that zinged
past his ear and clipped the grass to his left and right were not really aimed
at him and not fired in anger by someone wanting to kill him. He felt
in no danger at all. From his perspective, time slowed, almost stopped,
and he contemplated the details of the battle raging around him.
He saw the Filipino insurgents rise up from their hiding places and noted
how the dark bandoliers around their necks contrasted with their white peasant
clothes and broad-billed straw hats. As they shouldered their rifles
and let loose a volley, he saw the volumes of smoke from the muzzles, but barely
heard the reports and experienced nothing more immediate or compelling than
a curious fascination. He saw the men around him, confused and panic-stricken
by the sudden ambush, scatter and dive for cover, but he stood there unconcerned,
an invisible, incorporeal observer.
He watched Lieutenant Alstaetter run among the men, furiously urging them
to return fire. He turned to look for Ellis, to see whether he'd witnessed
this spectacle, whether he shared this special point of view. But Ellis
not to be found, Fagen stood alone in the grass while those other things took
place around him.
The spell was broken suddenly when he took a hammer blow to the back of his
neck and fell to his knees. "Get down fool! You
want to get killed?" Ellis pinned his cousin to the ground while the
Filipinos fired another volley, and then broke for the safety of the jungle.
Lieutenant Alstaetter came through the grass then, shouting orders. "Advance
men! Fire in rushes! Advance!" Sometime during the
ambush he'd lost his hat, and his yellow, sweat-soaked hair made him look younger
even than he was. On his order, first platoon rose up and rushed the
left flank all the way to the village, Filipino guerillas running away
Second platoon, in the center, had fallen behind leaving a gap in the formation.
Seeing this, Captain Baston raced up and down the length of the advancing line,
his horse rearing in fright. "To the charge, boys! Come on! We'll
whip those gugu bastards!" Third platoon reached the village next, but
Sergeant Rivers held the men back and waited for Captain Baston so they all
entered at the same time.
Fagen sensed sudden movement to his left. The Filipino rebel had been
hiding behind a rotted nipa stump and came out fast swinging a long, curving
bolo knife. No time to think, Fagen reacted from instinct, spun left
and used the barrel of his rifle to parry the blow. Much smaller than
Fagen, the rebel soldier was quick and had the element of surprise. He
lunged again, tried to get under the American's defense, and Fagen heard a
dull thud as the sharp edge of the big bolo struck his canvas daypack. He
felt the force of the blow all the way across his shoulders, and it occurred
to him it was only by God's grace he was still alive.
Suddenly Fagen's subconscious took over again, and he stepped outside himself. Even
then, engaged in hand-to-hand combat with an enemy soldier, he couldn't shake
the notion it wasn't happening to him. He was witnessing a fight for
his life, but wasn't involved in it, wasn't a participant. The Filipino
came at him again, this time with an overhead strike, and Fagen saw the determination
in the man's eyes suddenly shift to desperation. He'd used both hands
on the hilt, and his blade traced a high, sweeping arch and came down fast.
At that moment, that precise instant, Fagen realized for him battle was different
than for other men. He'd looked forward to this time, dreamed about
it, waited so long, and now life's defining moment had finally arrived, and
just then, locked in a death struggle with a man trying desperately to kill
him, he suddenly realized God had granted him special power. He'd been
endowed with the virtue of great courage. He knew then he was no ordinary
man, and armed with God's power, could not die at the hands of another. He
felt destined to great and noble deeds, to accomplish without witness
everything other men only try before the entire world. He saw the sun
reflect off cold steel, drew a ragged breath and tasted immortality.