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Running With the Pack
By Darrel Duckworth
Darrel Duckworth was temporarily distracted by a 26-year career of "serious responsibilities" before his story characters brought him back to his first love. He now spends more time living on other worlds, occasionally returning to Earth for coffee. His work has also been published in magazines such as LORE and Young Generation.
       Slipping between the leaves, I scanned the jungle, looking for movement or a wrong shape that would mean a human or other threat...feeling with my feet for trip wires...sniffing the air.
       It wasn't likely I'd catch any scent that the L.T. had missed. But I sniffed anyway.
       My heart froze when someone whispered behind me.
       "What's heó"
       Two men back in the line, Burns hissed the newbie back to silence.
       I gritted my teeth and took a slow breath, turning my attention back to the jungle.
       Goddamn kids! Stupid bastards were going to get us all killed. What idiot decided to stick newbies in the Pack?
       Officially, we were Recon 241, "a special unit outside the army's normal chain." To the guys in Recon 241, we were the Pack.
       The Pack was where the army dumped the soldiers who actually loved being in this shithole, who loved the rush of hunt-and-be-hunted. The kill.
       The Pack was where the army put the guys nobody else wanted near them.
       And the Pack was the group that HQ sent where nobody else wanted to go. The sweeps through "densely-occupied." The targets that were "beyond reasonable approach."
       The meat grinders.
       Maybe the Brass sent us because they hoped we'd get ground up. Or maybe they just sent us because we always came back with the shit-jobs done.
       The Pack was a place for crazies and hooked-on-the-rush vets, not newbies just arrived in-country. Other units got assigned newbies.
       "It's because the unit's got such a low casualty ratio," Captain Deskhumper had told us, quoting HQ.
       So, naturally HQ wanted to increase our casualty ratio to meet the average.
       Or maybe they just hoped the newbies would get the rest of us killed
       Either way, as far as I was concerned, it was just more proof that all the brains in HQ were found at the bottom of the latrine.
       But, back in the camp, the L.T. had put an end to the issue.
       "The pups are ours to take care of now. Start training them. We've got three days back here to get them ready. Then we're in the jungle."
       And that was it. The pack had pups. No one argued with the L.T..
       I sure as hell didn't. The L.T. was the best soldier I'd ever met. Natural born for it. Him and the Sarge were the only guys I'd take orders from. The only people I trusted. Them and the other guys in the Pack.
       Well, the old dogs anyway. The only thing I trusted the newbies to do was screw up.
       But the L.T. had said they were ours and that meant we'd take care of them. Even if HQ didn't.
       But Jesus! Three days?
       Hell, I had been two months into my second tour in-country when my CO had decided that Cpl T.R. Roesch was too psycho for his oh-so-refined tastes and had me shipped to rear for psychiatric evaluation.
       Instead, the army had quietly re-routed me to Recon 241.
       Not that I had wanted to be in this unit either. Back then, I saw myself as some kind of super-soldier, better than anyone. No way I was going to take orders from some skinny-pricked L.T. who looked younger than my underwear.
       And I had told him so the first time I met him.
       He stood there in his army green T-shirt, lean muscle and no fat, a tight grin on his face. With the sharp angles of his face and that grin showing just a hint of teeth, I got my first hint of what he really was. But I wasn't too smart back then.
       He tossed a knife at my feet and said, "Cut me. If you can. No charges laid."
       I picked up the knife, tested the weight and lunged at him. No warning.
       I woke up with the L.T. standing over me, dribbling water on my face from a canteen. He was still grinning and let a bit of the truth show through. I got smarter a whole lot faster.
       After that, the L.T. showed me how to walk quieter than moonlight passing over the ground. How to freeze. How to to become the jungle. How to fight. How to let the animal out but keep it under control.
       That was something the L.T. was good at. Natural born.
       Thanks to him, I was ten times the soldier I used to be.
       And, for the first time in my life, I had a place to belong. The only thing that could fuck it up for me now was for the war to end and for me to get sent back to someplace I didn't belong. Like back home. Where the rules were stacked against me from the day I was born and people with no loyalty figured I owed them mine just because they said so. Where people who couldn't survive an honest fight for ten seconds sent kids like these to die for them.
       Except now, the newbies, or pups as the L.T. called them, could also fuck it up for me, and for the others, by getting us all dead alongside them. So, we trained them all right. Trained them 'til they dropped. But no way three days was enough to prepare puppies for a mission like this.
       But at least, out here, they'd die knowing who their friends were...though maybe not before they'd figure out who their real enemies were.
       Maybe that was the other reason I didn't want to go home. Out here, I could tell the difference between friend and enemy.
       I heard the signal, soft and low, and froze. Ahead and behind me, the other old dogs did the same.
       Except the newbies, who stumbled on a step or two before figuring out that the line wasn't moving anymore.
       Up ahead, I could just hear the L.T. softly sniffing the air. A few hand signals passed down the line brought the rest of us forward into a quick, tight, defensive perimeter inside some dense bush.
       I was close enough to read the L.T.'s hand signals to the Sarge. My brain translated his fingers to English.
       "Smell. Hear. Small group up ahead. We're too deep in and there's too many enemy scattered around to risk a firefight. Parker. Burns. Come. Rest stay."
       "Affirmative," the Sarge signed.
       Like the rest of the old dogs, I automatically passed the signals on to the man next to me, who passed them on down the line.
       But I was pissed. Parker got to go last time. It should have been my turn this time.
       But I held my position and kept "eyes out." I could bitch about it when we were safe back in camp, not in the middle of enemy territory.
       "What are they going to do?" one of the newbies whispered.
       Jesus! I clamped down the urge to butt-stroke the little bastard.
       The Sarge glared at the kid and hand-signed "Eyes out!"
       The kid snapped his cheek to his rifle and put his eyes back on the jungle.
       Fuckin' cherry!
       Adams leaned against the kid's ear and whispered, "They're going ahead to bleed the enemy real quiet so that we can walk on. If they succeed, we'll be long gone by the time anyone discovers the bodies."
       I heard the kid swallow. Heard his breathing speed up.
       Christ! This cherry got nervous just thinking about blood. What the hell was he doing here? He should be back home trying to figure out which end the condom goes on.
       We waited. For the old dogs, this was situation normal. We held position, as still as stone, eyes out. The pups fidgeted every twenty seconds.
       After about half an hour, the cherry leaned close to Adams' ear and whispered, "How come we're not hearing nothing?"
       " 'Nothing' is good, kid," Adams whispered back, some of his teeth just visible to me, showing white against his grinning, black face. "It means our guys are doing their job right."
       Ten minutes later, we heard a scream up ahead. Then shots rang out. More screams. Then all hell broke loose about four hundred yards to the North...about where the enemy was.
       The pups started to panic but the Sarge had each of them paired up with an old dog and their partners got a grip on them. We held our position. Quiet. No movin'. Just more trees in the jungle.
       A few minutes later, we heard the signal, low, from out front of us. The Sarge returned it. The L.T. came in, fast and low, stark naked, carrying his boots in one hand and his rifle in the other. Behind him, Parker and Burns crouch-ran in, each of them carrying some more of his clothes.
       Ahead, in the jungle, I heard the sounds of people converging on the enemy position. They made more than enough noise to cover our team's return.
       I took a peek at a couple of the pups and grinned. They were in shock.
       To the rest of us, seeing the L.T. come back from a hunt naked was "situation normal." That was how he hunted best.
       But then maybe it was the blood smeared around his mouth and splatter-streaked on this chest and shoulders that freaked the pups. In any case, they were so focused on the blood, they didn't notice that his ears, fingers and toes hadn't completely changed back yet.
       "Sorry, people," the L.T. whispered, as he grabbed his pants from Burns, lay down and started pulling them on. "Bad timing. Another group decided to come visit our target just as we were finishing them off. Had to kill them all fast."
       The pups stared wide-eyed at him until their partners tapped them and signed "eyes out." We held position while the L.T. quickly dressed. Then we moved forward at an angle, real quiet, knowing that the enemy expected us to follow standard tactics and retreat. Even the pups managed to keep their mouths shut. Getting the crap scared out of you can do wonders for the old survival instinct.
       Me? I wasn't worried. The L.T. might be young, but he came from a long line of natural born hunters. And again, I wished that bullshit about passing it along through a bite was true. I'd get the L.T. to bite me right now.
       But it was enough to finally run with a pack I understood.
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