By John Thomas Tuft
Nickleback was in his headphones singing “Far Away” when Johnny, manning the .50 caliber machine gun on top of the up-armored Humvee, looked up at the gloriously blue sky through his combat shades and smiled. It was good to be out in the countryside rocking and rolling, prepped and primed for mayhem. He was outside the wire, patrolling some of the territory that their unit controlled. Word came down that the insurgents were back in the town causing trouble and hopefully a show of mighty force would dissuade. He snuck his cell phone out and surreptitiously made a video of himself as a warrior on the warpath. It was shaky video of his dusty helmet shielding his dusty smile, then dusty rocks on a dusty road being traversed by dusty armor laden vehicles loaded with young soldiers laden with fear and bravado. His vehicle brought up the rear.
He held the phone at arm’s length and smiled for his parents back home. “This is beautiful, guys,” he exclaimed just as the Bradley fighting vehicle leading the way ran over an IED and the world dissolved into flames and black smoke. The Humvee swerved hard, throwing Johnny hard against the edge of the turret. As he righted himself and swung the gun to cover the mountainside to his six, somehow the phone landed beside the gun, still going. He pulled the bolt, and the phone recorded his grunts of exertion as he squeezed the trigger. Adrenaline pumping, eyes wide, Johnny laid down covering fire for those rushing forward. Sweat stung his eyes as he concentrated. Then, in a blink, everything went black and quiet. Too quiet.
When Johnny opened his eyes, all was still. He raised his head and looked around. The convoy was gone. Instead of rocks and dust, the area was green and lush. The mountainside was covered with trees and vegetation and a breeze blew across his face. A river flowed nearby in the flat valley. A figure approached, silhouetted in the sun. It stopped and bent over him, extending a hand to help him rise. “I am Thunder Rising to Lofty Places,” said the man. “In your time, I am known as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, The People. You are welcome here.” Johnny got to his feet, noting the man’s strong features and dark hair hanging in braids. “Where am I?” he asked. Chief Joseph nodded toward the water. “This is the Snake River. It is where my people paused to rest as your army pursued us. Come and sit and talk for a while before you continue your journey.”
Johnny and Chief Joseph sat down beside the river, under the vast Montana sky. “Why was the army chasing you?” asked Johnny. “Your country declared war on us because we wanted to stay in our homeland. Our homeland was back in what you call Oregon. We did not want war. We wanted to stay where our fathers are buried. Your people came looking to take gold out of the land, more and more of you. The seven million acres that your government ‘gave’ us was reduced to less than one tenth of that. When some of our young men struck back against the settlers, they were called terrorists and,” he paused, a sad smile on his face, “the die was cast.”
He sighed as he continued, “I tried to lead my people to Canada to seek asylum. Your army chased us. It is said that they even admired us, the way we fought and defended ourselves. We were vastly outnumbered, and your army had far superior weapons. I was called the great peacemaker.” He dipped a hand in the water and drank the cooling liquid. “I would not have needed to be a peacemaker if there had not been war. A war declared on us for wanting to stay home.” Johnny dipped his hands in also and drank. “That’s a long time ago.” Chief Joseph looked out over the valley. “It was yesterday.” He faced Johnny, imploring, “The old men are dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. I am tired.”
The breeze picked up, rippling the water. “Don’t worship the warrior,” he added. “Must it be that a basic premise of the people is that we must kill each other to get what we want? All in the name of bringing them what we insist they must have?” He stood up to go. “We just want to be home.” And he left Johnny there beside the water.
Johnny’s mother answered the knock at the door. FedEx handed her a padded envelope. Taking it to her chair she opened it and let out a loud cry of pain. It was Johnny’s phone. She held it to her cheek, her tears washing his blood onto her fingertips. Finally, she dared to push the button. The screen flickered to life. A video started to play. A shaking image of her son came into view, one hand on the machine gun on the Humvee. As the dust rose around him, she heard his voice. “This is beautiful guys.”
Words are magic and writers are wizards.