by TROY D. SMITH

Jim Barnes stepped off the Freedom Bird and walked into the World. Uncle Ray stood waiting for him, eyes squinting into the Arizona sun and a cigarette dangling from his lips.

“Glad you made it,” Uncle Ray said, and Jim nodded.

Other words had begun to form in Ray’s throat, but they could not make the journey through his lips and into the air. He stared uncertainly at Jim, and Jim could read the confusion in his uncle’s face. Uncle Ray did not recognize him, not entirely –he sensed that the nephew he had helped raise was different, somehow. Jim had what grunts called “the thousand yard stare”. His eyes focused into the distance, into the future –not because it held out promise of better things, but simply because it was not the present.

Through all those maddened months in the Viet Nam jungles, Jim’s gaze had been fixed on the moment he was living now. Riding that Freedom Bird across the ocean to a magical place called Home. Now that it was really here his eyes had trouble focusing on it. All his brothers in arms had their souls anchored to the same dream of course, marking out the days until they were rotated out –not many of them called an Indian reservation home, though. The Pimas and Maricopas had been settled on one for generations. The place wasn’t much to look at, but there were no snipers or land mines there so it seemed like a little piece of paradise.

The ride back to the reservation was a quiet one. Maybe Uncle Ray was thinking about his own brother, who had never had a homecoming. Jim Barnes Senior was instead rotated to Kingdom Come, eighteen years ago in Korea –the younger Jim sometimes imagined he could see the shadow of his father’s ghost flitting throught he Asian jungles.

He also remembered seeing another ghost when he was a child. It was a ghost that walked and drew breath and sought to cloud its eyes with whiskey. His name had been Ira –he was not a Maricopa like Jim, but a member of the Pima tribe which was so closely associated with Jim’s people that they were almost as one. Ira was a big war hero. He had been a Mean Marine, and the whole world had seen the photo of him helping raise the flag on Iwo Jima. Ira had not adjusted to life back in the States. He had fallen apart, and looking back Jim realized that Ira had the Stare too.

“How’s Grandpa?” Jim said after awhile.

“Same as always,” Uncle Ray said. “Still goes around cussing at the young folks in general for not sticking with tradition.”

Jim nodded. If Grandpa had his way, they would all be wearing breechcloths and bone breastplates.

Nothing more was said for the rest of the trip, and very little was thought –both men’s minds were fuzzy and unfocused, their eyes on the flowing road.

The rest of Jim’s homecoming was an extension of the automobile ride. Fuzzy and unfocused conversations, stilted words with family and friends who smiled with their teeth but whose eyes showed quiet panic. Panic and grief –Jim saw the realization in them that the Jim Barnes they knew was dead, had died in some foreign jungle.

He didn’t see Grandpa during all that time. Grandpa was off in the desert somewhere, the neighbors said. Probably chasing a vision or a dream, or maybe just getting drunk. The old man was going to die in that desert someday, and no one would know about it until they tripped over his bones.

Jim felt his flesh slipping away like a snakeskin. He wasn’t aware of the exact moment he became a walking ghost –he just woke up one morning and saw that he was one, just like old Ira.

Others, even Billy Russell, saw him not as a ghost but as a demon. Especially after that night at the bar. Billy had been Jim’s best friend since childhood, and was more than happy to accompany the vet on a drinking binge. Billy did not need the excuse of a war to drown his spirit in spirits stronger than him. Jim had started drinking soon after he returned, to silence the voices –he continued drinking to awaken them.

Jim had been stumbling, half-drunk, when he jostled the arm of a man at the pool table. The man missed his shot –he spun and cursed, waving his cue at Jim, his threat obvious.

Jim’s hand had snaked out and jerked the stick away, and he broke it in half over his knee. Then, with frightening speed, his right hand clamped tightly around the man’s throat. With the other end he pressed the sharp broken end of the pool cue against the man’s jugular. Jim backed him up against the wall, and the stick pressed tighter and tighter –the man made an ugly strangling noise.

Billy was frightened not so much by his friend’s actions as by his expression. There was no rage in Jim’s face. He was calm –as if this were the sort of thing one did every day.

“Let him go, Jim, you’re killing him!” Billy said. Jim did not respond.

Billy grabbed his friend’s arm –Jim’s neck turned, so he could face his friend, and Billy felt a chill. He knew then that Jim could easily kill him too. Could, and perhaps would.

Instead Jim let the whimpering man drop to the floor.

“What on earth is wrong with you?” Billy demanded.

“Killing is easy,” Jim said. “Easier than most folks think.” Living is hard, one of the voices said. Jim ignored the voices, like he had learned to ignore the rain which soaks your head in the jungle.

Jim kept on drinking. He woke up in jail, god knows how long later –the othrer inmates stared at him, sleepy and resentful, and he knew he had kept them up with his screams. Good. Let them hear the bullets cutting through the trees. Let them smell the blood for awhile.

He was woken by a deputy, who informed him that someone had made bail. Jim collected his belongings and walked outside to find his grandfather waiting for him.

“Thanks,” Jim said as they walked to the old man’s ancient Ford.

“It’s time you had a vision,” the old man said, not breaking stride or turning to look at Jim.

“I have more visions than I can shake a stick at, Grandpa.”

“Nightmares,” Grandpa corrected him. “Nightmares come from within. Visions come from beyond.” The old man nodded. “Time you had one.”

Jim slid onto the torn leather seat. He didn’t bother to speak –he knew it would do him no good.

They drove out of town –into the desert. Grandpa lit a cigarette and puffed at it. He did not offer Jim one. Jim wished the old man had not torn the radio out of his car, it had turned into a very boring trip. Grandpa was apparently selective about which of the white man’s “modern” items to reject: cars and cigarettes were okay, radios were not.

“Where the hell are we going?” Jim said.

“You’ll see.”

Jim sighed. “How’d you know I was in jail?”

“I been keepin’ my eye on you, son. I knew how it would be.”

Jim bristled, wondering what his grandfather was implying. The old man noticed, and nodded.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Jim’s grandfather said. “You’re thinking ‘he don’t know shit about me’. Well, you’re wrong. You think you’re the only man this ever happened to. Men have been going to wars forever, and coming back from them, too. When I came home from the first World War I stayed drunk for a month.”

“Yeah yeah,” Jim mumbled. “But then you pulled yourself up by the bootstraps and got on with life, by the sheer power of your Indian will.”

“Hell no.” He shifted in his seat, to look at his grandson. “When does the war end, Jim?”

Jim was confused. “What do you mean?”

“When does the war end?”

“That’s what I’d like to know. Seems like it’ll never end, not for some people.”

“It ends when you are purified.”

Jim shrugged. He didn’t like playing word games.

“Did you take any scalps, Jim?”

Jim laughed at the unexpected comment. “Yeah Grandpa –I took scalps and counted coup. I also did rain dances, and they paid me in wampum.”

Jim really did try to scalp a dead VC once. He was high at the time. The other grunts had expected it of him, since he was an Indian –he made a botched and bloody job of it.

“I bet you took something off the enemy, at some time,” Grandpa said. “As a souvenir.”

Jim fished in his pocket, and took out a cigarette lighter.

“Found this on a dead gook,” he said. “It caught my eye. He probably took it off one of our guys, some poor stupid poge who wandered into the bad brush by accident.”

The old man held out his hand. “Let me see it.”

Jim handed it over to his grandfather, and watched him examine it. It wasn’t much of a lighter, really. Jim did not know why he kept it. Perhaps he kept it as a reminder that it was he who lived, not its previous owner. Grandpa handed it back, handling it with a strange sort of respect.

“We’re here,” the old man said, and the Ford rolled to a stop outside a weatherbeaten shack. It was probably the only structure for miles around, unless you wanted to count the tiny brush hut that stood forty yards away from it.

Jim stepped out of the car. He chuckled, and waved his arms expansively. “So – this is what you’re calling home nowadays, huh?”

“Don’t laugh. See that hut over there?”

Jim nodded.

“That’s what you’re going to be calling home for awhile.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Trust me,” Grandpa said, with a smile. It was a warm smile. “I know what you need.”

“I need – a hut?”

Grandpa started walking around the hut, and Jim followed –knowing he would regret it.

“Our people have always been warriors,” Grandpa said.

“Oh yes,” said Jim. “We struggled against the Great White Father.” The old man ignored his sarcasm.

“Against the whites, yes, but also against other Indians. Whoever pissed us off, really. And in all that fighting, we learned something.”

“What?”

“We learned that a man can’t come home from battle and slide right into a life of peace, there has to be a transition. The blood must be washed away.”

“I’m betting that’s where the hut comes in.”

“It is the site of the purification ceremony. You have shed blood, and served with honor –but that part of your life is over. It’s time to journey to anotehr life –the life of peace.”

“This doesn’t involve self-mutilation, does it? I could never get into self- mutilation.”

“Shut up and get in the hut.”

“How long does this jazz take?”

“Sixteen days.”

Jim’s jaw dropped. “Sixteen days? Are you crazy? I can’t sit in your stupid hut for sixteen days!”

Grandpa paused. “Excuse me,” he said. “Do you have a job to go to, or a prior engagement, or a life of some sort I don’t know about?”

Jim reflected. “You have a point there.”

“Then get in the damn hut.”

They walked the remaining distance to the tiny structure. Jim bent over and peered at the darkness inside. It was a very spartan set-up –he had endured far worse discomfort, of course, in muddy jungles. But he had no choice then. He hesitated at the low doorway, uncertain yet drawn somehow. The ramshackle hut had an odd feel to it, a peculiar energy and presence –holy, Jim realized, then recognized the silliness of such a thought.

Grandpa was staring at Jim as if he knew his thoughts. The old man nodded, a movement so slight Jim almost missed it.

“You must sit facing west,” Grandpa said. “You must fast all day –at night I will bring you food and water.

“But not much, I’ll bet.” Jim’s words, though intended to be sarcastic, had lost their earlier bite. He was entranced by the darkness of the hut, and his tone trailed off in distraction.

“You will meditate –reflect upon your deeds –and if you are fortunate, a vision will come to you before the ritual is finished.

“Wear this.” He dug something out of his pocket. It was a small leather pouch, strung onto a rawhide thing. He placed it around Jim’s neck.

“Give me the lighter,” Grandpa said –when Jim gave it, the old man placed it in the pouch. “This is your trophy from the enemy. In the old days it would’ve been a scalp –we gotta improvise a little, on that one.”

The old man gestured to the doorway. “It begins now,” he said.

“That’s it?” Jim asked. “I just go in and sit down –you don’t shake a gourd rattle, or something?”

“Gourd rattle,” Grandpa mumbled. “What do I look like, a lunatic?” He chuckled, then casually turned his back and walked away. The old man did not even pause to look back before he entered his own shack.

Jim sighed and crawled into the hut. The darkness wrapped itself around him. He sat silent, waiting. He had sat motionless for hours on end before, never flinching a muscle, in the jungle –but today he had no idea what he was waiting for. He did not even know why he had agreed to his grandfather’s ridiculous ritual.

Maybe it was the same reason he had volunteered to got o war. The same reason so many of his tribesmen, and members of other Indian tribes, had volunteered. The number of young Indian men slogging their way through Vietnam was proportionately much higher then their white counterparts. Every company had several Indian soldiers. Invariably the other grunts would call these men Chief, or Geronimo. Or Tonto. Or something equally stupid. And they expected each Indian soldier to be a natural wizard of woodcraft, able tot rack their way flawlessly through the jungle, able to fight more fiercely –because they were Indians.

It was not true, of course, but many of the Indian soldiers wanted it to be. That’s why they were there, really –trying to reconnect with the warrior traditions of their ancestors. Trying to erase the memory of the drunken generations which came between their ancestors and them. Trying, through combat, to reclaim the freedom and the pride.

And so Jim Barnes sat, in a dark, cramped hut. He sat and let his mind go numb, in an exercise which seemed foolish to his rational mind, as it would to most civilized men’s –in a hope, dimly felt and never vocalized, that the gamble would pay off and the magic would work, and draw his spirit to a home it had never known.

The invincible Indian brave –what fools those white soldiers from Indiana and Pennsylvania were to believe in such a myth. And what fools the Indian soldiers themselves were, to let themselves be sucked into it.

Private Gruder found out the hard way. Gruder had been eighteen years old, fresh out of school, a red-faced Iowa farmboy who still let the fear show. He had thought, naively, that because his more experienced comrades showed no fear they felt none. And he attached himself to Jim Barnes, idolizing him like a kid brother. It was clear what Gruder was thinking –stick with the Indian and you’ll be all right.

Jim savored it at first. He played the part of the mean green killing machine with the red skin and the black heart. But then he recognized the weight that was being placed on his shoulders, and he began to worry.

“Quit followin’ me so damn close,” he told Gruder one day, when they were on patrol.

Gruder laughed.”I ain’t gonna jump your bones from behind, Jim –you’re too damn ugly. There’s plenty of apes around who are more appealing.”

Jim shook his head. “I’m hurt,” he said.

Gruder was laughing, but not in his eyes –his eyes were floating in a sea of shamed fear. He took another step forward, bumping into Jim. Jim made a playful half- swing at him.

“Quit crowdin’ me, poge, you’re makin’ me nervous. You don’t want to make me nervous.”

Gruder nodded. “Don’t want to make you nervous.”

“Quit goofin’ off up there,” Private Stevens whispered from a few feet behind them. “I don’t like standin’ still in this fuckin’ jungle.”

Jim picked up the pace a bit, his eyes scanning the foliage looking for any hint of a booby trap.

“You can crawl out of my ass now, Gruder. The trail is clear for the next few feet anyways.”

Gruder chuckled, his relief evident. “Your word is good enough for me, Chief.”

Jim could sense his friend’s body relaxing behind him, some of the pressure hissing out like air being let out of a tire. Jim kept walking forward. Gruder dropped several paces behind, Stevens a good distance behind the farmboy, as usual.

“We make a good team, Chief,” Gruder said. “Like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, huh?”

“Better than Red Ryder and Little Beaver, I guess,” Jim said, as he took one more step into the jungle –and felt the tension of the taut wire against his foot. He had just enough time, before the explosion, for a thought to form in his mind: I was careless, and I am going to die.

But Jim Barnes did not die. The mine was not directly beneath his feet –it was about four yards behind him.

Jim saw his grandfather castrate a pig once, years before –he remembered the squeal the animal let out, so high in pitch that it tortured a man’s ears. Gruder made that same noise, and it lasted forever. It bounced off the trees, vibrating the bones of every man in the platoon. It drowned out the echoes of the blast.

Jim had whirled around. Blood spattered him as he rocked on his heels then fell to the ground –hot blood –and something wet slapped onto his face. Jim absently brushed it off –it was part of an intestine.

Gruder lay about five feet from Jim. The top half was Gruder, anyway –the bottom part was a mass of smoking red pulp. Gruder’s jaw worked, silently now, up and down –up and down. His eyes were nearly popped from their sockets as they stared at Jim. The eyes pleaded, and accused, and died.

But before they died, the Indian knew, they had seen the truth in Jim Barnes’s face. Jim had screwed up, and his buddy had been blown to bloody hell –his legs and his manhood smeared across the treetrunks –and as Jim fought to keep from retching, he felt his face flush for just a second with a wild joy.

Someone else was dead. Not him. Someone else. Jim wanted to laugh, and to scream in terror, but all he could do was climb numbly to his feet.

The other guys kept a much greater distance behind him after that. Jim was alone in the jungle. Despite the brotherhood and the camaraderie, he suddenlt realized, they were all alone in the jungle, and always had been. Each of them carried his own private universe around with him, in his boots, a universe that would end the second he died. So fuck everything else.

-

Jim Barnes was trembling. He sensed someone in the doorway. It was his grandfather.

The old man set a tin tray inside the hut. Jim did not speak, or even look up. He felt his grandfather watching him for several minutes. Watching him –seeing him. Then the old man trudged off. Jim did not know when sleep came, or if sleep came. He did not remember eating the food or drinking the water, but the next morning it was gone and Grandfather took the tray away. Time had become an elusive thing –something that was there but you could not quite put your finger on it.

Jim Barnes dreamed.

-

It was on the sixth day of his vigil in the hut that Private Stevens came. Like with Grandpa, Jim did not see the man approach him –he just suddenly sensed, in the darkness, that Stevens was there. Jim smelled the smoke from the doobie, accepted it when Stevens passed it to him –he puffed deeply. Just as he sensed Stevens, he could sense the heat of the jungle pressing in on him.

“Know what I miss, man,” Stevens was saying.

“What.”

“I miss TV. I miss Andy Griffith. And Leave it to Beaver reruns.”

“Beaver Cleaver is probably out here with us somewhere, getting’ his ass shot off. I heard he was.”

“And Gilligan, man,” Stevens continued, his eyes glazed but good. “If we get wasted in this damn jungle, we won’t never find out if Gilligan ever gets off that friggin’ island.”

They shared another joint. Jim was passing it back when he heard the rifle shot, saw Stevens slump back against the tree, heard the sigh of life as it escaped through the other man’s softly fluttering lips.

Jim dropped to the ground and clutched his M-16. As if his M-16 could save him from Victor Charlie, when Victor Charlie was invisible. The very darkness of the night was a sniper, pumping bullets into Jim Barnes’s soul. Dawn broke, eventually, and Jim crawled away.

Gilligan will never go home. Everyone knows that.

-

Grandpa fluttered in and out of the periphery of Jim’s vision like a bird –never alighting, never slowing down. He came and went many times. The days blended together like newsprint in the rain.

Like it had rained that day in the village. Jim and his fellow grunts had stood in the bush, just out of sight of the gooks, their ears ringing with the sound of water pelting their helmets. The villagers went on about their business as usual, pretending they were unaware of the soldiers who watched them from silent hiding. There was no doubt that the sniper had run to this village, and that this village was probably his home. And that he was in there, maybe taking aim that very second at Jim Barnes, or some other grunt.

Jim did not reflect on the ironies that day. That would come later. Jim did not think at all that day, he felt. He felt the adrenaline surge in his veins, knowing a firefight could begin any moment. He felt the anxiety and frustration of months in the jungle come to a boiling point –felt grief and rage at the loss of Gruder and Stevens and a dozen other friends, the rage never vented because the enemy always disappeared into the steaming trees rather than stand and fight.

He would dwell on the ironies later, though, no doubt about that. He would wonder if the feelings he had then were the same as those experienced by the white cavalrymen who made war on his people a century earlier. Substitute the thatch huts for tipis, after all, and the story became the same.

Jim would think back and remember herding the gooks into the center of their village. Gooks- like redskins – a dehumanizing term. He would remember the thrill he felt as he watched their shacks burn –because they were the enemy, and he hated them – as well as the shame, when he saw the tear-streaked face of a young girl, no more than thirteen.

He remembered the scream which echoed inside his head, never let out into the hot air, when in the corner of his eye he saw a movement and realized that one of the gooks had a gun. The air sizzled and popped and burned as a dozen rifles opened up on the crowd –tearing the flesh, not just of the armed villager, but of them all. They tried to run, but there was no time. The soldiers were screaming and shooting, the villagers were screaming and dying. When no more of the gooks were moving Jim started shooting the damn livestock –he could not stop squeezing the trigger.

Then he saw the girl’s face again. Looking up at him, dead. He would never know if it was his own bullets which had ripped her torso apart.

There was no sound now but the crackling of the flames. One of the soldiers spoke.

“Man, these are some seriously dead fuckin’ gooks. These are by God confirmed kills for General Westmoreland to brag about on the evening news.” The man giggled nervously, but no one else was laughing.

Like every man there, Jim Barnes wished he could have those villagers back again, alive, laughing and crying and being human. And like every man there, another part of him wished he could keep on killing them.

Jim knelt beside the dead sniper. It was a skinny bastard, barely in his teens. Jim searched the boy’s pockets, but found nothing except a cheap cigarette lighter.

He choked on the smoke of the burning village.

-

Now he was choking on water. Grandpa held the cup to his lips, pouring it down his throat, holding him as he coughed.

-

Now he was choking on blood. He was in a river of blood, and the river flowed through a jungle. Jim was drowning. His clothes and skin were stained red.

A crow sat perched on a tree on shore. It croaked at him, fluttering its wings.

“Leave me alone,” Jim said, but the bird stared at him –into his soul. Jim raised himself out of the blood –felt it pouring off him, wondering whose it was –and clambered onto the riverbank. He sank to his knees, then fell on his face. The crow was still there, but the jungle had turned into a desert. Then the desert became an ocean, its water fresh and pure and clean….

-

Jim Barnes realized that he was in a bathtub in his grandfather’s house. He did not remember taking off his clothes –for that matter, he did not remember coming here from the war-hut.

“What am I doing here,” he mumbled.

“The sixteen days is over,” Grandpa said. “Now you are washing off the sweat and the stink. So that you can walk outside, into the daylight, smelling fresh and clean – for the final ritual.”

-

Jim stood beneath the bright sun, squinting. Grandpa’s back yard –or what passed for one –was crowded with people from the reservation. Most were older folks, but there were quite a few younger ones, too. Jim’s uncle Ray was there.

Grandpa stood before a large clay pot. He was holding the cigarette lighter up in the air.

“This is a trophy of war,” he announced to the crowd. “My grandson is a warrior. I am the Keeper of Scalps.” He plunged his hand into the pot and withdrew a leathery, hairy object.

“This is the scalp I took off a German in France, in 1918,” Grandpa said. “I killed another German the same day, but the son of a bitch was bald. Here too is the scalp my great-grandfather took from an Apache. In here are all the trophies our people have taken, for generations.” He dropped the lighter into the pot, along with the scalp he had held. Grandpa sank to his knees, and many of the older men began to chant.

After several minutes, Grandpa held up a hand. “I must listen,” he said, and the chanting stopped. The old man cocked his head, as if he were trying to discern something in the rustling of the wind.

“I hear laughter,” he said at last, and turned his gaze to Jim. “This means our people will still know joy.”

The old man stood up stiffly and walked over to his grandson –he placed his hands on Jim’s shoulders.

“You are part of this community, Jim,” Grandpa said. “Your soul is clean. Your past is dead, and your future is with us.”

Slowly, one by one, the onlookers approached Jim Barnes and embraced him. He felt hot tears on his skin, and knew that only some of them were his own. His grandfather looked on, and smiled.

Jim felt freedom fluttering in his chest like the wings of the crow. He reached down for the rage, but at the moment it was only a memory. The thousand-yard stare was gone as well; he could see only the faces of his neighbors.

Jim Barnes had come home.

copyright 2001 by Troy D. Smith

First appeared in American West, Loren Estleman, ed., Forge Books

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