The butterfly walked across the bridge of Rhine’s nose as he fought the urge to shoo it away. The slightest movement or sound would give his position away, but the itching on his face made it hard to concentrate on his surroundings. He allowed himself the slightest nose twitch to scare the insect away but it did no good. It was just another annoyance to adding on to a stress level that was close to bringing Rhine to his breaking point. The sound of footsteps moving through the brush to his right caused him to suddenly hold his breath. His hunter was very close and the rise and fall of his chest would be sure to give away his location. The footsteps approached and stopped a mere four feet to his right. Four feet separated him from death and he could feel his heart begin to pump faster as adrenaline dumped into his system. Sweat poured down his face and caused his eyes to burn. The crackle of a radio assured his demise.
“Move four or so feet to your left and that target is toast” came a familiar voice.
The Ranger with the tall spotting stick moved the four feet to Rhine before stopping to poke the bottom of the spotting stick in Rhine’s butt cheek.
“Sorry Sir but he has your ass” The Ranger said while a slight grin while holding up a hand held radio.
Rhine rose to his feet and pulled back the hood of his Ghillie suit which was intended to help him blend in to the surrounding terrain.
“Tell Riley good job and we are making our way back to the platoon” he said as he brushed the dirt and grass from his suit.
Rhine walked with the Ranger while taking a long drink from his canteen. Maintaining the skills of the platoon was something that had to be done and today’s lesson on identifying concealed targets had left Rhine dirty, tired, and dehydrated. Though he didn’t have to get as hands on as making himself the prey for Riley to stalk, he had grown born with standing around watching and observing.
Their week long stay at the area logistics camp had given them time to rest and resupply the unit’s stocks of fuel, weapons, ammunition, and other necessary items. They had even been given a chance to take a hot shower and wash fatigues that smelled almost as bad as the corpses they were fighting. Unfortunately the stay could do little for the mental toll that had hit the platoon. The constant scenes of death and destruction had sapped the platoon’s usual friendly banter and degraded its overall mental state. Of all the platoon’s members though, none had carried a bigger burden then Rhine. In addition to the responsibilities of leading his men, Rhine had refused to allow anyone else to take part in the disposal of infected civilians. Seventy three men, women, and children had been put down by the suppressed MP-5 held in Rhine’s ominous black duffel bag.
Day by day, Rhine’s mood had grown darker and less reminiscent of his previous persona. He had once been a fun loving twenty something who always had a smile and kind word to offer. Now he was a mere shower of his former self. No more than five days had passed since Rhine had consumed a little too much of a bottle of whiskey and stared at his pistol thinking about how easy it would be to put it to his head and pull the trigger. Though he had held back from the suicidal act, the anger and remorse inside of him still ate away at his heart. He knew he was very close to the tipping point and prayed for something to pull him back from the edge.
Rhine and the Ranger who had been helping Riley stalk arrived at a small collection of vehicles which served as the platoon’s base camp for today’s training. Rangers sat around eating pre-packaged MRE’s, servicing equipment, or readying gear for the next scheduled training activity. Though they were not completely back to their former selves, it was amazing what a change could be seen in his men after a shower and a chance to wash their clothes. Rhine could have sworn he actually heard a laugh or two come from somewhere in the camp. This moment of peace immediately vanished with the crack of a gunshot in the distance and the sound of shouting coming from nearby. Instantly weapons that had been laid down or leaning against trucks were in the hands of Rangers. The sounds of charging handles from different weapons racking rounds into chambers danced across the camp .
There was a stillness disturbed only by a slight breeze as Rhine waited for another indication of where the threat was coming from. Another round of shouting carried through the air followed by another gunshot. Someone from around a hill to their left was firing small caliber rounds and yelling.
“Rhodes! Leave two men here to pull security. I’ll take half the platoon up the hill, you split the rest and have two teams flank me us; one on each side . I want rounds in the chamber and weapon safeties on until we figure out what the deal is.”
Hushed orders relayed through the ranks as Rhine and his half of the platoon made their way up the hill. A quick look to his right and left confirmed that the second half of the platoon has split and were coming up as well about fifty yards to either side. Arriving at the crest of the hill, both teams fell to their stomachs as Rhine slow crawled to look down the other side of the hill. At the hill’s base sat a chain link fence enclosure holding dozens of stray dogs that had been lost or abandoned by their owners who were making the trek West. Rhine’s men and those of other units had made frequent trips out to feed the dogs portions of their own meals so the dogs wouldn’t go hungry. The dogs had become a source of entertainment and affection for soldiers coming through the logistics camp.
Inside of the enclosure the dogs huddled in one corner except for two who lay still; obviously dead from gunshot wounds to the head. Outside the fence stood an Army officer with his pistol in hand as a half dozen other men stood a few yards away.
Rhine watched as the officer began yelling at the assembled men.
“You will be called upon to take lives out there! How can you expect to do so when you men can’t even shoot a goddamn dog? Shouted the officer.
Rhine could see the officer’s rank now by the markings on his shoulders. It was an Army Captain who was trying to teach some sick lesson to his new recruits whose body language showed that they obviously wanted no part in it. Rhine scanned to the collection of men and saw that they were as young as they were new; the oldest looking to be no more than eighteen or nineteen years old. It was a mixed unit of recruits from both the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army which surprised Rhine. He had heard of badly mauled military units consolidating to form larger cohesive formations but he had not yet seen it as this level. Among the young men stood a rough looking Marine who held the rank of Gunnery Sergeant according to the stripes on his sleeve. Apparently the “Gunny”, as he was known in the Marine Corps, wasn’t too thrilled about the method being used to toughen up the recruits.
“One more time………then you will pull the trigger on these mutts or I will court martial your asses!” barked the Captain as he walked inside the enclosure, drew his pistol from its holster, and calmly shot a cowering Labrador retriever in the head.
Rhine thought about his family back home and how his dog would gentle lay its head in his lap whenever it had desired some affection. Whatever hope Rhine had held of maintaining his sanity disappeared. The smile on the Captain’s face as he shot the animal had been the push needed to send Rhine over the edge. He jumped to his feet and walked as fast his legs would allow down the grassy hill. Behind him the three groups of Rangers merged together to watch their Lieutenant take off towards the captain. Rhodes began to chase after his boss but was stopped in his tracks by a stern warning from Rhine.
“Get your ass back with the men. Don’t you step foot down this hill!” Rhine barked without bothering to turn his head.
“Captain, I need a word with you now!” Rhine bellowed as he held himself from turning his speed walk into a full run.
The Captain was confused by the sudden appearance of a junior officer yelling at him. He holstered his pistol and puffed out his chest in preparation to tear into this Lieutenant for speaking to him in such a manner. Rhine closed to distance to a few yards and then to a mere few feet. His mind was racing but his body was on auto pilot. In the last few feet the two men locked eyes and the Captain realized that Rhine had no intention of having a discussion. The sneer which spread across Rhine’s face broadcast his intentions loud and clear. The panicked Captain reached for his holstered pistol and turned his head to call for help from the Marine Gunnery Sargent but it was too late.
Rhone closed to within a foot of the wide eyed Captain and drew his Sig Sauer pistol from its leg holster. In slow motion he placed it against the side of the Captain’s helmet-less head and fired. The Captain’s words were drowned out by the gunshot and his head snapped to the side as his body collapsed on itself.
As the gunshot’s echo faded away no one spoke or moved. The barking dogs were quiet and even the strong breeze had faded away. Rhine stared down at the man he had just murdered as he slipped his pistol back into its holster. The pain that had accompanied every single execution of infected civilians was absent and he was left alone to ponder what came next. The military had never been very accommodating to murderers in their ranks. With the pandemonium of the recent conflict he doubted they would wait more than a few days before executing him for his actions. He felt sorrow that he would never see his loved ones again and that someone else would now be responsible for the safety of his men. He felt nothing though for the body that lay at his feet.
So deep in thought was Rhine that he failed to notice the Marine Gunnery Sergeant until the man stood should to shoulder with him. The Marine looked at Rhine then down to the body before reaching out with the toe of his boot to push the Captain’s pistol out of his dead hand.
“I’ll surrender my side arm now Gunny” Rhine said as he finally brought his head up to look at the man.
The Marine looked down once again at the body, then at Rhine, and finally back to his own collection of recruits. He turned to Rhine before raising his voice loud enough so that his own men could hear him speak.
“No need for that Lieutenant; these things happen sometimes. Its unfortunate that the Captain chose to take his own life, but that is his problem not ours. With everything going on I doubt there will be any formal investigation, especially with all these witnesses to the Captain’s suicide. I’ll take care of the paperwork Sir”
Both Rhine and the Gunner Sergeant looked back to the recruits. They were greeted with a chorus of unanimous nodding heads and even a “Fuck yea Sir” from the tallest soldier of the group. The Marine shook Rhine’s hand and then held it as he spoke one last piece.
“You have people that need you Sir. Don’t get so lost in this shit that you lose sight of that. Don’t lose track of what is important……. I almost did.” The Gunnery Sergeant twisted his arm to show Rhine a still healing scar that ran along the Marine’s wrist.
The two men nodded to each other before the Marine collected his recruits for their walk back to camp as Rhine made his way back up the hill. The platoon of Rangers was still standing at the top of the hill waiting for him.
As he walked back to camp, his Rangers saluted before extending to Rhine a hand to shake and a smile to welcome him. Their Lieutenant was back.