A chapter from Kingdom of Make-Believe

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NEARLY an hour had passed since the heavy rain had finally stopped pounding the banana trees and lush jungle foliage surrounding the slow moving caravan of over 60 men and 100 mules. Huge, particolored butterflies again darted over the muddy dirt path as it twisted across rugged mountain ranges and remote low valleys toward the Thai border. Ahead lay flooded streams, mudslides and the danger of ambush.

Li T'ieh Sheng stopped briefly to loosen the laces on his boots and wipe sweat from his face. Before him, moving cautiously in single file, men in mud-caked green army fatigues carried their M-16 assault rifles, M-79 grenade launchers, light machine guns and hand grenades. Behind him a long-haired half Shan, half Chinese shouldering the unit's only 57 mm recoilless cannon stumbled over a tree's enormous roots. Li smiled at the resemblance to a betrayed Jesus carrying his cross to his Crucifixion. The young man's fatigue shirt was stained with a dark oil patch from the constant pressure of the butt of an American-made M-16 or Chinese-made AK-47 rifle, pressed tightly against him during firefights with competing armies of opium warlords. Among opium armies, such oil patches were the only 'long service medals' a combatant could display.

His thoughts turned again to the incident that had occurred less than an hour before. One of their patrols had caught two Muser hilltribesmen spying on them, one with a walkie-talkie. They were quickly led to a clearing and pushed to the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. Above them, roots of an enormous banyan tree descended like ropes from the branches. His son and two other men had interrogated the two for nearly 15 minutes but could not get them to talk. Finally, his son had led the older of the two into the jungle and executed him with his pistol. The second prisoner was very young, perhaps, only 19 or 20. When the shot had been fired he had belched uncontrollably and then vomited from fright.

His son returned and spoke again to the boy. Why were they spying? How many men were they traveling with? Had the Musers joined with the others? How had they known their route? Did they plan to attack? The boy shivered with fear but refused to speak. When his son and another man led the boy into the bushes the boy had looked at General Li as a son might reproach an unjust father.

Long ago, General Li had ordered his son to kill an American officer in the Vietnamese Highlands; the one who had changed his mind about getting involved in drug smuggling. He remembered how reluctantly his son had carried out his order. Over the years, he had watched him change into an obedient soldier who would kill without hesitation or remorse. In the last few years, he had felt his pride in his son's development tinged with undeniable sorrow; and General Li grew angry at what he believed to be his own emotional betrayal.

General Li waited in the silence and stared at the bunches of green bananas hanging above their thick purple-and-red phallic-shaped flowers, so heavy that the stem drooped downwards almost touching a bush of vivid red wildflowers. He heard the boy's voice screaming and protesting and he knew the boy's nerve had broken when he had seen his friend's body. General Li waited. Now the boy would speak and live or remain silent and die. Three men would return from the bushes or there would be a shot and only two would return. Either way, the presence of the Muser meant only one thing: someone knew their plans. His eyes followed the route of giant rattan climbers, their long, slender, tough stems snaking their way across dense undergrowth, and clinging and climbing their way upwards along trunks and branches to reach the jungle's canopy. Then he heard the shot.

The memory faded as the column of men suddenly halted and each turned to motion the man behind to stoop and be quiet. Li was secretly pleased with the interruption. His decades-old leg wound was bothering him more than ever before. At times his leg felt it was on fire and, despite his painful efforts of will, his limp had become more pronounced than ever.

General Li watched his son walk quickly and silently past the men and mules. His son knelt down on one knee beside him. He rested his walkie-talkie across his other knee. Bits of grass and plant tendrils clung to the binoculars which hung from his neck. His son spoke in Mandarin, almost in a whisper. "We've lost contact with our scouts at point. I've sent more up ahead but we've heard nothing from them either."

General Li looked toward the walkie-talkie as if it alone held an answer to the mystery of the missing scouts. "Someone has taken our bait."

His son took off his sweat-stained cap and used it to wipe sweat from his forehead. "I'd say they ran into an ambush." His sunburnt face crinkled into a lopsided grin. "Unless they lost their way, of course."

Behind them the young man with the recoilless cannon chuckled softly. Li's eyes followed the erratic path of a butterfly as it flew about the walkie-talkie. He smiled back at his son. "How often do Shan scouts lose their way in the Shan states?"

His son took his canteen from his belt and offered some to his father who refused. He drank in long gulps, rinsed his mouth and spat out a stream of water. He capped and replaced the canteen, nodded to his father and abruptly returned to the head of the column.

Li watched with a father's pride as his son moved out of sight. Seconds later, while he was expecting the order to move out, he heard the first faint rustling movement behind nearby trees. He turned slowly toward the nearest trees of the dense jungle. A snapping noise came from the same direction. A minute before, he had seen the crested head and brilliantly colored plumage of a frightened kingfisher and shortly before that, a gibbon had used its slender but powerful arms to propel itself in great leaps through the trees. But this slight sound in an awesome and unnatural jungle silence - this was different. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the man behind him looking in the same direction. Li reached for the pistol in his holster. Just as his hand touched it a series of explosions tore up the road and enemy bullets began sweeping up and down the path like gusts of heavy rain. The men in the column dropped to their stomachs and returned the fire as panicky mules burdened with saddlebags began running in terror.

Li crawled around a dropped saddlebag to the side of the trail and took cover behind a man-sized rock. Keeping low, he drew his pistol, aimed carefully at a blur of motion, and fired several times. The retorts of his pistol were completely lost in the deafening thunder of rocket grenades, recoilless rifles, bazookas, 60 mm mortars and M-60 machine guns and he knew they were completely outgunned by their ambushers. He felt a sudden sting in his right shoulder and his left hand touched the viscous wetness of his own blood.

A volley of shots hit the rock and ricocheted in several directions. He turned again to the man behind him. He lay on his side with both arms flung above his head, his right arm lying across his recoilless cannon. His long hair fell across his face and, beneath it, his sightless eyes stared back at Li. A dark red chest stain spread slowly outward to merge with his oil stain. Beside him, bullets slammed into the remains of a mule's torso the man had been using for cover.

Suddenly an explosion uprooted the rock and a section of the trail was blown away. Li felt himself being lifted as by a giant hand and just as quickly released to fall heavily on his back. He knew he could not move. He could only look up at a patch of blue sky framed by leaves and branches perched high above him. The almost perfect circle of blue framed by the green of the jungle began to blur and within that blue mirror, for an instant, Li saw again the pale face of the young woman from the city, her thin lips shaping an enigmatic smile, her wide eyes focused on his own face, as she again explained with infinite patience why poor men must not fight poor men. She stretched out her arm toward him. Li's hand trembled violently as he painfully stretched his fingers to release his pistol and reach out to take her hand. Her eyes held him as an unbearable stab of pain shook his chest and the woman's face wavered and then disappeared into constantly darkening circles of blue.

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