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Going After Cacciato (Tim O'Brien)


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  Liquid and shiny, a mix of rain and clay, the trail took them higher. Out of radio range, beyond the reach of artillery.

Cacciato eluded them but he left behind the wastes of his march: empty ration cans, bits of bread, a belt of gold-cased ammo dangling from a shrub, a leaking canteen, candy wrappers, worn rope. Hints that kept them going. Luring them on, plodding along the bed of a valley; once they saw his fire on a distant hill. Straight ahead was the frontier.

"He makes it that far," Doc said on the morning of the sixth day, pointing to the next line of mountains, "and he's gone, we can't touch him. He makes the border and it's bye-bye Cacciato."

"How far?"

Doc shrugged. "Six klicks, eight klicks. Not far."

"Then he's made it," Paul Berlin said.

"Maybe so."

"By God, he has!"

"Maybe."

"By God! Lunch at Maxim's!"

"What?"

"A cafeteria deluxe. My old man ate there once...truffles heaped on chipped beef and toast."

"Maybe."

The trail narrowed, then climbed, and a half hour later Stink spotted him.

He stood at the top of a small grassy hill, two hundred meters ahead. Loose and at ease, smiling, Cacciato already had the look of a civilian. Hands in his pockets, patient, serene, not at all frightened. He might have been waiting for a bus.

Stink yelped and the lieutenant hurried forward with the glasses.

"Got him!"

"It's -- "

"Got him!" Stink was crowing and hopping. "I knew it, the ding-dong's givin' up the ghost. I knew it!"

The lieutenant stared through the glasses.

"Fire a shot, sir?" Stink held up his rifle and before the lieutenant could speak he squeezed off two quick rounds, one a tracer that turned like a corkscrew through the morning haze. Cacciato waved.

"Lookie, lookie -- "

"The son of a bitch."

"Truly a predicament," Oscar Johnson said. "I do think, ladies and gents of the jury, we got ourselves impaled on the horns of a predicament. Kindly observe -- "

"Let's move."

"A true predicament."

Stink Harris took the point, walking fast and chattering, and Cacciato stopped waving and watched him come, arms folded loosely and his big head cocked aside as if listening for something.

There was no avoiding it.

Stink saw the wire as he tripped it.

There were two sounds. First the sound of a zipper suddenly yanked up. Next a popping noise, the spoon releasing and primer detonating.

There was quiet. Then the sound of something dropping; then a fizzling sound.

Stink knew it as it happened. In one fuzzed motion he flung himself down and away, rolling, covering his skull, mouth open, yelping a trivial little yelp.

They all knew it.

Eddie and Oscar and Doc Peret dropped flat. Harold Murphy did an oddly graceful jackknife for a man of his size. The lieutenant collapsed. And Paul Berlin brought his knees to his belly, coilin g and falling, closing his eyes and his fists and his mouth.

The fizzling sound was in his head. Count, he thought. But the numbers came in a tangle without sequence.

His belly hurt. That was where it started. First the belly, a release of fluids in the bowels, a shifting feeling, a draining of all the pretensions and silly little hopes for himself. The air was windless. His teeth hurt. Count, he thought. But his teeth ached and the numbers were jumbled and meaningless.

First the belly, the bowels, and next the lungs. He was steeled, ready. There was no explosion. Count, he thought. But he couldn't get a grip on the numbers. His teeth had points in his brain, his lungs hurt, but there was no explosion. Smoke, he thought without thinking, smoke.

He felt it and smelled it, but he couldn't count.

Smoke, he said, "Smoke," and then the lieutenant was saying it, "Smoke," the lieutenant was moaning, "fucking smoke grenade."

And Paul Berlin smelled it. He felt the warm wet feeling on his thighs. His eyes were closed. Smoke: He imagined the colors and texture. He couldn't bring his eyes open. He tried, but he couldn't do it. He couldn't unclench his fists or uncoil his legs or stop the draining. He couldn't wiggle or run.

There was no explosion.

"Smoke," Doc whispered softly. "A booby's booby trap."

It was red smoke. The message was clear. Brilliant red, acidtasting, all over them. The numbers were coming now, and he counted them as they came. It was easy. Red smoke spreading out over the earth like paint, then climbing against gravity in a lazy red spiral.

His eyes had come open.

Stink Harris was bawling. He was on his hands and knees, chin against his throat. Oscar and Eddie hadn't moved.

"Had us," the lieutenant was chanting to himself. Senile-sounding. "Could've had us all, he could've."

"Smoke."

"All of us. The dummy could've -- "

"Just smoke."

But still Paul Berlin could not move. He heard voices. He heard Stink weeping on hands and knees along the trail, saw him, saw red smoke everywhere. The numbers kept running through his head, and he counted them, but he could not move. Dumb, he thought as he counted, a struck-dumb little yo-yo who can't move.

There was just the silliness and astonishment. The foolishness. And the great folly that was just now beginning to come.

He was vaguely aware of being watched. Then keenly aware. He felt it beyond his vision, over his left shoulder: some grayhaired old goat chuckling at the sorry fix of this struck-dumb dingdong at the moment of truth. His teeth hurt, his lungs hurt. He wanted to apologize to whoever was watching, but his lungs ached and his mouth wouldn't work. He wasn't breathing. Inhale? Exhale? He'd lost track.

You asshole, he thought. You ridiculous little yo-yo.

 
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Excerpted from Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien. Copyright © 1975 by Tim O'Brien. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.