The Guard

The rain was torrential. It was everywhere, amplifying the darkness of the night, killing any speck of light that dared to try and live. It beat down hard on the leaves of the surrounding jungle. It pelted the soil into small, goopy pools.

And there I stood, right in the middle of the cursed downpour. Only my hat gave me some protection from heaven's wrath. I tried lighting a cigarette, but of course was unsuccessful. Damn. My one luxury was taken away. The AK-47 hanging from my right shoulder seemed to get heavier by the drop, the wood of its stock soaking up water faster than the thirstiest tree.

My fatigues were completely drenched, my boots flooded and submerged in the saturated soil. Perhaps I would have left had I not been so well paid.

Sometimes putting food on the table isn't a pretty business.

Suddenly a rustling came from the bushes, barely audible above the monsoon-like conditions. I was awakened from my daze. Without thinking I flipped my rifle into firing position -- swiftly, with no wasted movement.

Then I heard them: the two claps in rapid succession that identified a fellow watchman. Indeed, it was only Miguel.

He was one of the few others I had bothered to get to know. He approached me at an easy cantor with his own rifle hanging from his shoulder. Our trainers had been very adamant about this particular way to hold one's weapon.

"You must be ready for anything," they had said. "Expect the unexpected. Take nothing for granted. Make sure your rifle can be drawn and fired quickly at any time. If not, you are nothing but target practice for your enemy."

"Hey hombre! Hell of a night, huh?"

Miguel never called me by my name. In fact I wondered if he even knew it. It was probably better that way. I was sure I didn't want him coming to visit after I was through with this line of work.

"Shouldn't you be at your post, Miguel? Two of us in one place does no good."

He glared at me. "Anyone who decided to attack in this kind of weather would be a fool! You can't even see ten feet in front of you," he smirked.

"I don't know, seems to me this kind of rain could be good cover."

"Ah, you think too much," he said as he gave me a brisk punch to the shoulder. "Don't you forget: we're just hired to play scarecrow, not to think."

Such was Miguel's mindset. If he didn't think the weather was suitable for an attack, why the hell would anyone else?

It seemed to me that thinking for myself was the one thing that could help me make it out of this damned dark jungle alive.

"So why you come over here Miguel? You get bored or something?"

"No, I was wondering if you had any dry cigarettes. Mine won't light."

"I have the same problem. It seems we go smokeless tonight."

"Ah hell! I don't think this night could get any worse!"

In vain, Miguel produced another soggy cigarette from the front pocket of his jacket. It hung limp with wetness by the time it reached his mouth, but he tried to spark his lighter anyway.

After realizing will alone would not light it, he threw it to the ground, pointed his rifle in its general direction, and shot a single round. I jumped back, startled.

"What are you doing, Miguel!? You trying to scare the hell out of everyone!? They're going to think we're under attack!"

Miguel did nothing but show me a toothy, devious smile.

Then his body shook violently. His expression was jarred from playful mocking to wide-eyed surprise. He seemed to start losing his balance and reached for me to steady himself. He succeeded only in grabbing the collar of my jacket.

Instead of holding himself up, his body failed him, and he continued his decent towards the ground, spinning my torso to the left as he fell.

Only while he was hitting the ground with a spectacular splash did I begin to understand what was happening.

As Miguel lay on his back, I could distinctly make out the tattered mixture of flesh, blood, and ripped clothing that could only be the result of gunshot wounds. A small stream of blood slowly emerged from his mouth as he coughed violently, gasping for air in quick, short breaths.

My mind was screaming at me long before I was able to react, but I tried to draw my rifle as quickly as I had been taught. I fell to one knee in order to stabilize my aim, my brain swimming in adrenaline. As soon as my AK neared firing position, I felt bullets slam into my body.

The first caught my right thigh, the next burrowed its way into my stomach, and the final two hit me in the upper chest close to the collarbone. I was only able to decipher between the shots as they hit.

In an instant, all was pain.

The force of the bullets knocked me backwards and I landed with a muddy thud next to Miguel.

Oh, the hurt! Every wound pulsated with the beat of my heart. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. Pain dominated my existence.

The rain fell from the dark heavens in streams onto my face, and I had to tilt my head sideways to breathe air instead of water.

I noticed Miguel looking straight at me, his eyes gaping with fear and horror. He was still breathing very laboriously, wheezing and gasping with great difficulty.

After one final explosion of air and blood, he lay quiet. His gaze remained firmly fixed on mine, but the light of life had left his dark eyes.

Suddenly, through my anguish and the pounding rain, I detected a very faint sound.

It grew steadily louder, as though it was nearing my position. I raised my head gently just in time to see three men in dark clothes running closing in on me. The barrels of their exposed rifles bobbed in and out of the murky shadows.

They ran like ghosts, hopping the undergrowth and sprinting through the small clearing that was my duty to guard.

Almost silently they passed the spot where Miguel and I lay, with little more than a glance to make sure we were immobilized. I noticed then that they wore night vision goggles.

As they passed, I realized their destination.

The entrance to the underground processing plant – where the coca leaves are mixed, converted, and cut into the powder form of the drug – was only twenty paces behind me.

I barely made out their voices over the clamoring rain.

"Remove the cover!" one of them hissed.

I strained to listen as the metal lid that concealed the ladder to the factory was removed and thrown aside.

Next, the distinct sound of suppressed weapons. They fired down into the dimly lit opening, apparently taking out the guard at the bottom.

Following the shooting came two thunderous explosions – grenades. The faint sound of panicked voices drifted up into the night air, accompanying the smoke from the grenades.

I winced with unimaginable pain as I twisted my head to see the attackers. One of them was kneeling over a dark bundle on the ground, another fired short bursts down the factory opening, and the last surveyed the jungle around them, keeping watch for other guards.

None, however, came to our aid. Perhaps they were also under siege.

Seconds passed, and quickly the attacker who had been kneeling over the dark bundle raised it over his head and threw it down the opening. A few more shots and the three were off again, running back to whence they had come.

I felt inclined to do something. The pain was beginning to affect my mind; I was barely able to keep conscious. But I had been well trained.

As my assassins stole towards the dense cover of dark trees, I pulled my side arm from its holster. They were only a dozen yards past when I opened fire.

Because of my wounds, I was unable to fully concentrate. But my aim was lucky.

I watched as one of them cried out and hit the ground. He quickly disappeared from sight into the undergrowth of the jungle floor.

The others continued on, running zigzag patterns to avoid my shots. Eventually, they disappeared into the darkness beyond the tree line.

For several seconds, all was calm. I dropped my emptied pistol to the ground and released it from my iron grip. The pain began to overtake me.

I decided my mind was finally failing when I felt the earth below me quake and shift.

Suddenly, the ground around me burst skyward with a violent eruption, and I with it.

I do not know how far towards the stars I went, for all was mud and water and darkness. Yet amidst the terrible carnage, the feeling of weightlessness brought me some comfort.

I shut my eyes for the last time as I began my descent into the mighty crater that was until very recently a cocaine factory. Even before my body returned to earth, darkness came calling.

The world I knew was no more. My time had come and gone. And now my body would rest forever under countless feet of overturned jungle.