An excerpt from The Trip Into Milky Way…
Stan circled around the base of the hill, positioned the chopper in line with the parking lot and began his ascent along the slope of the hill. Bart had the tear gas loaded. At the last second, Stan punched the throttle open full and we popped up like a balloon, looking at the main gate from across the parking lot.
Bart got off two rounds of tear gas and hit both adjacent turrets with precision. The guards stumbled out of their towers.
“Clay,” Bart shouted. I crawled back next to him.
He pointed at the front gate.
“Have Stan bring me in closer!”
The wooden doors were open behind the bars, as I had expected. Already aware of the problem, Stan had started to ease across the parking lot. We were adjacent to the director’s office now and looking down the long, arched hallway into the prison. The crowd of prisoners and guests were gawking at us from inside the courtyard, along with two guards. Then Bart tossed a grenade in a lazy arc towards the gate and everyone scrambled for safety.
“Get up!” Bart yelled and Stan pulled out with a violent rush that had us at a few hundred feet in a hurry. An explosion rocked the afternoon. A mass of deformed bars appeared out of the smoke below us. Gunfire erupted.
Bart got those two guards pinned down with the M-60 while Stan eased the chopper in closer. The courtyard was mostly empty now. Only a handful of prisoners had dared to stay outside and take in this spectacle, and even they were huddled near the safety of the recessed hallways. One of them was Joe. I had yet to see Kip, Steve or Kristine. Bart threw me a loaded M‑16.
I kept shooting off rounds in the direction of the roof as he loaded and hit the other two turrets with tear gas. Both guards came out, groping their way along the wall.
“Bring her around!”
Stan did a 180 and Bart hit the first two towers again. The whole perimeter was a cloud of smoke and gas.
“Okay, the other gate!” Bart waited until Stan had eased the chopper directly over the courtyard, then dropped the grenade just inside the tunnel.
“Get out of here!” Bart yelled over my head.
Stan pulled out and over to the front side of the prison. A few seconds later, another blast rocked the day. Stan looked at me.
“You’re on, Clay!”
“Okay, lower level! I saw one of them!” He pulled over the courtyard and eased down until the rotor was nearly kissing the rooftops. With the gate open and half the prison piling out towards the parking lot, there was total chaos in the courtyard below.
I threw out the ladder but kept it out of reach until Joe was close enough to grab it. About the time he started to climb up, everyone in the chopper got a face full of tear gas. I reached blindly for Joe and pulled him in.
“Going up!” Stan yelled. The chopper quickly rose out of the haze but the tear gas had already filled the entire cabin.
“Where’s Kip?!” I asked Joe as he rolled over out of harm’s way.
Both of us were coughing.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?!”
He threw up his arms.
I leaned out the door and tried to scan the prison as best I could. Gas had flooded into all the cells too and those hiding inside of them were now spilling out into the courtyard. It was difficult enough to distinguish faces in the crowd without the smoke and Bart squeezing off rounds with the M-60.
Stan made another turn and I saw Robby. Then an alarm went off and the sound echoed across the town.
“Come on, Clay! You’ve got one minute!”
I motioned with my hand to show him a direction and Stan eased around and down towards the roof again. I was inclined to leave the little son of a bitch but waved Robby on board.
“Come on, hurry up!” I yelled at him. “Hurry!” As I pulled him in, I noticed Steve and Kristine on the balcony directly below us and motioned for Stan to ease in even closer, then made a gesture at my neck when he was positioned just right.
Steve helped Kristine get hold of the rope and start her climb. I had my eyes open for Kip and was grabbing blindly for Kristine’s hand when I heard a gasp, like the wind being kicked out of someone. I looked back and saw a blank look in Kristine’s eyes. Her hand had gone limp but I reached out and pulled hard until I had her face first on the deck. Joe helped me to drag her the rest of the way in. Both of us had blood on our hands.
“Goddamn it Bart, someone’s unloading on us!”
Steve had grabbed the ladder as Stan pulled away.
“Hang on! Someone’s on the ladder!”
Stan pulled up in time to avoid clipping Steve into the roof and we got him inside. He fell to his knees. I glanced quickly as he turned Kristine over. The bullet had exited just below her ribs. I looked away again, having seen her insides through the blouse, or what was left of them. The bullet must have passed through her heart on the way in by the amount of blood. Anyway, she had died in my arms.
“Oh Jesus, no!” Steve kept saying as he shook Kristine. “Oh Jesus, no, no, no, no, no.”
Meanwhile, rounds had started to go off everywhere. Bart reasoned from the wound that the shot had come from the rooftop and sprayed indiscriminately in that direction. I crawled up front.
“If you don’t find that son of a bitch in fifteen seconds, I’m pulling out,” Stan said.
“Look, I’ve got to spot him, first. Come around facing east.”
He frowned, knowing it left us with no cover, but did it anyway. The courtyard was littered with people coughing and watching us from below. There was also a stream of prisoners fleeing from the prison and down the hillside. I saw other Americans waving to us but ignored them. Then I saw Kip and shouted over my shoulder.
“Get down as close as you can to the east end!”
Stan came around and settled in. Bart came over and crouched next to Steve.
“Let’s get her in back,” he said gently.
“She’s dead,” Steve said.
“I know, I know,” Bart said. “But we’ve got to get her out of the way.”
“Just leave her in peace, all right?” Steve said.
“Look,” Bart told him. “Get her out of the way or I’ll have to do it for you.”
I looked back, stunned to hear Bart talk in that way, but he was right. We had to clear the area.
Robby helped move her to the far corner of the cabin. Steve placed her body down gently and stayed there quietly weeping. I returned my attention to rescuing Kip.
A group of American were waving and calling out for me to lower the ladder, and they were people I had come to know during my restless days in the prison but I held it out of their reach and waited for Kip. He was close enough that I could see the blue in his eyes but he was beneath the balcony and restrained by a hundred bodies. Bart let off a few rounds over the crowd but that got no response. Kip struggled but was helpless to part the crowd.
I shouted at him and waved with my hand.
“Come on, Kip! Get the fuck out in the open!”
Then we started taking fire again and a bullet ripped through the fuselage. Another one clinked off the skids. Bart had reloaded the M-60 and was shooting off rounds randomly in every direction but the bullets kept coming.
I heard something hit up front.
“Get out of here!” Bart shouted at Stan.
“No! He’s right there!”
“Goddamn it, Clay, we’re taking fire from both sides!”
He nodded at Stan, who pulled out. Kip grew smaller and smaller. I rushed up front.
“Stan! We can’t just leave him there!”
Stan ignored me and continued his climb. I went for the M‑16 but Bart pinned me against the cabin wall.
“Take it easy, buddy!”
“Get the fuck off of me!”
I tried to pull free but Bart just held me a little tighter.
“Just take it easy, buddy,” he said. “It’s over.”
Once Bart felt I had accepted this, he let go. I went to the door. The prison had been reduced to the size of a matchbox. Stan turned north and raced for the border. The town and the prison diminished behind us.
The sound of sirens wailed through the afternoon. A line of army trucks were moving down the main highway towards the prison. They too looked very tiny from a distance. I turned to look at Steve. He still wept over Kristine. His shirt was over her wound. Joe sat against the wall with his head between his legs. Robby sat next to him, staring wildly into space. I looked back at the prison.
“Fuck, we could have had him!”
“No, Clay, it was over,” Bart said.
“No, it wasn’t over. We just ran like a bunch of cowards.”
Bart pinned me up against the cabin with both hands and held me there.
“Listen to me, you stubborn son of a bitch. You do the best you can and that’s it. Any longer and we were all going to go down.”
“That’s crazy shit and you don’t think like that.”
“Then it’s all crazy and we may as well have died being courageous.”
“Yeah? Well, I like living and you can call that whatever you want.”
I looked down at Kristine. Bart loosened up his grip on me.
I pulled away and wiped the blood from my mouth.
“Accept it, Clay.”
I leaned against the cabin and looked out the window at the lake. Bart reached back and slammed the door.
“You had to try…so you tried and that’s it.”
I turned my head to meet his stare and we were locked eye to eye there for a moment before he went forward to sit next to Stan. I saw them talking but didn’t care what they had to say. I kept seeing Kip in my mind, like in a bad dream, struggling to reach the rope ladder. “Fuck,” I said under my breath and went over to touch Kristine’s arm. Her skin was growing cold. The little flecks of blood had already started to coagulate in the warm air.
“I’m really, really sorry, Steve.”
“I don’t believe she’s dead, man. I just don’t believe it.”
He brushed the hair from her face and wept.
“What do we do now, Clay?” Robby asked.
I looked away, not knowing what to tell him. I had no wisdom to share.
We all rode in silence up the San Miguel Valley, except for Steve. He wept and spoke to Kristine. I stared out the window and tried not to hear.
Five minutes past the road to Carbo, I crawled forward and reminded Stan where to turn up the mountain pass. A few miles later, Stan banked hard right and wound his way upwards into the narrowing canyon, back and forth, until there was a chasm of rock walls rising a thousand feet straight up above us. Flying overhead, a pilot would hardly have a split second to make out the chopper below, and that was assuming he had flown overhead in the first place.
Stan eased the chopper down into the sandy soil, cut the engines and jumped out. Bart jumped out with him. I followed. The blades whirled above our heads, ever more slowly. Joe and Robby got out last, still uncertain of their freedom.
Stan and Bart were already around front inspecting the damage. I went around to join them. Bart had his finger in a bullet hole.
“We’re goddamned lucky,” Stan said over the noise.
“Went right past the avionics,” Bart said.
They walked around the chopper looking for damage. I followed but there was only the one bullet hole. It had gone in one side of the fuselage and out the other.
“We’re real goddamned lucky,” Bart said.
“Yeah. May as well top her off,” Stan said. Bart went to grab the jerry cans. Stan came over and put his hands on my shoulders.
“I didn’t mean to be so hard with you, Clay.”
“Yeah, Stan. Tell me about all the shit I need to accept.”
“That’s what life is, Clay. You do your best and accept the rest.” I followed his gaze over my shoulder. Stan dropped his hands.
“Yeah, that’s real sad. Real sad. She was a beautiful lady. But they made their choices. You didn’t do it for them.”
“So now what?” I said.
“Wait it out. They’ll be along soon enough.”
“Maybe we won’t make it anyway.”
“We’ve got a better chance than we did a half an hour ago.”
Bart came around the chopper with the jerry cans.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Stan said. “We’re not taking that body back with us.”
“What would it matter?”
“Murder one, that’s what.”
“What the hell difference would it make if we got caught?”
“Clay, they can try and pin any goddamned thing on us they want, but if we just get back to the states and get the chopper painted, it won’t stick. Even if we don’t get it painted, they’d have to prove it and that body in there is about all the evidence they’d need.”
I looked inside the cabin. Steve was still in there with Kristine, staring off into space now, one hand idly stroking her hair.
“I suppose you’re right,” I said.
I knew he was. I just didn’t like what had to happen because of it.
“So, do you want to break it to him or should I?”
“No, I’ll do it,” I said.
“Okay. Get it done. We don’t have much time to bury her.”
He went to give Bart a hand with the fuel. I trudged back through the sandy soil towards the cabin, weighed down equally by the listless heat and the duty in front of me. Steve’s pale face was flush from both the heat and his tears. It was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. His lips were moving as he stared down at Kristine but no sound came out. I stood over him and waited for the right moment.
“Steve,” I said quietly.
He looked up at me with a blank stare.
“Steve, we’ve got to leave her.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head
“Steve, it’s not an option. It’s sure homicide if we take her back.”
“No,” he said again. His eyes were focused off in the distance, as if he could see Kristine off in the heavens.
“I’ll give you some time to get right with it. But it has to be done.”
His focus returned to Kristine lying in his lap, his lips moving again without words.
I walked over to Robby and Joe. Robby was in character: hands in his pockets and feet shifting. Joe just looked miserable. I explained the situation to Robby.
“Do what you can, but if he refuses, we’ll have to do it for him.”
Robby nodded and headed over to the cabin with his hands still in his pockets. I looked at Joe.
“How do you feel?”
“I expected to be a bit happier than this. I imagine you feel even worse.”
“I don’t know if there are any words for what I feel, Joe.”
“It would have been better if they had nailed me,” he said.
“I’ve been thinking the exact same thing about myself.”
As Joe and I stared at each other, Steve brought Kristine out of the chopper like he was carrying his bride. He moved heavily through the sand. Tears poured down his cheeks.
I took the shovel out of the cabin and followed him. Everyone did. We trudged up the narrow trail, towards where I had climbed to freedom but a few weeks ago.
Steve stopped at some unspoken cathedral of rock and vegetation and placed Kristine down. He looked above at the narrow opening of blue sky.
I started to dig but Steve took the shovel and did it himself. The rest of us stood around for half an hour watching. Joe had offered a hand at one point but Steve refused. When he was six feet down, he nodded and we handed Kristine down to him. Steve lowered her into the hole and arranged her arms over her chest. Her face looked peaceful enough.
We hoisted Steve out and waited for him to find peace in some way. Time passed. The first plane went overhead. The afternoon heat began to fade. I could feel the sweat growing cool under my shirt.
Finally, Steve looked up at us and nodded.
I picked up the shovel and started to throw the first shovel of sand.
“No,” Steve said suddenly. “Not like that. We’ve got to cover her.”
“There’s a tarp in the chopper,” I told Robby. He ran off to get it. Meanwhile, Steve got back in the hole. When Robby returned, Steve spread the tarp over the body. We helped Steve back out.
Robby said something about God and eternal peace. Steve wept. The rest of us stood silently and waited.
When there was nothing left to say, I threw one shovelful of dirt in the hole. Everyone did the same and started back towards the chopper. Steve stayed alone to finish the job. When he returned, he was without the shovel. I figured he had left it as a grave marker.
By that time, jets were flying high overhead every few minutes. We could hear the occasional P‑38 lumbering up the valley. We had planned to wait until dark before leaving. Then we would see.
We had food but no one ate it. Words were spoken about what lay ahead and what we could expect but mostly it was quiet.
Somewhere in all the feelings, I remembered the day I had gone to see Stan. I remembered the feeling of apprehension in my guts as I drove to the airport and wanted to go back to that moment. I wanted to make that decision all over again. If I had followed my intuition then, if I had gotten back on the freeway, none of this would have happened. I leaned against the helicopter and closed my eyes, haunted by Kristine’s death and Steve’s sorrow.
The planes came less and less frequently as afternoon faded to dusk. Then darkness fell and they stopped altogether. Stan told us it was time to go. Bart got in front. I started to close the cargo door.
“No, please, leave it open,” Steve said. “I’ll feel closer to her.”
I looked at Bart and he shrugged.
“Okay, Steve, until we pull away.”
I backed off and left him alone. The turbines sparked to life. As soon as Stan had full power, he started to climb, ready to skip over into the Rio Sonora valley. Stan had agreed with me. The issue of wide open country aside, it was best to get away from the main highway. We would skirt the mountain and stay far away from the villages below and hope for the best.
With that intent, Stan climbed a thousand feet and hovered near the summit. Steve gripped the door frame, staring down at Kristine’s final resting spot. Stan waited, not wanting to bank until Steve was safely inside.
Sensing Stan’s impatience, I reached to close the door. Not believing my senses, I quickly looked all around the interior of the helicopter. Stan’s gray eyes met mine. The night was suddenly filled with the vaporous and unreal.
“No fucking way!” Robby said. “No fucking way!”
Bart grabbed hold of him before he got to the door. I braced myself and reached through the empty space where Steve had been. The door slammed shut against the warm night. I looked back at Stan and nodded. He banked easily and headed east over the mountain.