Breathing heavily, sounding almost as loud as the freight train rumbling behind him, Birchall staggered out of the river, his arms hanging limply at his sides. Any moment he expected his knees to buckle, he was so exhausted. He felt as if he had swum across the river and back, through flags of white water that battered every muscle in his body. All he did was go around in a circle, though, around and around and around.
"You see him?" a woman on shore asked urgently.
Shaking his head, he dropped to all fours, still breathing heavily.
"No," he gasped. "I looked where the guy was last seen but I didn't see a trace of him."
"Where are the people he was with?"
"I don't know if he was with anyone," he replied. "All I heard was someone shout some swimmer was in trouble."
"He'll wash up, eventually," a crotchety man beside the woman predicted. "The drowned always do."
"That's an awful thing to say," the woman scolded him.
"It's the truth, though."
"You think it may have been a prank?" another sunbather wondered.
"No. I saw a young woman and she was beside herself she was so upset."
"Where is she?"
"I don't know."
"I just wonder if someone isn't pulling someone's leg."
Birchall frowned at the suggestion. "No one could be that stupid and cruel."
"I don't think so either," the crotchety man chimed in, staring out at the river. "The screaming I heard was real all right. You could hear the fear in it."
It certainly sounded genuine to him, Birchall thought, as he gathered his strength to go back in the river and search further for the missing swimmer. But it was curious that the woman who cried for help was nowhere to be seen.
Birchall, a bicycle mechanic, bent over the chipped blue Peugeot bike suspended on a metal stand, carefully clamping a brake lever to the left handlebar. Earlier, as its owner requested, he replaced the curled-drop handlebars with a pair of upright ones.
"Damn it!" he complained as the Allen wrench slipped out of his hand for the third time in the past two minutes.
"What's the matter, Hub?" Haas, a frequent customer who also rented space in the shop to work on his bikes, asked. "You're having a hell of a time holding on to anything."
"I can't seem to concentrate this morning."
"You out partying again last night?"
Shaking his wiry brown hair, he stepped back from the Peugeot and told him about his futile search for the missing swimmer.
"Jesus, Hub, you can't blame yourself if you didn't find the guy. You did all you could I'm sure."
"Maybe I did more than I should have."
"I don't understand."
"It might've been nothing more than a prank," he conceded reluctantly. "Some creeps wanted to see what they could stir up and got a few laughs out of watching some gung-ho guy like me searching for someone who didn't exist."
"You really think that's a possibility?"
"I'm afraid I do."
"It takes all kinds of people to make up this sorry ass world."
"I just hate being made a fool of," he grunted, pressing the Allen wrench against the left side of his forehead. "I guess I'm too damn gullible sometimes."
"You weren't the only one looking for the swimmer, were you?"
"No, but I kept at it longer than anyone else. So I guess that makes me the biggest fool of the bunch."
"Who knows, Hub? Maybe there really was someone who was lost in the river. Maybe some fisherman will come across him in another day or two."
Idly he spun the back wheel of the antique bike. "I very much doubt it, Eddie. I mean, I don't want anyone to have drowned, but I suppose I'd feel a little better if a body was recovered from the river. I know that sounds awful but it's the way I feel."
Rising out of the saddle of his Lemond racing bike, Birchall pedaled furiously, determined to get through the busy intersection before the light changed, and he did by a fraction of a second. Then, sitting down, he looked at his watch. He would be late for work but not much later than usual. Again this morning he searched through the paper for any news about someone being fished out of the river but there was not a word. Nor was there any mention of any swimmer being lost the other day.
Someone had definitely played him for a sucker, he realized, as he steered around a grapefruit-sized pothole. So there was no reason to continue to comb through the newspaper for information about a lost swimmer because there wasn't one. Not the other afternoon, anyway.
He hated the thought of some creeps squatting behind a sand dune and laughing at him as he plunged in and out of the river. But not for an instant did he regret that he made the effort. Some people, for whatever reason, cry wolf even when they are not in trouble but he knew from his mother he must not ignore such cries because sometimes they might be genuine. Many years ago, when his mother was a youngster, she ignored the cries of a girl in her neighborhood who was known to cry wolf to seek attention. This time, however, the girl was in serious trouble. She had slipped on her roof and was hanging from an eave, and eventually fell to the ground and fractured her spine. And his mother never forgave herself for not going to help her friend.
"Have you heard anything about your lost swimmer?" Haas inquired as he wheeled a limp mountain bike over to his workstation.
Birchall, patching a tire, shook his head. "No, and I don't think I ever will."
"So you're convinced it was a prank then?"
"Yeah." He brushed away a bead of sweat hanging from the tip of his nose. "Some folks have a weird sense of humor I guess."
"Bastards. That's what they are, all right."
"I can't argue with that."
"You perform a good deed you expect something good to follow. Or at least receive some kind of remuneration for your effort."
Birchall didn't reply as he struggled to slip the mended inner tube back onto the wheel.
"Don't you agree?"
"I didn't jump into the river for money, Eddie."
"No. I'm sure you didn't but you deserved at least a slap on the back instead of across the face."
"Yeah, well, that's the way things go sometimes."
"I don't know if you're interested but I know where you can get some gratification for helping others. And something you can put in your billfold too."
"You know that theater group I belong to?"
He smiled. "Oh, no, you're not going to ask me to stand in as 'atmosphere' in another production of Guys and Dolls?"
"No, not that," he chuckled, bracing a boot heel against a leg of his workbench. "We're not rehearsing anything at the moment."
"Thank God. I just couldn't see myself wearing one of those hideous chalk-striped suits again. I felt like a pimp."
"Now don't say no until you hear me out. All right?"
He nodded suspiciously.
"The other day the manager of our company received a letter from the commandant of Fort Defiance inviting anyone who was interested to play roles in a live combat exercise that's scheduled at the end of the month."
"You're putting me on, right? Just like those creeps out at the river."
He raised his hand in a ragged salute. "I'm dead serious."
"So what are you suppose to do, exactly?"
He shrugged. "I guess you find out when you go out to the fort but I assume you play what you are, civilians, caught in some kind of crossfire."
"Collateral damage, in other words?"
"Possibly. I don't really know, Hub."
"Are you going to take part in it?"
"Sure, why not? I like to perform and for me this is another opportunity to do that, except that it's on a much bigger stage than
I'm accustomed to."
"That's for damn sure."
"So do you think you might be interested in playing a role?"
"I don't know, Eddie. I'll have to think about it."
"This time, you do something to help someone out, you get compensated for it."
Furiously the armored car raced through the desert, along a gritty road that was barely wide enough for the camouflaged vehicle. Clouds of sand rose all around it so it was difficult at times to make out the road but the driver, a corporal from Mississippi with an accent as thick as the sand, assured his passengers he didn't need to see a thing to find where he was going. Above the roar of the engine could be heard the distant crackle of gunfire.
In another moment, two planes streaked overhead, flimsy as kites, Birchall thought, as he huddled beside Haas in the back of the vehicle.
"Can you believe it?"
Haas grinned. "It's pretty surreal, all right."
"I feel as if we've wandered onto a movie set."
"Except that all the gunfire we're hearing is real."
Thick plumes of black smoke soared across the sky so that it seemed as if the entire desert were on fire. The heat was frightful. Haas was sure it was hot enough to melt the camouflage paint off the roof of the car.
Abruptly, the corporal turned around. "O.K., gents, get ready to suffer."
"What did he say?"
Birchall shrugged. "Something about suffering."
Half a minute later, the corporal slammed on the brakes, heaved a red smoke canister over to the opposite side of the road, and pointed a finger at Birchall. "Time to get with the program, buddy," he said. "You've just had your day ruined by an IED."
"Should I get out too?" Haas asked, fastening the strap of his camouflaged helmet.
"Nah. You're going to be hit a mile or so up the road."
Nodding, he looked back at Birchall. "You got your blood packet?"
He slapped a pocket of his oversized fatigue shirt. "Right here."
"You're good to go then."
He had barely got out of the car when it started back down the road. And for a moment he stared at it, the red smoke swirling around him, then walked over to some sagebrush where he decided to wait to be treated. Yawning, he took a sip of water from his canteen then screwed the cap back on and stretched out his left leg. From his shirt pocket he took out the packet of fake blood, unzipped it, and as instructed poured it over his leg, which was suppose to be riddled with shrapnel from an improvised explosive device. It was as warm as the water in his canteen.
Bracing his back against the sagebrush, he looked at his watch. The corporal assured him he would receive medical attention within five minutes of his injury being reported. He was skeptical, though, remembering from a cyclist he knew who served a hitch in the Army that one thing a soldier could count on was waiting a long time for anything to happen. So he closed his eyes, hoping to catch up on some sleep he lost last night, but it was just too noisy. Every few seconds there was sporadic gunfire, interrupted occasionally by fierce explosions, which convinced him more than ever that he was an extra in a movie. Maybe The Lost Patrol, he thought, recalling the old John Ford film he watched the other night on television.
Earlier this morning, after the commandant welcomed what he referred to as the "civilian role players" to the fort, he said, "About one thing I have no doubt and it is that you will derive an enormous amount of satisfaction from your participation in our exercise today. You are making a personal sacrifice and doing something positive for your country and I can't think of a better definition of a patriot."
The commandant was right. Already, with his leg drenched in imitation blood, Birchall felt considerable satisfaction but he knew it was not anywhere near as much as he would have felt at the river if he found the lost swimmer. He would have been regarded as a savior then, might even have got his name mentioned in the newspaper.
All of a sudden a tank appeared on a hill over his right shoulder, its turret slowly swiveling until the barrel of its cannon was aimed at the road. It was so faraway it didn't alarm him, seemed as small and innocuous as a lizard.
Pilgrim small, he thought, recalling a term employed by his father whenever he wished to dismiss something as insignificant.
Often his father had described things he had done as "pilgrim small," even referred to him by the curious term. He was certain that was how he would have characterized his behavior at the river. "You're small, son, just like your mother," he would have said. "Always in need of being needed." He would have been right, too, as usual. Out at the river he continued to search for the lost swimmer long after everyone else realized it was a prank. But his desire for recognition and approval were too great for him to admit it because he so desperately wanted to be thought of as someone significant, if only for a short while.
Seconds later, a helicopter swooped over a ridge, the whap-whap sound of its blades as loud as bursts of gunfire, and Birchall looked at his watch. Surprisingly, it arrived almost as soon as the corporal said. He assumed he would be evacuated out of here on it just as soon, with a tourniquet tied around his thigh and a make-believe bottle of saline solution attached to his arm. Straightening his bloody leg, he watched the aircraft hover above the road while the tank crept down the hillside. Certainly he felt a measure of satisfaction for participating in the live combat exercise but deep down he wished he were one of the medics who would be storming off the helicopter to attend to someone pretending to be seriously wounded. And, for a split instant, he was, dodging sniper bullets as if they were pellets of rain.