of Cam Lo, R.S.V.N.
Thuc Trai knitted his slender fingers over his head and quietly
wept. Squatting on calves knotted like that of an athlete, he
watched the trucks roar past the big bull’s vacant eyes.
ancient bull, lying dead by the roadside, had served the Pham
family for more than a dozen years. Its brute strength provided
them with the means of producing their own food and, thus,
security. Untiring in its toil, protective of its turf, yet
gentle enough to allow children to hitch rides upon its back,
the massive beast had earned the devotion of its family.
stark angles of the early morning sun shaded its noble head from
Trai’s view. Too many drivers had gone out of their way to run
over what remained of the bullet-riddled carcass. Dust from the
convoy billowed and spread a thin layer of red over its slate
gray hide. One of its mighty, swept-back horns was driven into
rifle shots rang out, fired by Americans riding in the rear of
the trucks. They shouted what sounded to Trai like obscenities
each time their shots hit the mark. The words were new to him,
but the inflection was unmistakable. Trai’s 16-year-old legs
and arms flinched at the sound of each blast of the guns.
was no flinch remaining in the ancient bull.
hour earlier, shortly after dawn, Trai’s hobbled father, Pham
Van Loi, had routinely placed a small kiss on the foreheads of
his sleeping twin daughters and on the cheek of his wife, Minh.
He then went out to check on the water buffalo, penned in the
rear of the small home. Loi found the stall empty, looked about
and frowned. The beast had escaped before this, but had never
wandered out of sight. Usually, Loi had found it munching on
some patch of tender reeds, or trying to gnaw its way into the
locked feed box. Now concerned, he awoke Trai and told him to
seek out Trau Gia, as the family had long ago named the bull.
finding Trau Gia near the farm, Trai padded along the
hard-packed, earthen road often used by American convoys
hustling through the nearby village of Cam Lo. The hamlet was
one of several along Route 9 in Quang Tri, the northernmost
province of South Vietnam.
Lo also lay near the American artillery base known as The
Rockpile. Vandegrift Combat Base was also not far away — the
sight of American convoys was common.
the Marines passed by without incident. Often they would stop
and pay top dollar for cold soft drinks and distribute candy and
other treats to the swarming children who eagerly lined the
found Trau Gia lying next to Route 9, a quarter of a mile from
their home. It had been shot a half dozen times, as best as he
could tell through the tears gathering in his eyes. Strange cuts
had been made into its flanks.
tenderly brushed one of its regal horns with the back of his
hand. But the trucks soon approached and roared precariously
close to him. He no longer dared to reach out and touch his old
friend. He heard laughter when the driver swayed to catch Trau
Gia on the rump. The sound of shattering bone assaulted Trai’s
ears. He could not stay longer.
home to advise his father, Trai recalled distant gunfire in the
hour before dawn. Gunfire before dawn, however, was common in
Quang Tri. Picking up the pace, he realized there had not been a
day that he could remember in which Trau Gia had not been part
of the family. Approaching home, tears flowed freely from
Trai’s large black eyes.
you tell who did this injustice to us, Trai?” Loi addressed
the last of his surviving sons. They stood on the back porch of
their home, gazing hopelessly into each other’s eyes. Trai
could see the dread in his father’s stare but did not know how
to help him.
father. As you’ve said before, bullets leave no names. It
could’ve been the army from the North or the Americans; or
perhaps both, as they came upon one another in the night. All I
know is that Trau Gia is dead and the Americans are having sport
with his body.”
needn’t care, the damage has been done,” Loi sighed, bowing
his head and clenching his fists. “Return to the roadside and
wait for me. I’ll get help from our neighbors. We’ll bring
Trau Gia back home for a fitting end. And then I’ll pay a
visit to our American friends.”
Trai returned, he found even less remaining of the carcass. He
briefly watched three waiting dogs — circling and nipping at
one another as if determining which would go first.
initially believed Trau Gia had wandered into a crossfire and
had become another casualty in this endless war. After the
morning’s spectacle, however, he was convinced his family’s
treasure had met its fate at the hands of Americans. He did not
know if it was fact. But today, this is what he wanted to
believe, and in his heart he knew it to be true.
the midst of the heat and dust, Trai watched the dogs feast on
Trau Gia’s entrails.
turned toward home. He never looked back.
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