Family Treasure


Village of Cam Lo, R.S.V.N.
August 30, 1968 – 7 a.m. local time

Pham 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.

The 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.

The 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 the earth.

Occasional 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.

There was no flinch remaining in the ancient bull.

An 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.

Not 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.

Cam 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.

Normally, 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 route.

Trai 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.

Trai 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.

Hurrying 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.

“Can 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.

“No, 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.”

“We 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.”

When 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.

Trai 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.

In the midst of the heat and dust, Trai watched the dogs feast on Trau Gia’s entrails.

Trai turned toward home. He never looked back.


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