by Daniel Steven
On the steps of the Capitol, Lieutenant Colonel Jubal
Harker returned the salutes of the helmeted soldiers at the machine gun post. They looked
scared. The fires to the north reflected in their eyes, and Harker turned to watch the
flames rise in tall columns through the moonlight. Already the ferocity of the rioting had
exceeded all predictions. Blacks against soldiers, blacks against police, blacks against
whites--all just a few blocks from the White House. The center of the free world resembled
the besieged capital of a banana republic.
Although Harker wore the uniform of the greatest Army
in the world, he felt impotent, as powerless as a Roman when the Gauls approached the
gates of the Palatine.
Someone behind him said, "Jubal! Jubal Harker? Is
that you?" He turned and recognized Quint Mullen.
"Quint!" said Harker. "This your
"Damn right," said Mullen, proudly.
"I've got Second Battalion." Mullen was short and muscular, a guy without a
neck. He had been a few years ahead of Harker at Virginia Military Institute.
Mullen's eyes glanced down at Harker's midsection, as
if expecting to see something missing. He quickly jerked his gaze back to Harker's face
and said, "I heard about what happened in Vietnam." Harker turned away and
grunted, but Mullen bulled on, "They didn't make you retire?"
Forcing a grin, Harker said, "Guess I'm just too
Mullen snorted. "Sure you are. Who you with?"
He looked at Harker's combat fatigues to locate a unit patch.
"I'm at Fort Detrick. It's my permanent
"Yeah, that's right, I remember now. How'd you end
up in 'Nam?"
"Oh," said Mullen, not really surprised.
Every career officer understood that combat experience was a prerequisite for promotion to
the higher ranks. Mullen asked, "So what are you doing here?"
"My headquarters company is reinforcing the
Mullen gestured toward downtown. "Do you believe
Harker clenched his fists. "It's been waiting to
happen. The city's two-thirds black."
Mullen nodded again. "Yeah, you're right." He
pulled out a pack of Camels, offered one to Harker, and lit up. "Hell of a week,
isn't it? First the bombing pause, then LBJ says he won't run, then the assassination.
Hell of a week."
"That's for sure."
A youngish-looking Captain walked up from the command
post and saluted. "Colonel," he said to Mullen, "we got orders."
"Where?" said Mullen.
The officer pointed his chin in the direction of the
fires. "Looting patrol."
"Son of a bitch," said Mullen. "I was
hoping they wouldn't need us. Christ, we don't even have riot gear! Son of a bitch."
Harker growled, "What'd you expect? The civilians
don't give a shit about us." He continued quickly, "Mind if I tag along?"
Mullen gave him a long, appraising look. Finally he
said, "It's gonna be damned frustrating, you know. We're not allowed to fire our
weapons except in self-defense."
Harker nodded obligingly. "Well, if you've got an
extra gas mask, I'd like to observe. I'm sick of hanging around here."
Mullen shrugged. "If that's your idea of
The battalion of soldiers climbed onto trucks. Harker
followed Mullen, squeezing his six-foot frame into the back of Mullen's command jeep. The
jeep led the battalion convoy up Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Square, where an acrid
pall of smoke hung over the White House; the main gate was defended by a company of D.C.
National Guardsmen carrying bayoneted rifles.
Everyone worries about the Commies, thought Harker, but
it wasn't the Commies who were threatening the White House.
The battalion detached a platoon to reinforce the
Guardsmen, then drove back down Pennsylvania Avenue and turned north on 7th Street. They
saw few civilian cars.
A transistor radio was jammed into the jeep's
dashboard; Mullen switched it on and fiddled with the dial until he found some news.
"--Assistant Police Chief Jerry Wilson said of the
extensive damage by looting yesterday afternoon that police were unable to make many
arrests because of a shortage of men--"
"That's a crock," said Mullen. "They had
orders not to interfere--"
"Shh," said Harker. I want to hear
"--and tonight," continued the announcer,
"Negro radical Stokley Carmichael spoke at his storefront headquarters--" They
could hear the tape recorder click on, and then Carmichael's, soft, gentle voice: "Go
home and get your guns! When the white man comes he is coming to kill you. I don't want
any black blood in the street. Go home and get a gun and then come back because I got me a
"Sources have reported," continued the
announcer, "that Mr. Carmichael later attended a memorial service for Dr. King at
Howard University, and was seen with a pistol--"
Harker murmured, "Of course."
Mullen reached out, violently switched off the radio
and said, "I'm not listening to that crap!"
"Look!" someone yelled.
They were entering the riot zone; all around them were
burned-out husks of buildings. The column of trucks halted and the paratroopers
Harker stood aside as the battalion's officers,
consulting service station maps, led the soldiers in different directions. He joined a
platoon heading up 7th Street.
Just north of Mt. Vernon Place, the platoon put on gas
masks and climbed over the remains of a police barricade. They marched through the sooty
streets, dodging bricks and bottles, occasionally lobbing tear gas at gangs of blacks. In
the distance, gunfire punctured the night.
On H Street, there were only gutted storefronts and
collapsed tenements. People dashed into broken store windows, grabbed whatever they could
find, and sprinted into the shadows left by broken street lamps. Harker stopped on the
sidewalk, took off his helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead.
Suddenly he heard a yell from the soldier in front of
him, but before he could react he felt a blow to the side of his head. He staggered
backward, still on his feet, and stared stupidly at the rock that had glanced off his
skull and was now skittering to a stop on the sidewalk. Someone pulled him roughly into
the middle of the street.
Dazed, Harker looked above him and caught a momentary
glimpse of white teeth and black faces glaring down from a second-story window. Struggling
with his holster, he managed to get his pistol out and pointed upward--but the faces were
Time stopped. Harker closed his eyes, and through pain
and blackness an image appeared, an image of an open tent flap covered by insect netting,
a bayonet slicing through the netting. Then a black hand, with long
fingernails, tossed a grenade through the newly-cut opening.
Someone was shaking his shoulder, and he heard a voice
say, "Sir! Sir! You O.K?" The soldier's voice, filtered through a gas mask,
sounded alien. Harker opened his eyes and put his hand up to his temple; it came away
bloody. He swayed and said, "I don't know. You tell me."
The paratrooper looked at the wound for a moment, then
said, "Don't look too bad. But you might have a concussion. Better see the
"No!" said Harker. "Use your first aid
kit. Just slap something on."
The soldier shrugged and said, "O.K." While
the rest of the platoon waited, he bandaged Harker. Then they resumed the patrol.
Harker joined the soldiers in rushing at some of the
larger groups of looters, threatening them with tear gas grenades. The looters would
momentarily disappear, then reappear as soon as the platoon passed. It was a charade.
Finally, the platoon lieutenant stopped to guard what
was left of a men's clothing store. Harker removed his gas mask and breathed deeply of the
foul air, trying to get hold of his turbulent emotions. It seemed incredible that the
vendetta had followed him halfway across the globe. They want to kill me, he thought. They
will never give up. Bastards.
A wave of hate swept through him, bringing confidence
and energy. He looked at the deserted street and realized there would never be a better
chance for some payback. It was a wonderfully satisfying thought.
He walked down the street and into an empty doorway.
About a hundred yards behind him, two black men carried a console color television through
the broken display window of an appliance store. They walked, crabwise, toward a nearby
Bastards. Unseen by any of the soldiers, Harker ducked
into the alley ahead of the looters. The two men appeared a minute later, intent on their
prize, not noticing him until it was too late.
"Hello, boys," Harker said as he stepped out
of the shadows. "Nice night for looting." He drew his pistol and pointed it with
both hands. The nearest looter's eyes widened and he said fearfully, "Wait a minute,
It was a glorious moment. Harker watched the man's face
as he squeezed the trigger of the .45. The heavy slug threw the looter backward, ripping
an enormous hole through his forehead. The television crashed to the ground, shattering
"Motherfucker!" screamed the second
man--actually a kid, not more than 16. He stood there, eyes wide, staring alternately at
his dead friend and at Harker.
"You pay for that television, boy?" said
"I--no, man. Let me go, please!"
Harker motioned with his pistol. "Go on, get
going." The teenager gulped, turned, and ran.
Harker let him get five yards before shooting him in
the back. The impact carried the kid a foot in the air and sent him sprawling forward into
the filth of the alley. Harker watched him gasp for air and die.
And it was precisely then--standing near the bodies of
the looters, inhaling the pungent aroma of tear gas, gunpowder, and death--that Jubal
Harker had his vision.
He saw that the rioting would be quelled, and normalcy
restored--but nothing would change. He saw that there must be a final reckoning, a last
campaign. Maybe not in ten years, or even twenty, but someday. And he was the right
person, in the right job, at the right time, to meet the challenge. Not just for
revenge--although he would get that, too--but to change the track of history.
Harker's career, his experiences, his whole life
pointed to this one moment, to this supreme instant of enlightenment.
He heard shouts and the sounds of combat boots as the
paratroopers came toward the alley entrance. Harker turned and ran toward the other end.
Copyright 1996 Daniel Steven