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Also by H. Lee Barnes:
Candescent | Changing Hands | Hueco Tanks | Tunnel Rat | Stonehands and the Tigress | A Lovely Day in the A Shau Valley

Stonehands and the Tigress

The elongated combe was an obstacle course of tangles and elephant grass riddled with booby traps and tunnels and punji stakes; a free-fire range open to mortar attacks and ambushes; a habitat for spiders and mosquitoes and leeches, and for snakes—cobras and little green vipers called two-step death. 2nd Squad, 3rd Platoon marched uphill in single file like worker ants lugging great burdens up an endless climb. They attacked the bitter ascent with machine-like apathy.

The climb had been most difficult the last minutes through a monotonous curtain of vegetation, palm leaves the width of a man's chest and tree trunks the girth of mine shafts. They'd humped three hours now, puffing out air like draft animals. Sweat blackened their fatigues and burned into the fine cuts left by the razor-like edges of the dense grass. They were young and sinuous, and capable of enduring great hardship, which they often did.

Halverson halted them on a rocky clearing atop a ridge. He told them to take a break. They tossed off their helmets and eased out of their web gear as if shedding a great sin, dropping back packs, shoulder straps gravid with smoke and fragmentation grenades and cartridge cases. They wiped away sweat with green bandannas and drank from canteens. A few sprawled out straddle legged on the spot and lit cigarettes while others found shade and a tree trunk to lean against.

Stonehands removed his helmet. His forehead glistened with sweat as he gazed out at the depression below where the valley opened and the verdant tree tops ran to a horizon that blurred into a blue sky. He kept his M-60 ready, two belts of ammo wrapped in bandoleers across his shoulders, one feeding the chamber of the machine gun. A tall man with long powerful thighs, he was solid and flat in the chest, and wide and stooped at the shoulders. His name was Walter Harvey but he'd not been called that since jump school where he'd dropped two opponents in the first rounds of the only fights of his life—two pick-up matches.

Donatello sucked on a cigarette and sprinkled repellent on his trouser cuffs careful not to spill any. A wiry man the size of an average Vietnamese, he was a mooch who'd husband insect spray and batteries and recycle cigarette butts like a miser then turn around and blow his pay on beer and boom-boom girls in Quang Ngai. Donatello hailed from New York, a place, so far as Stonehands could tell, where the populace distrusted everyone but politicians.

"Should'a stayed at Benning and boxed,” he said and pointed at Stonehands' M-60. “Instead you're humpin' that pig.”

Stonehands listened absentmindedly. He thought about a particular boy, one he'd thought of a lot lately. He was stumped as to why after months of humping hills and sweeping villages, of seeing bodies burned or riddled with holes, that the boy in Hai Drong came to mind so often? Why not Howkert who'd been found in a gutter in Quang Ngai City, strips of skin sliced from his chest?

Hai Drong had been unremarkable as operations go—two sniper rounds; a captured V.C. turned over to the ARVN. Only the boy made it different. He'd come straight up the middle of the road on a rough hewn crutch smiling a gap-toothed smile like he was the local Welcome Wagon, his left arm gone, his left leg off at the knee. As he moved, his body listed to the right and he swung his good leg forward violently like a cricket hopping on one leg.

They'd fed him candy and canned peaches, given him cigarettes and watched him smoke. He'd called each of them Joe. They'd named him Sammy, a name he seemed to like. Someone crowned his head with a fatigue cap, and when it was time to go, he followed along as if one of them. Di di mau, he was told—no go with Joe. He'd struggled to keep up, hopping fiercely down the same road, following with the smile glued to his face as if that could change their minds. Then he fell and sat in the middle of the road and watched them leave.

“Be in fat city in Benning, Stoners. That colonel liked you,” Donatello said so loud Stonehands had to look.

He licked his lips. "Sure could use some grape soda. Sure could.”

Stonehands knew he'd never box again after his mother told him to see a preacher and get a job “helping out,” her exact words. He'd tried to explain there were no jobs like that, that the Army expected men to be violent; she repeated that she hadn't raised her boy to hurt men with his fists.

A few yards away Drammel stood, field stripped his cigarette and unbuttoned his fly as he eased into the bush. Drammel was shy and stammered and twisted words—speaking in tongues, Donatello called it. His phobias included snakes and spiders and needles. Though the squad often teased him, outsiders weren't granted such liberties.

“Watch out a snake don't bite you,” Donatello said.

Drammel shook off Donatello's comment and entered the vine tangle to urinate. While buttoning up, he noticed beside a nearby tree a hole with an opening wide enough to hold a man. He buttoned himself and hurriedly backed away, stuttering and scrambling words which came out—" A mockin' funky hole while pliffin' by the ease."

Halverson sat him down to take a few deep breaths. Once he understood Drammel had found a monkey hole, Halverson ordered the squad to set up a fire perimeter while they checked out the hole.

Donatello removed his silver necklace from which dangled a lucky tiger's claw given him by a prostitute in Quang Ngai. This he handed to Stonehands along with a pack of cigarettes and took the flashlight from Halverson but not the .45 pistol. He said using it would just blow the wax out of his ears. He crawled to the hole and peered in. It didn't drop straight down like most and was shallow—six to seven feet deep. He looked back to report it didn't appear to be a tunnel.

Halverson said, "Check it out anyhow."

Donatello squirmed in and vanished. An instant later, he shouted, "Well, damn." At once, a cub with rosettes on its back shot out, clawing at the ground. Donatello held a rear leg firmly in his grasp. He stuffed the flashlight in his trousers and lifted the cub into the air by the nape of the neck where it hung limply.

Stonehands who'd grown up around bears and deer and owls understood, as Donatello could never, the gravity of removing the cub. "Tell him put it back, Hal."

"Cute, ain't it? No harm," Halverson said tickling the pink of its ear. It seemed to like attention. Halverson smiled and shrugged as Donatello handed the cub over. As Halverson scratched its chin, Donatello hung the tiger's claw around his neck. He reached for the animal.

Stonehands shook his head. "Put it back 'fore its mama come," he said.

"Well, you just shoot her, Bro," Donatello said. While he examined his prize, he licked blood from his wrist where the cub had clawed him. "Could be worth something."

"How you gonna feed it, Donatello?" Stonehands asked.

"Man, what's with you?" Donatello asked. "I'll hook onto some cat chow." He tussled with the cub as he wrapped it in his bandanna. "That'll keep him from scratchin'." He stuffed it inside his shirt so that only its head stuck out.


At the fire base Donatello scavenged three bags of powdered milk and a jar of honey and drained the syrup out of a can of fruit to feed the cub. Men came to the tent to see. It was a welcome break from the monotonous low drama of war and the petty annoyance of fear. It was a piece of home, a pet, something not yet ruined by the war. The captain stuck his head inside for a peep and reminded the men a regiment of North Vietnamese was operating in the A Shau. He didn't mention the cub which meant he wasn't going to cause a stir.

One man brought it a poncho liner, another two cans of evaporated milk sent by an aunt from Milwaukee. Still another said the cub was a sign, good luck, and should be made the company mascot. Donatello said Drammel was the company mascot and dangled his claw necklace in front of the cub which lay on its back swatting at it. When the visitors left, the squad lit a joint. As the weed passed from hand to hand, Donatello romped with the cub. He asked what to name it, and the squad began compiling a list, the favorite name being Butter.

McPherson, a sad-faced kid from the 1st Squad, said the Montagnards believe a tiger has supernatural powers, that it is, in part, animal, human, and spirit, descended from kings and queens who ruled the forest before the coming of the Anamese, and it is driven to mate because its spirit can pass into the heaven of kings only if it leaves behind posterity. Jurgens, a spec 4 from another platoon, nodded knowingly and said, "Tigers ain't other animals. Not here. Had me a shack-up in Quang Ngai who told about a princess." And he repeated the legend of a princess of the forest who ran away with her lover, a young Radai chief, a great hunter-warrior, rather than marry the Anamese king to whom she was promised. The couple was tracked down by the king's soldiers, the Radai chief dismembered, and his remains strewn over the highlands. Thereafter the princess refused to eat, died, and was sent to the spirit world on a pyre. A tigress leaped from the flames and killed the Anamese king who was mourning her. Always hungry, she has roamed the jungle ever since in search of her lover's spirit.

Fists stuffed in his pockets, Stonehands stood apart, listening. Though the others were skeptical, he saw truth in these stories. Ain't right to mess with the natural, he thought, but then a lot of things weren't right. Howkert, the boy, the V.C. The image of the boy on the crutch came like a curtain closing his mind to anything else.

Donatello stood from playing with the cub. “Thinks I'm his mommy. Whachu think of the name?" he asked.

Stonehands blinked, but didn't answer.

"Well, man, what about Butter?”

He said. "It's bad. You hear what those boys said."

"You superstitious, Stonehands? Is 'at what's buggin' you? You scared of a little cub?"

Stonehands saw nothing wrong with superstition. Luck, it seemed to him, had everything to do with everything.

"S-s-s-Stonehands a-ain't a-afraid of nuh-nuh-nothing," Drammel said.

"Didn't you hear, Bro," Donatello said to Stonehands. "It's unlucky to be superstitious." He laughed and looked at the others. "Get it?" He clutched the cub to his chest.

Stonehands was tired. He shook his head and left to be by himself. As he lifted his tent flap, he was met by Halverson who told him he had last watch.

"Been humpin' all day," Stonehands said.

Halverson shrugged. "Sorry. The listening post."

Now he had more important matters facing him. Three hours of blackness at a listening post. He lay on his left side but couldn't get comfortable, then flipped to his right which was no better. He tried to think of something pleasant to whisk him into sleep but saw the boy again, hand outstretched for candy and the cub swatting at the claw. These two fused into a picture of Howkert sitting next to him saying he was through. Through?

Stonehands hadn't understood at the time what Howkert had meant. It'd been crazy talk, rambling words about the only thing to live for and finding love and never seeing things the same. Stonehands saw his home in the Smokeys, an image that brought him some comfort, a turn in a narrow dirt road and his house on the right, its windows open, a blue bottle fly buzzing by his head, and smells . . .

*         *          *

In his dream the boy came, and he was hopping down the road. But it was the road to Stonehands' home. Then the boy was engulfed in a ball of darkness that spun like a whirlwind. Stonehands awoke and sat upright in the dark.

Grofield shook his shoulder. "You awake, Harvey?"

"Yeah, Sarge."

"You sure? You were talking in your sleep."

"I'm sure."

"Come on then," the platoon sergeant said.

Stonehands pulled his boots on, tied them and crawled out. Grofield took Stonehands' M-60, handed over an M-16 and told him to follow.

A fog had crept over the valley and sealed it in. At the perimeter, a guard spread the concertina and handed over a commo wire. Running the wire through his palm, Stonehands walked in silence with Grofield a step behind. Two hundred meters later they reached the listening post, a foxhole large enough to accommodate one man and equipped with a field telephone.

Smith challenged them. Grofield said, "Slick silver." Smitty told them to advance and said he was glad to leave—the fog and all. "Times I felt I wasn't alone," he said.

Stonehands sank down into the damp hole and called in a brief commo-check. By the time he finished, the fog had swallowed Grofield and Smitty. Left alone, he touched the commo wire, then laid the barrel of the M-16 on the sandbag.

The first hour seemed to go quickly. He thought about anything he could but the boy. He recalled the soldier he'd boxed at Benning, a white youngster with a boy's face and man's body, the one he was afraid to hit because where he came from blacks didn't hit whites. He'd knocked him to his knees, then held him from going down until the referee urged him to a neutral corner so the count could begin. Later the soldier had congratulated him, had shaken his hand and smiled affably as if they were now friends.

Stonehands thought he heard footsteps coming from somewhere in the damp night, footsteps nearby. But when he concentrated on the sound, he heard nothing, for the fog-heavy air quelled sound. In this soup Charley could walk up on him before he'd hear anything. He'd heard of soldiers going crazy at a listening post, but figured they just didn't have strong minds or had just had enough of it all. Maybe, like his buddy Howkert, they were just looking for escape.

He missed Howkert, Howkert the reader who'd quote Camus and Sartre, the hippie who'd been drafted, who'd come to 'Nam with a what-the-hell shrug and medic's bag and more guts than sense, "Why not," he'd said, "I hear the dope's good." He had a way of seeing things that made the lunacy of war seem absurdly logical—like the old wood carrier they'd stumbled upon on the way to Oak Chat, an old man who stepped on a toe popper, a mine meant to shatter the foot and ankle. Howkert had treated the wound and called for a dust off. As they waited, he'd asked the interpreter to ask if the old man was authorized to sweep mine fields, if he held a union card. The interpreter said he didn't understand. "That's the trouble with this country—no unions," Howkert had said.

Howkert hadn't deserted because he was a coward. One thing Stonehands and the others were certain of was that Howkert was brave. But he'd deserted. What would he have thought of the boy who'd lost both limbs on the left side, both, so that no matter what aid he used to walk, he would always list to the right. How would Howkert see it?

A noise distracted Stonehands, indistinct, but sound nonetheless. He was sure, so certain he pressed the rifle butt into his shoulder and looked out over the barrel. Something was out there, an animal, a deer or wild pig. This hadn't stopped being a forest just because of the war. But the sound was gone and eventually he lowered the M-16.

The fog was hypnotic. His eyelids drooped from staring into the dark. To keep alert, he tried to recall every movie he'd ever seen. That proved too tiring. In the distance five-hundred pounders fell to the west somewhere over Laos. He counted the explosions, seven in all, dropped from B-52s so high up their engines were silenced.

Think strong, Stonehands muttered as he cranked the field phone to make a commo check. The voice on the other end seemed disinterested. Anything out there? No, nothing, except fog and . . . noise. "Nothin'," Stonehands reported. That was the last human sound for another hour.

He remembered the march to Hai Drong—the ARVN soldiers taking over the prisoner, slapping him and shouting. The V.C., helpless to protect himself, had balled up on the road. His enemies had merely seen that as an excuse to use their feet. They kicked the side of his head as if practicing soccer, straight on or sideways with an instep or backward with a heel. His squad mates, ashamed they'd handed over the prisoner, talked about shooting the ARVN soldiers and turning the prisoner loose, but that was crazy talk. Still they were ashamed and angry. You could see it in their eyes. Perhaps that's why they'd taken to the boy so quickly—to make up for their shame.

But the boy had only brought them more shame.

Stonehands turned his attention to what he thought was movement in the fog, a swirling current. A wind. A sound. No, just imagination. Think strong. Stay awake. As a boy he'd memorized facts about presidents. His mother had bragged on him to her friends, called him into the kitchen to show the skeptics, especially Naomi Slaughter, the county Mrs. Know-Everybody's-Business. Learning facts was a trick, but they'd stayed with him. Now he drew them up—Andrew Jackson, birth date March I5, wife's name, wife's name?—Martha, no, Mary. Rachel, yes. He wasn't sure. Jackson followed by Van Buren. No one knows about him. Next was Polk. No, Tyler.

Again he thought he heard something moving out there and had a passing desire to call out. He didn't. He choked the rifle stock and listened but heard only his breathing and an annoying sound in his ears. At first he couldn't figure out where the sound came from, then realized it was in his head. It was an alarm.

It coughed, not a cough exactly, but something low and guttural that seemed to vibrate out of its belly. It sat less than a meter away behind him. Though mostly shadow, it had shoulders and a head and small half-moon ears. What amazed him most wasn't that it was there, but that its head was so enormous. Like a moon with tufted ears. He could taste the animal smell of it, see its hot breath move the fog. Time orbited around such a creature.

He considered calling the command bunker. And say what? There's a tiger here. What could anyone do about it? They'd just think he was scared. Hell, he was. Clutching the M-16, he slowly settled into the hole until his buttocks hit bottom.

He checked the safety, squeezed the rifle, thinking to use it—just shoot—but that presented a different set of problems. The enemy was somewhere, a regiment perhaps, hiding in shadows, or maybe they were ghosts. Maybe all of this is shadows or, as Howkert had said, shadows without essence. If so, what is the tiger? Doesn't matter. He'd see if a ghost bleeds.

Stonehands listened to its breathing, fast and heavy, double his perhaps. He appealed to God that it didn't make sense, his dying this way, that he'd come to fight Charley, and if he was to die, Charley should do the killing. Strong mind, he thought, and repeated over and over in his mind the same three names—Tyler, Polk, Taylor; Tyler, Polk, Taylor—like novenas.

On tottering knees, he stood to look about. It seemed gone—an hallucination, perhaps, as the boy might have been, and the prisoner and Howkert. What did Smitty say? Felt he wasn't alone. Alone gets to you. Causes delusions. A man could imagine anything seeing what he'd seen in 'Nam. That boy might show up in the Smokeys looking for a home, another shadow looking for its essence.

*         *          *

The animal materialized again, at first a vague shadow. Some of his initial fear gone, Stonehands waited, rifle at the ready. Twice it stepped from and retreated back into the fog. The third time it appeared, Stonehands felt a sensation, a knowing of sorts and trusted it. He knew for certain that it was a she as she circled sniffing the air.

He recalled an encounter on a trail near his home when a curious sensation had pulled him to a deer trapped between a tree and boulder. He'd talked to it gently to ease its struggle until he'd freed it. It'd stood, dazed, its bulb-like eyes staring at him until Stonehands flapped his arms and sent it scurrying into the brush.

But a mother tiger's no white tail deer, and this one's no ordinary one. His mind was drawn to the tales of the princess, the restless spirit of the tiger that must leave one behind to assure a way into heaven. No legend. Just an animal, and a big one. He swallowed down a dry throat and stood still as the animal inched to his left so close the feel of her was on his flesh as if she'd brushed him with her aura. Be quick, be strong. Taylor, Filmore .  .  .  Pierce. Her tail flicked and grazed his cheek. She turned her head, opened her broad mouth as if to snarl and showed her teeth without uttering a sound.

Then as if unburdening herself of a great heaviness, she dropped to the ground no more than a foot from the foxhole, yawned once and stared away from him into the fog. Her breathing was slower now, and from inside her rose a deep rumbling purr that made the hair on his arms rise.

Stonehands soon forgot everything but her. There was no sense of the world, no sense of the past or the future. Just his breathing and her deep rumbling. Occasionally she'd flick her tail. She was so near he could reach out and stroke her. How would she react?

She lay calmly beside him. Relaxed now, he recited presidents' names all the way up to Grant, and explained how Mark Twain had found Grant living in poverty. He described the boy with no left arm and half a leg, the V.C. they'd captured, and explained how Howkert had gone over the wall to be with a boom-boom girl in Quang Ngai, a girl he'd planned on running away with though there was no place to run when you were a six-foot-two-inch American, a deserter.

Sometime later she rose into a crouch, her powerful legs locked, ready. He held the rifle, but had no intention of shooting. Her body twitched. She flicked her tail once again and an instant later bolted into the fog.

She'd left. What would he tell his squad? Who'd believe him?

A roar broke the stillness. Then a man dashed by, followed by another. A third toppled into the foxhole, his rifle clattering when it landed. Stonehands gripped the man by his neck, said he was sorry, then with a powerful twist of the hands, snapped the man's neck. He heard soldiers emerge from the fog and laid the dead soldier aside.

He rang up base camp and whispered, "Jus' put ever'thing right on top'a me."

He cloaked his shoulders with the dead man and sunk down into the pit. He heard the distinct pop, a mortar round leaving the tube. A moment later the ground became a flash pot; the sound traveled through his bones; he felt a stabbing pain in his right eardrum. He clasped the dead man, closed his eyes, and prayed.

It was still dark, but not pitch black as before. The air smelled of nitrate. The ground remained immersed in fog, and smoke hung just above the fog, trapped by the dense net of limbs and leaves. He'd lost sense of time and fact. The barrage could have been ten minutes or two hours. He couldn't say. He listened for evidence that the enemy was gone or there, something, some sound, but there was nothing.

He slowly rose up. The dead man on his shoulders was a painful weight, but one he was grateful for. As he readied to toss the body off his back, he felt it lift away. He hoped for a bullet to the head, a quick death, but when he opened his eyes and peered out, he caught a fleeting glimpse of her as she dragged the dead man into the fog bank.

The phone line was severed, so he waited until dawn to crawl from the foxhole. When at last sunlight infiltrated the forest, he saw through the fog men lying in grotesque poses. Thin vapors of smoke curled out of the ground like spun silk. Flies appeared to do their mischief. At the edge of the trees the tigress sat staring at him, her expression bland. She lay down, rolled to her side and began licking her paws. He thought of the legends mentioned in the tent and grasped at last what Howkert knew the night he'd gone over the wire, what it was like to be summoned.

Stonehands walked, paying no mind to the bodies he sidestepped or the ground rent by craters or the blood that trickled from his ear. These obstacles, inconsequential parts of an aberrant world, matters of limited possibility, were measurements of a past he saw evaporating with the fog. At the perimeter, he shouted the password several times, gave his name, said he was coming in and told them not to shoot. The platoon swarmed about him, patted his back and asked what had happened. Drammel told him his ear was bleeding, said it without stammering.

The lieutenant pushed his way to the front. "How many?" he asked.

"Sir?" Stonehands looked uncomprehendingly at him, shook his head and grabbed Donatello by the arm.

"Easy, Stoner," Donatello said, "We thought you'd bought it, pal, chet roi."

"Where's the cub?" Stonehands asked.

"Hey, bro . . .”

He lifted Donatello off his feet and stared into his eyes. Donatello pointed to a bunker nearby.

Stonehands swooped the cub up and walked toward the woods, his long strides devouring earth. The lieutenant ordered him to stop, but Stonehands paid no attention, and when Halverson caught up and told him to go back, Stonehands merely shook his head. Donatello hurried behind telling him to put the cat down, that it wasn't his. Stonehands fired a single glance that sent Donatello reeling backwards. No one made further attempt to stop him. At the wire he threw his rifle aside and a few steps further disappeared into a fog bank at the edge of the forest.

*         *          *

At the inquiry Donatello claimed Stonehands had returned a week later and caught him by surprise in the latrine, just appeared out of nowhere with the cub in arm.

"What did he want?"

"To have me tell his mother he wouldn't be coming home."

"That's all?"

"That's all, sir."

“Anything else you'd like to add, soldier?"

"No, sir." Donatello looked at his squad mates. He swallowed. "Yes, sir. His eye was on the woods. He kept watching like someone who might miss a bus, worried like. Something kept moving back and forth in the shadows. I can't be sure, but I think it was a tiger."

"But you aren't sure?"

"No, sir."

The board, a colonel, a major and two captains, looked at one another. Saying soldiers love to make up stories, the colonel dismissed the inquiry. Officially Stonehands went mad in the A Shau Valley, was missing in action and likely dead. That's what Donatello later told Stonehands' mother.

*         *          *

Brief facts: In the thick forests of Southeast Asia, the black and gold striping of the bengal tiger serves to make the great cat virtually invisible to the human eye. Occasionally a hunter stalking one ends up being the prey. Several official reports from Vietnam spoke of encounters with tigers, especially among grunts who humped the mountainous rain forests. A Marine was once dragged from his foxhole near the DMZ in 1966, but fought the animal off with a K-bar knife. In 1969 Army P.F.C. Michael Mize was dragged away by a bengal while standing watch at a listening post west of Pleiku. His remains, a skeleton, some shredded flesh and his dog tags upon which dangled a tiger's claw, were found the next day. Walter "Stonehands" Harvey is one of 1,568 missing in action still unaccounted for. A neutral investigator sent to account for MIAs heard rumors of a giant running in the forests with a tigress. Laotians had seen them playing in the streams, splashing one another like children at play. They couldn't say if the man was black or not. He was a giant. Wasn't that enough?

Printed in the Spring/Summer 1998 issue of CLR

H. Lee Barnes

H. Lee Barnes teaches English and creative writing at the Community College of Southern Nevada. His fiction has appeared in several literary journals, most recently in Clackamas Literary Review and Echoes, and two stories are forthcoming in Flint Hills Review. In 1997 he won the Clackamas Literary Review fiction award and in 1991 the Arizona Authors Association award for the short story. Gunning for Ho, his collection about Vietnam, has just been released from the University of Nevada Press.

You can find H. Lee Barnes on the web at:
—  Arizona State University Creative Writing
—  Printed Matter
—  Gunning for Ho
—  Boston Review
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble

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