OCTOBER 14, 2021
PALMILAS DE PICHACA, GUANAJUATO, MEXICO
The marker wasn’t marble. It wasn’t even stone, just two boards, painted white and nailed together into a cross that someone had jammed into the ground fifteen klicks due south of nowhere. Written in black marker on the crosspiece was a name: Slaten, spelled out in painstaking capital letters.
Nothing else on the hill stood higher than a foot or two off the ground, scraggly shrubs and bushes and weeds that were making the best of a hard situation. The ground was exposed in places, reddish-brown dirt baked hard and dry by the Mexican sun. A shovel wouldn’t bite into this ground, not now, not until the rainy season came and tried to wash it all away.
Two men stood by the cross, staring down at it as if doing so would convince it to give up its secrets. The taller of the two, brown-haired and blue-eyed, looked at his companion once before taking a knee. Packing in loose dirt, he straightened the cross from where it sat at a cockeyed angle. “There,” he said. “It’s a little more respectful.”
His friend looked around, the wind tugging at the brim of the USS James Lawrence baseball cap he wore. “I guess so, Crenshaw. They really buried him all the way out here?”
Lt. Colonel David Crenshaw stood, brushing the dust from the knees of his jeans. “That’s what they told me. More like they buried what they found in what was left of the cockpit when he splashed. It wasn’t much.”
“You shot him down, right?” It was a statement of fact and an apology to the dead, all at once.
“Yeah, I did.” Crenshaw adjusted the cross one last time, then stepped away, satisfied with his handiwork. “His choice, really. When the Air Force reactivated the squadron, his name was on the invite list. Come back, get your rank reinstated, fly one of the XA-20 Razorbacks – the whole deal. But he wanted to stay on the outside. Said he was making too much money in the private sector to fly for Uncle Sam.”
“And that worked great until he had to fly against Uncle Sam?”
Crenshaw stared off into the distance, carefully not meeting the other man’s eyes. “He’s dead and I’m not, which pretty much says it all, I think.” There was silence for a moment. “I gave him the chance to pull off his run, you know.”
“I know, David. I was there.” Nothing more was said as the two men relived the moment, the last dying gasp of the independent PMCs. The mercenary squadron had come in low and fast, headed for the Salamanca oil refinery. The Mexican government was still getting its legs back under it after the riots of ’15, and didn’t have an air force worth the name. It had asked for help from the United States, over protests, and the US had responded with the HAWx.
And Captain David Crenshaw, flying patrol the day the mercs made their run, had shot down and killed one of his oldest friends in the line of duty. He closed his eyes and imagined for a moment that he could smell the burning fuel and hot metal, could hear the dull boom of the impact as Jeremy Slaten’s plane had hit the ground and broken into cartwheeling fragments. Some of the pieces were still out here, he knew, abandoned to the elements by the company that had employed Slaten, just as they’d ultimately abandoned Slaten as well.
“You should have come home, Jerry,” Crenshaw said, and started walking down the hill. After a moment, the other man followed.