Rain fell in sheets exacerbating the sodden heaviness of packs already laden with the weight of many miles. As Xu Guan’s platoon moved forward, step by stumbling step, even the platoon leaders had lost their zeal for the mission. Rarely did they encourage or threaten their soldiers these days. As men fell by the wayside, they were simply left behind. No one yelled at them. No one kicked them or beat them. They were simply left, like so much excess baggage, on the road or in the ditch where they had fallen.
Xu Guan’s mind was numb. The fine line between hallucinations and reality had been erased days before. Frequently, he would see his mother standing by the side of the road weeping and waving at him with a colorful scarf in her hand. His mother had always enjoyed colorful scarves, Xu Guan recalled as he tripped over a crack in the road and nearly fell to his knees.
Marching in one of the two inner columns was potentially more hazardous than one of the two outer columns. If a soldier in one of the inner columns dropped, he frequently tripped up three or four soldiers following him. The members of Xu Guan’s battalion were so deadened by their seemingly unending march that their reaction times had tripled or quadrupled. Usually, soldiers in the outer columns fell to the side when they dropped, causing far fewer soldiers to trip over their bodies.
It had been nearly 30 days since Xu Guan had wanted to kiss the ground at the San Francisco docks. In that time, he and his comrades in arms had covered nearly 300 miles. Their march had taken them along Interstate 80, up through Sacramento, across the mountains of the Tahoe National Forest and into Reno, Nevada. Now, they were headed for Winnemucca, across more mountainous terrain, through more rain, snow and cold and then, on eastward on I-80 through northern Utah, across Wyoming and into the plains of Nebraska.
It was March, but the temperatures in the mountains around Reno were bone-chillingly cold. The rain in which the troops now marched was uncharacteristic, but seemingly unrelenting. The PLA cold-weather gear that had been issued leaked around the seams, inviting cold and moisture to soak through the flimsy insulated layer beneath the GoreTex knock-off shell. Xu Guan shivered uncontrollably as drops of cold rain trickled down his spine.
The battalion had been given their marching orders what seemed like eons ago. Since that time, they had fought battles, lost dozens of men in those battles and as many more to exhaustion, exposure, near-starvation and dehydration. They were poorly supplied, supported only by a handful of vehicles. Food and water were luxuries. What little they were given was frequently spoiled or polluted. Dysentery had taken its toll along with the other battles the troops had fought. Dimly, Xu Guan recalled that they were to rendezvous with more troops at some place he’d never heard of – Omaha, Nebraska. By then, Xu Guan reasoned during a rare moment of clarity, they would be fortunate if there was even a single platoon left of the original battalion.
As time progressed, it seemed that many of the soldiers were suffering from other ailments as well. Rumors had spread that four or five men had died exhibiting symptoms of Tuberculosis. Fear was rampant. Morale was non-existent. The men trudged on because they knew of nothing else to do.
As Reno and the memory of its battles disappeared behind him, Xu Guan stumbled again, nearly falling to the ground. He had yet to be wounded in battle, but he struggled daily with a nagging cough and bloody discharge that had racked his body even before his ship had docked. What began as a great adventure and a chance to escape his boring village had turned into a death march across a largely barren landscape into fights with surprisingly well-armed and well-prepared groups of survivors.
There was no word of resupply. The only command was to put one foot ahead of the other and keep moving eastward across the United States. Xu Guan, and those with him, no longer understood their mission – if they ever had. The promises of riches untold … of patriotically collecting the debt owed to mother China … those promises were long since broken and trodden into the mud of the mountainous terrain through which they had passed.
As Xu Guan spoke with his comrades at night, the topic of desertion came up frequently. But to where? They had no knowledge of the areas through which they passed. While they had occasionally been able to defeat the Americans against whom they had fought – as a battalion – none of them had any delusions that they could handle even some of the smallest groups alone, without the limited support of light artillery that they now enjoyed.
Gradually, though, a plan developed. Led by one of the more experienced and capable platoon leaders, the plan took shape over several nights of semi-lucid discussions. Xu Guan had been fortunate enough to be sitting at the campfire of the platoon leader when he first broached the idea with some of his trusted confidants.
Now, as he marched, Xu Guan shook his head to try to clear the cobwebs. How could the plan work? Was it possible? Would the close-knit group of men developing the plan really include him? He had nothing much to offer beyond a weak back and the bloody phlegm that he coughed up on a regular basis.
Xu Guan began to wonder if he had Tuberculosis. Would he be one of the men lying by the side of the road dying in a few days? Would it be a peaceful, painless death? Xu Guan knew nothing of the disease other than what he had heard in rumors around the campfires.
One foot in front of the other … wave to Mother with her beautiful scarf … march to the death.