"Don't worry, we just want to warm up, do you mind if we share your fire?" the Corporal shouts at them and turns back to the soldiers and, with a wink, flicks his head in their direction as an instruction to proceed towards them. With that the boys bolt.
"Get them" screams the Corporal and the patrol breaks off, cursing as they run after them. The Lieutenant ambles over to the fire yawning, kicks an empty two litre milk carton onto the fire, watches the plastic fold and squirm then bubble and flame and stokes the fire to life with his left foot while holding his hands over the flames for some warmth. He takes out a cigarette and lights it. He spits into the fire. There are the usual sounds now of sheet metal falling, shouting, dogs barking and breathless orders to stop or be shot. Of course they won't shoot. The paperwork to be filled out for each round fired is not worth the effort and the men are more afraid of firing a shot than being shot at. Luckily the locals don't know that. The men in pursuit play a game. When they are close enough they pull back the breach of the semi-automatic R4, a sound any township dweller knows well. Without fail the pursued stop or dive to the ground and the chase is over. Within minutes the men have marched the four boys back to the fire. Two men and the Corporal have the men facing a wall while the rest of the platoon breathlessly pass around water bottles, spit, take out cigarettes and swear loudly at the inconvenience of having to run around so early in the morning. One of the men retells the story of how the kid he was chasing dived to the ground into a pile of shit, jumped to his feet in disgust, then dived back into the same shit when he saw the soldier closing in. There are fits of laughter.
"Sis man, did one of you shit yourselves?" the corporal asks the boys who are now standing with their backs to the platoon, hands on their heads. They are visibly shaken, scared. One of them is crying, his body shuddering.
"Which one of you smells of shit?" asks the Corporal.
"I won't ask again."
One of the boys slowly raises his right hand into the air, his arm is shaking.
"Didn't your mother teach you how to wipe your bum? Jeez but you stink. We can't have you go home like that, can we? Can we?"
"No sir" the boy whispers. He is now crying openly.
"Hey boys" the Corporal turns around calling the soldiers "come her and check this out. It seems we not only have to keep order in this shit hole but now we have to clean up the shit as well."
The soldiers move closer to the group. One of them walks away to the street corner to keep watch. Silently he wishes for this day, this year, to be over. He watches for any approaching vehicles or people and looks for horizon between shacks and electricity pylons and tries to memorise the colours of the changing light of dawn.
"Don't cry my boy, we're here to help. Come over here, don't be scared." He indicates a puddle of water from last night's rain.
"Come clean yourself up here so you can go home smelling nice. Now." he points to the puddle. The young boy walks towards it and stands looking down at it with his hands still on his head.
"No, no, no ... silly boy. You can't bath with your clothes on, you must get undressed."
The boy is not sure whether the gentle instruction is serious or a game.
"Strip!" screams the Corporal and points his rifle at the boys head.
The boy sheds his clothes quickly. He stands shivering, his hands covering his groin.
"Now bath, you stink. Come on, get in, sit down in this bath we have prepared for you and wash off that shit."
The boys sits down in the puddle and begins to scoop up handfuls of dirty water and mud and scrubs his face, his belly, his legs. He keeps his eyes closed and clenches his teeth as tears stream down his face.
"Now doesn't that feel better?" the Corporal asks.
The boy nods nervously.
"Smit" the Lieutenant calls to the Corporal "fun's over, let's go."
"Right men, move out" the Corporal shouts. He picks up the boys clothes with the end of his rifle and drops them into the fire.
The lookout falls in behind the platoon. He watches the teenagers helping their friend out of the puddle. They have their arms around his shoulders as he shivers convulsively never looking up, his hands locked around his penis. Looking into their eyes he is aware of the widening abyss between them. Their shame shifts to hatred; . he future feels infinitely bleak. His mouth opens to speak but there are no words. There is nothing to say now.