Following Harold Murphy’s desertion, the soldiers continue West into Laos, led by an increasingly unhealthy Lieutenant Corson. Along the way, they find other small objects that seem to signal Cacciato’s presence nearby. After many miles, they come to the end of the jungles of Laos: they’re now in a vast savannah.
It’s a little unrealistic that Cacciato continues to leave clues for the soldiers to find. Speaking strictly within the context of the story, this could be because Cacciato wants to be followed—he wants to lead the soldiers to safety and peace. In a more meta-textual sense, though, O’Brien seems to be playing fast and loose with all probability, and we are meant to grow suspicious of all the unlikely things that happen to Berlin.
As they walk along the road that stretches through the savannah, the soldiers find further clues of Cacciato’s presence, such as a Black Jack wrapper. Suddenly, the soldiers see a pair of buffalo (water buffalo) dragging a cart across the savannah, not far away. Reflexively, the soldiers open fire on the two buffalo. Even after the other soldiers realize their mistake and cease their fire, Stink continues shooting at one of the animals. He doesn’t stop until his gun is empty. Then, he grins and places his leg on the dead buffalo, as if posing for a photograph. One buffalo survives the shooting.
In this disturbing scene, Stink kills a harmless buffalo for no apparent reason. The other soldiers live in such a state of tension and fear that they shoot the buffalo out of “reflex,” but in Stink’s case, even this excuse doesn’t apply. Stink is shooting at the buffalo because he enjoys shooting, and needs something to break the monotony of the march—he’s become so hardened by his experiences in Vietnam that he doesn’t think twice about taking a life.
The soldiers survey the dead buffalo lying in the middle of the road. Suddenly, they hear crying and yelling—there were women sitting in the cart, herding their two buffalo across the savannah, when the soldiers opened fire. Slowly, the three women—all of whom are weeping hysterically—stand up with their hands high in the air. Stink laughs and admires his own handiwork, calling himself “Fastest hands in the West.”
For one of the first times in the novel, we see the different “stages” of the soldier’s life: action, reaction, bloodshed, and—crucially—coping with the violence afterwards. As O’Brien has already shown, the soldiers—especially Stink—maintain their sanity by cracking jokes about the horrible things they see and do.
The night after Stink kills the buffalo, the soldiers spend the night at the edge of the savannah. Eddie and Doc drag the buffalo off the road, leaving one buffalo for transportation. Then, the soldiers prepare to interrogate the three women who were herding the animal. One of the women, who speaks little English, says that she and her two companions (who are much older than she) are refugees. She weeps over the dead buffalo—whose name, she insists, is Nguyen—and claims that she raised it since it was a calf. The woman becomes angry, and shouts that the soldiers must pay “reparation” for Nguyen’s death.
These women have access to a world of kindness, slow growth, and nurture that’s utterly outside of Berlin’s frame of reference. After all the violence the soldiers have seen, the idea of weeping over a buffalo seems surreal to them. Sarkin’s notion of paying “reparations” suggests the reparations that the Vietnamese government still demands of the U.S. today. The Vietnam War ravaged the country, all in the name of “protecting” it from Communism.
The soldiers continue asking the women questions. The youngest woman’s name, she claims, is Sarkin Aung Wang. She has been a refugee for many months, and has been traveling West, away from Saigon, where she once lived. The two older women are her aunts. Lieutenant Corson asks Sarkin where she and her aunts are heading, and Sarkin replies that they’re heading for the “Far West,” a long way away. Sarkin asks Lieutenant Corson if he’ll lead her to the Far West, as a way of apologizing for killing Nguyen. The Lieutenant says something under his breath, but neither Sarkin nor the soldiers can understand him.
The so-called “Far West” could refer to any number of places, but it seems that the Far West is for Sarkin what Paris is for Cacciato—a mystical place of peace, where one can escape the horrors of the Vietnam War. Sarkin and her aunts are on a mission similar to the soldiers, although the women at least acknowledge that they are trying to flee the country.
The evening progresses, and the soldiers eat fish and rice with the three women. The aunts continue weeping for Nguyen. As everyone eats, Paul Berlin watches Sarkin, whom he finds very beautiful. He can’t place her age—she could be twelve, fifteen, or twenty. The next morning, the soldiers bury Nguyen and proceed to leave, accompanied by the three women. Eddie and Stink hitch the surviving buffalo up to the cart, and Paul Berlin decides to sit in the cart, next to Sarkin.
The women provide the soldiers with food, but it’s not clear where they got this food, or why they’re sharing it with the people who murdered their buffalo. This looseness with resources and money is characteristic of the novel as a whole—there are dozens of times when O’Brien invites us to ask, “who’s paying for this?” and then deliberately doesn’t answer. This adds to the dreamlike quality of the narrative.