~Don't die Specialist Percell please don't DIE!~
The girl curled herself around Percell's inert, bloody body and began to wail for all she was worth.
Four days before....
Lt Goldman swayed under the tarp and silently blessed the cool shadow it provided. The colonel was waiting for him, the map already spread on the table, a thick file already clutched in his hand. He returned Goldman's crisp salute and handed him the manila folder.
"This is the military record of one Major Jessup."
Goldman glanced at the file, but did not open it. He just nodded and waited for the colonel to continue.
"His record stops after the Tet offensive. After that, he ceased to be a soldier and instead became a fugitive and a traitor to his country."
Goldman nodded, still not saying anything. A familiar, tightening lump congealed in his throat, though, and once more he felt that sickening question form in his mind: what fate had chosen his team for Special Forces?
"He now works for charlie, Myron, and he's a dangerous man. He has already sabotaged three operations to the south of Phun Yoh and he uses his personal knowledge of our strategies to help the gooks plan counter-attacks on various small ambushes and fire missions." The Colonel's voice was steadily becoming more and more tight. "This war is already putting a large strain on our facilities and resources as well as on our citizens' consciences and wallets." He leaned in a little closer. "It's bad enough that those damn dinks are fighting us, Myron. We don't need one of our own doing the same. We have to take him down."
Goldman raised his head slightly and cleared his throat. "Sir, what made him turn traitor?"
"It's all in the file, Myron. Right now we're just going to plan how to get him." The colonel directed their attention to the map. "He travels from one platoon to the next, wherever the gooks need his ... advice. However, certain CIA espionage agents have informed us that he is, for whatever reason, remaining with the 173rd Battalion of the North Vietnamese Army. He's been with them for over two months now, and it seems he intends to remain with them until their mission is carried out. "
"What's their mission, sir?"
The colonel allowed a smile to flick across his face. "Need-to-know basis, Lieutenant."
Goldman returned a dry smile. "Riiiight. But, sir," Goldman put on his infamous grimace. "I don't know about these 'espionage agents'. I mean, our experience with--"
"I know your problems with Fontaine, Myron, but the most you can do about it is bitch. And you're doing a pretty damn good job of that."
Goldman tried his best not to glare. "Yessir."
The colonel nodded and continued. "Team Viking has to plan an ambush here--" He pointed to a mountainous formation on the map, "--where the agents have reported is to be the platoon's next rendezvous point with the battalion."
"Why not just send a fire mission?"
The colonel stood straight and faced Goldman. "Myron, I cannot stress this point enough to you. The NVA platoon is to remain unharmed. I do not want to hear that even one member of the NVA is harmed. You are only to take down Major Jessup. He must be captured, and ... eliminated. Then Viking will move to this LZ where Lt. McKay will fly you away. Do I make myself clear?"
Lt. Goldman never really noticed just how dead and sharklike the colonel's eyes were. The lieutenant focused on his superior's nose and responded, voice clenched. "Yessir."
"Good. Now here are the details ...." These were laid out until Goldman had a clear understanding of it.
"And one last thing, Myron--I heard your translator was hit on your last mission. "
"Yessir. Tran was one of the best." He smiled. "Even the men liked him."
The colonel rolled up the map. "We have a replacement. She's coming in the morning, before you set out on this mission."
Goldman saluted. "Yessir."
"Mission tomorrow." Taylor came into the barracks, after finishing dinner at the mess.
"Thank gawd," Percell enthused. Roo looked up from his magazine, over to Percell.
"'Thank gawd'? 'Thank gaaawwwwwd'? You're happy to be going back out there, where you can get killed?"
Doc put down a seven of hearts in front of Danny, then turned around and faced Ruiz, grinning. "Aw, c'mon, Roo!! It'll be a fun fieldtrip this time, I promise," Hockenberry drawled. "I'll make sure the school bus won't be late again."
Percell chuckled. Ruiz made a face.
"You and Percell both. A couple of white bread, hokey pokey, backwater--"
"Cowpoking crackers!" Taylor finished, falling back on his bunk. Percell and Doc looked at each other, then put down their cards on the crate and attacked Taylor, pretending to pummel him with all their might. Taylor laughed ever harder, especially at Hockenbury.
"I swear, Francis, you couldn't beat up anyone if your ass was on fire and Ho Chi Minh was holding the lighter!" Taylor pushed Hockenbury off of him. The Doc sat back on the floor, grinning, then went back to his cards.
"Hey Danny!" he looked over at the pile of arms and legs skirmishing on the floor. "Go fish."
A few minutes later, Sgt Hannigan burst into their quarters, a small woman trailing behind.
"Listen up, losers, ya got a replacement for Tran here," Hannigan boomed, the grainy stench of his breath filling the room. "Unfortunately, we got no place to keep her, alla the other barracks are filled up with them air squads that flew in the other day. But, since she is part of Team Viking, I thought she should BE with Team Viking! Enjoy ...." Hannigan leered suggestively. "But don't be too harsh with her, remember, ya got a looong day ahead of y'all tomorrah. HA HA HAH HAHAHA!" And with that, the looming man shoved in the translator in and slammed the door shut behind him.
The boys focused curiously on the young woman, who attempted a smile.
~I stared at the guys in the room. One guy, Hispanic, I think, was stretched out on his bed: He looked me up and down, then slowly sat up as the Sergeant with the bad breath nattered on about my supposed usefulness. A pretty one sat at the edge of another cot. He had the perkiest little mouth I had ever seen on a guy, as well as a pair of calm, peaceful eyes. A drafted hippie, was my guess. Almost by my boots, two guys had paused in their tussle; one, a tall, lanky black guy with a smooth, coffee complexion; the other, a short, stocky piece of Americana and apple pie. Hmm. This'll be interesting.~
"Um...hi...?"she attempted shyly.
"Hello," Doc said, after a very long silence. Sometimes it seemed he was the only mature one around here. "I'm Francis Hockenbury. This is Danny Percell, Alberto Ruiz and uh...."
"Uh...oh yeah, Marcus Taylor."
"I'm Private Van--er--I mean, Ria Van Leiden. I'm the new translator."
~I wanted to sink into the floor. What a totally idiotic thing to say. Like they didn't know who I was after the last poor fellow died. No, Ria, don't think things like that....~
"Where're you from, Ria?" Doc said, smiling. He motioned to a bed and she hefted her duffle bag onto it.
"Baltimore, Maryland." She flopped down onto the bed. "I mean, just to get it straight, I'm not in combat arms, I know chic--uh, I mean, girls aren't allowed in combat arms, I'm usually behind the desk. A clerk. Translating transcripts. But I've used an M-16! Six months back. On the range. Oh god...I'm red aren't I?"
"Naw, you're kind of a tan color." Roo said, squinting at her. She smiled hesitantly.
"I'm starving," she ventured. "Where's the mess?"
"Actually, Doc and I were just heading there to get some chow," husked Percell, jumping up off his cot. "C'mon, if you dare. What they serve can be pretty damn scary."
Van Leiden grinned instinctively to Percell's earnest voice. "I dare. It can be raw snake, I'll eat it!"
"Well, there ain't no guarantee it'll be raw...." Percell, Doc and Van Leiden wandered out of the barracks. Roo sat up on his bed and stared at Taylor.
"What's wrong man?" Ruiz lurched over and poked Taylor, "Where's that slick charm you usually ooze when a chick comes within two miles of you?"
"I dunno." Taylor shrugged, not very intrigued with this line of conversation. "She kinda reminds me of my cousin Jineesa who I knew since I was born." Taylor glared at the door. "And there was something 'bout the way that Hannigan idiot talked about her to us that made my blood chill. Like she was some kind of toy he expected us to play with."
"Yeah," Roo agreed, giving into peer pressure. "Hanni-gay."
"What bout'choo, Roo? She's a pretty girl, that's for sure."
Ruiz leaned back and lit up a cigarette, which he puffed on idly for a while. "You're right about the Hannigan thing, it was nasty. Anyways..." Ruiz' eyes lowered and became dreamy, "I got a letter from Suzanna today...."
When the other three returned from the mess, there was still some time before they got really tired. Sgt. Anderson came in and gave them a briefing, before ending with the usual recital they secretly mouthed along with him:
"Now rest up, not too much drinking tonight, and get good an' prepared for tomorrow."
The Sergeant turned to leave, then paused at the doorway and half-turned, fully noticing Pvt. Van Leiden. He gave a warning look to the boys and then approached her.
"And you are...."
"Private Van Leiden, Sgt."
~I tried my best not to eye him warily. I had taken enough crap from that other Sergeant about my being a female. This fellow was obviously to be my new sergeant. They can't all be the same, can they?~
"Ohhh, that's right, Hannigan said you'd arrived today. You didn't get your own barracks?" He peered intently at the girl, who was standing straight as a rod.
"No Sgt, Sgt Hannigan said there was no room."
"Oh yeah, tha's right...." Anderson mumbled almost to himself. "Okay, well. Can I talk to you outside, then, Private?" He guided her outside of the barracks. Then he moved a little ways away, as he saw the shadows of the boys float towards the closed door. "I gotta ask this, cause it's policy: You feel comfortable there, or you think you need a private place? 'Cause I can find a private room if you need it."
Van Leiden relaxed. The Sergeant had a ruddy, kind face that could easily be trusted, unlike that Hannigan. She made a face of complete solemnity. "A Private Room? Shucks. But I feel more important in the Spec4 Room, Sgt."
Anderson eventually got the pun. "Heh. Alright. To be honest with you, I trust these boys like they were my sons. And though you don't know me from Job--"
"No, it's okay, Sergeant. I've gone on field exercises where I had to squish in between two strange guys in a tent. It's not that big of a deal and I understand my chain of command."
"Right. So come to me if you got any problems, you hear? And if you need to talk to another woman, there's always the WAC nearby."
"Thank you, Sergeant."
"No problem, Van Leiden. G'night."
Disconcerted that their sergeant didn't want them listening in, the boys settled back on thier beds.
"She seems nice," Percell was the first to speak, tentatively.
Ruiz picked up on it. "Yeah, I guess. I mean, I ain't one to like chicks on the team--"
"Yeah, but at least she ain't banging our higher-up, if you know whut I mean," Taylor yelped.
"As long as she holds her own," Percell said quietly.
"A long as LT don't get his eyes on her and decide he wants her in his bed. Daym, that's annoying!" Shaking his head, Taylor flipped the playing cards deftly about his fingers.
Ruiz and Percell nodded in silent agreement while Hockenbury looked lost.
She wandered back into the barracks. Percell and Doc were back at their card game and Taylor had joined. Ruiz was looking at his magazine.
"Hey guys," Van Leiden sat down on her bed.
"Did the Sarge give you the 'I don't take no dopers and I only want winners' speech?" Taylor said, grinning.
"Naw. He gave me the 'if you got any concerns as a woman...' speech. It was nice of him."
"Sarge is a great guy!" Percell piped up, still full of enthusiasm.
"Calm down, Danny. " Doc looked at Van Leiden, grinning. "We let him have too much sugar today."
~I grinned quietly and joined in their card game, until it was time to hit the hay. I took off my boots, fiddling with the shoelaces. Then I waited until everyone else was in bed and the lights were off before quickly removing my combat pants under the sheets. And you know what the strange thing was? No one said anything. No one even looked at me. My guy pals back in the world told me war is like that. War does strange things to all forms of guy. It was kind of a relief that I wouldn't have to ask Sgt. Anderson for another room ... but it was also kinda sad. Like they just couldn't care enough anymore to do what guys do naturally: ogle chicks. Poor fellows. I didn't think of it anymore, though, because by then I fell fast asleep.~
They were all up at 04:45 the next day; they were to be on the bird by 05:30. A quick shower and an even quicker shoveling of gelatinous eggs and potato mash at the mess, and they were outside in the cool wet air, waiting for the chopper to fly them away. The boys of Team Viking had been very solicitous in the showers, and had hung around while Van Leiden quickly cleansed herself, making sure no strange eyes strained her way.
Anderson wandered over at 05:19, smiling at the boys.
"Well, well, well, I must be dreaming or it must be my lucky day, goddamnit. Y'all ready? All of you? Everything packed? Lined up here like chickens in a coop, god, I must be dreamin'!"
Percell grinned. "No sarge, this is real."
"Yeah! We had to get ready early, today is Sargeant's Day. You know, like Father's Day," crowed Taylor.
"We had a present for you sarge, but we forgot it in the barracks." Ruiz tried not to laugh.
Anderson knew they were being terribly flippant, but he loved it anyways. "It better be what I wanted, or I'm not taking y'all to the baseball game like I promised. Y'all did good, but look each other over, just to double-check, alright?"
They followed instructions and checked each other--mostly Van Leiden, as she had the least experience--over for the third time. They then waited. And waited some more. They settled at the corner of the MacVSog launching pad.
"Well, looks like officers don't follow the same clock everyone else does," remarked Hockenbury.
"You guys hang tight here, I'm gonna see what's keeping our friendly neighbourhood lieutenant." Anderson walked off in the direction of the officer's quarters.
"Hey, you met the LT yet?" asked Ruiz, offering Van Leiden a cigarette. She took one graciously and shook her head in response.
"Well, he doesn't talk to us all that much, but he's a nice guy, I guess," Percell mused.
"Yeah, when he ain't being all 'whitey first, everyone else second'" Taylor bitched. The other boys just looked at him and then shook their heads. Taylor noticed this and became defensive. "What?! He is that way. I see it ALL the time. Remember? Johnson or I was ALWAYS on point."
"Yeah, whatever, ese," mumbled Roo through his cigarette. They watched Anderson lightly jog back.
"Pack it up, boys and girls, you're gonna haveta wait to go on this trip."
Whines erupted from the boys. "Awwww, man! This sucks!"
"Who cares, let's hit Sin City!"
"No goin' to Sin City either, Taylor," Anderson tried to conceal his grin. "You boys are on call here now! The LT's trying to clear up this mess, but as it stands, we're on stand-by. Y'all can head over to the JR mess--they just opened, if y'like."
"The Junior Ranks mess! That place is for cherries!!" Ruiz complained.
"Well son, you just got one in your midst," Anderson motioned over to Van Leiden. "Don't get too drunk, now, y'hear? Remember, on call. I'll keep y'all posted." Anderson turned and wandered back to the O Group tarp that Goldman and the colonel were standing under.
Left with semi-free rein, the boys complained about the inefficiency of the U.S. military as they made their way to JR's.
"If we were in the Canadian army, this wouldn't happen," Taylor said loudly. "Remember that girl-platoon we had to play wargames with in Canada way back when? Man, they were good."
"Oh, shut up, Marcus," Percell said, feeling irritated. "That don't say nuthing about how good they are."
"Hey, this'll be a good opportunity to get to know our newest member," Roo smirked at Van Leiden and squeezed her shoulders.
"You guys didn't try to get to know me...." Hock whined mock-petulantly.
"You're pretty, Doc, but you're not that pretty!" hooted Taylor.
Percell chuckled along and scruffed the Doc's head, even though the Doc was a good half-foot taller than him. "Don't worry, kid, we'll make this a big catch-up fer all of us, huh?"
Jovially, they entered the mess.
"Whaddya mean, 'not ready'??"
"I mean, Myron, the platoon Major Jessup was said to be travelling with has not arrived at its prospective location, nor is Major Jessup seen with said platoon as originally stated."
Goldman threw up his hands in disgust. "This. THIS is what we get for trusting CIA operatives! Like you said before, sir, it didn't work with Fontaine, it's not gonna work now!" Goldman glanced at Anderson who just arrived under the tarp. "You spoke to the guys? Good. Poor bastards have no idea how long they gotta wait."
"How long, L--sir?" Anderson waited for the colonel to return his salute, then looked at his LT.
Goldman gave him the most fed-up look he could possibly muster. "Two weeks. Two weeks. That's how long they *might* have to wait, unless some--"
Almost forgetting where he was, Goldman suddenly snapped back to attention and looked up at the colonel.
"Look," the colonel sounded exasperated. "I know this puts a big burden on you and your men, but after more than six months working in the field, you should come to expect this kind of hold up. Now, when I get any more information from higher up, I will tell you immediately whether the mission has been cancelled or green-lighted. Is that understood, Lieutenant? Sergeant?"
They both nodded reluctantly. The colonel dismissed them both and Goldman went speeding off, dust and Anderson trailing behind.
"He's starting to sound like the fucking CIA," Goldman snapped at Anderson. "'Originally stated.' 'This kind of hold-up'. What does he think this is? The NYPD?"
"Well, I don't exactly know NYPD procedure, LT," Anderson joked, "But I'm sure it's a lot different."
Goldman stopped short to light up his cigarette. "How are the men?"
"None too pleased about this. But hey, you know them. Never happy unless they have a beer or a paycheck in their hands."
"Speaking of which ..." Goldman was now talking at a more normal tone, and he glumly returned a salute to a passing Corporal. "How 'bout you stop by for a drink. I'm sure we can both use one right about now."
Zeke briefly checked his watch. "Oh-six-hundred in the morning? That's the perfect time for me, LT."
"... actually, I'm half Japanese, half-Dutch. My parents are freaks and they wanted me to learn eight different languages. The only one that stuck other than English was, for some fucked up reason, Vietnamese. Lucky me, huh? Maybe I was psychic." Ria settled back against her chair and propped one foot up on the seat.
"I know a little bit of Russian," added the Doc. "'Cog d'ya la?' and...uh....'loobloo' something or the other. I know some Vietnamese as well, but not a lot."
"Yeah, only enough to try and impress that little cupcake you met a little while back, huh?!" Taylor grinned and prodded Hockenbury, who smiled patiently.
"Yes. I like to impress people, can I help it if I care what others think?"
"I know English, and the language of love. Esto es espanol, for those of you who don't know real love like I do." Ruiz puffed slowly and smugly on his cigarette.
Percell scratched his head. "I thought that was Eye-talian."
Everyone chuckled, until a tall, dark Spec4 sitting at the table beside them swung around and glared daggers at Percell. "What's that you said about 'Ih'-talians, paisano?" The specialist rose out of his seat, fists clenched, teeth bared. Behind him, on the table he sat at, lay the remains of eight or nine beer bottles and a couple of shot glasses. Percell swung a glance at his buddies, then stood up as well and smiled congenially.
"Sorry, pal, I guess I just mispronounced. No harm intended." Percell held out his hand, and, as he almost secretly hoped, the other specialist whapped it away. Immediately behind both Percell and the other Spec4, a small herd of men rose abruptly from their seats.
"I got some energy to burn and they look like the type of guys I could use it on," murmured Taylor. Roo nodded his support fervently. The ferment in their beer had finally reached their heads and they were all itching for a fight. Only Hockenbury and Van Leiden remained in their seats.
~ Yowza, were these guys aching for a fight! Funny, isn't it? They here to fight the most dangerous battle of death and injury, but all they want is a good ol' bar brawl. I didn't quite know what to do. I wasn't exactly gonna join them; I mean, my name ain't Foxy Toffee and this wasn't a blaxploitation movie. I looked over at the Doc, who was also sitting in his seat, sipping his beer nonchalantly. Crazy hippies. Then Ruiz--the little one--threw the first punch, right for the kidney of his unsuspecting victim. Yowza. ~
It was unclear who threw the first punch, but soon everyone, save Hock and Van Leiden, were scuffling. Hockenbury blearily looked around the darkened room, while Ria drunkenly giggled at the ensuing fight. The Doc was just about to lead Van Leiden out of there, when a nurse from the infirmary pitched over and back-handed Van Leiden in the face.
"What're you giggling about, slut?!" the nurse screamed. "Your idiot johns hit my boyfriend!"
"If it's a bitchslapping you want, you'll get it, sister!" Van Leiden flung herself onto the nurse and they hit the floor.
"C'mon, people! This is supposed to be our quiet time! Time to relax! Time to--" Hockenbury's head bounced from his unknown assailant's fist and against the wall, and he quietly sunk to the floor, unconscious.
Anderson slowly walked past the line-up, hands clasped behind his broad back. Team Viking had been standing at attention for over half an hour now in the hot midday sun, their cuts and bruises baking in the heat. Anderson looked at his watch again.
"Well!" He said emphatically. "I told the LT to be here at 12 o' clock, I guess he had more important things to do than deal with a sorry buncha people like you. We'll just have to wait out here until he comes. Oh--or, correction, you'll wait out here till he comes, I'm gonna settle myself down on those crates there, see, there, right there? Yup. Under the roof." And with that he sauntered off.
"I hate it when his voice gets all high like that," muttered Ruiz through his teeth.
"Yeah. He gets like that when he's really mad, or really drunk." Taylor slumped slightly.
"Then maybe we shoulda invited him to JR's. Maybe then he wouldn't be so sore."
"Yeah, Doc, maybe." Percell blinked, trying to avoid staring anywhere near the sun.
"Owhwohwww. My back hurts. That stupid nurse knew where to attack." Van Leiden tried to re-adjust herself.
Percell snorted. "Nurses."
In the distance, they spotted their Lt leisurely making his way across. He paused in front of Sgt. Anderson and lit up a cigarette.
"Are they hating themselves yet?" Goldman said, giving a quick nod over to the team.
"Only as much as they hate us, Lt." Anderson grinned at him, then focused on the all-white cigarette Goldman held in his hand. Myron looked at it and shrugged.
"They ran out of Camels."
In the end, Team Viking wasn't punished for the fight at JRs.
It did look as if they were going to be, at first. The Lieutenant did tell them they were a disgrace to the entire SOG outfit and he had a lot of explaining to do to his higher-ups to get them out of the deep trouble they were in and so on and so forth. They did not really listen, they concentrated on practicing that Buddhist mind-away-from-body stuff Hock had tried to teach them.
"You people lack the discipline I thought we had instilled into you. Naturally, I take part blame for this, but the majority of the blame lies with Sgt. Anderson."
Anderson's head whipped over to stare at Goldman, his face blossoming into a blush underneath his tan.
"Heh, sorry," Goldman waved his slim hand dismissively. "It was too good to pass up." He eyed his Team from under his cap. They were all struggling not to burst into laughter. Stretching the time, Goldman took a last drag from his cigarette and flicked it in front of him. The butt harmlessly bounced off of Taylor's leg and fell onto the ground. This was too much for Ruiz. He doubled over and howled with laughter. The domino effect soon guaranteed that everyone was laughing except for Goldman and Anderson. The two looked at each other, and, trying not to grin, turned back with the most sternest faces they could muster.
"HEY!" Anderson bellowed. "The Lt. isn't finished what he has to say and I sure din't hear him tell you y'all could laugh. Pull yourselves together!"
"Sorry sarge," Ruiz gasped, and they all went back to their original formation. Soldiers walked past the team, eyeing them strangely.
"Two weeks," Goldman continued flatly. "You get two weeks helping out everybody's favourite Sergeant--"
"And it ain't me!" Anderson cut in gleefully.
Once more, the whines erupted from Team Viking.
"Man, I hate that bastard!"
"Yeah, he made me clean the latrines! And I tell you what, I think he got some secret pleasure from it."
"Yeah! He made Danny clean latrines!"
Through this all, Goldman just shook his head. "You report to him at oh-eight hundred tomorrow morning to see what he's got lined up for you. Any questions? No? Alright. Dismissed."
Goldman and Anderson wandered away, feeling satisfied with themselves.
"That girl. That's our new translator?"
"Yessir. Pvt. Van Leiden. Came in on the morning chopper yesterday."
Goldman slowly drew back his lips into a lazy grin. "She's pretty."
Zeke eyed his lieutenant, amused. Sometimes it seemed like Goldman was only just coming out of the teenage years. "Yessir. I got eyes too. The boys've taken quite a shine to her."
Goldman looked up, suddenly professional. "'Taken a shine....'? Is that gonna be a problem? Because if it is, I don't think we should have women--"
Anderson twitched anxiously. "No, LT, no, what I mean is, they've really accepted her into the team. I thought there might've been some trouble, but no, they got ther heads about them. The way they were helping her, checking her deportment over yesterday morning, was like four brothers trying to spiff up their lil' sister."
Goldman relaxed his smile drifted across his features once more. "She's good for morale...she's also good for my morale too."
Anderson tried not to sound like a lecturing parent. "She's also a private."
Goldman looked annoyed. "I know that, I was just making a...." he waved his slim hand around in the air, "...an observation. After I got in trouble for fraternization with a noncom that last time...."
"It just ain't worth it, LT."
Goldman nodded, getting more on edge. He decided to swtich gears. "Anyways, she's also a soldier. And she'd better be a good one, I don't want my men getting themselves killed on account of a cherry."
"Nossir. Wouldn't be very pleased about that myself."
They both purposely overlooked their --unintended-- sexist pun.
At 0800 hours, they grumpily assembled in front of Sgt. Hannigan at stores. Sgt Hannigan had a beatific, almost transcendendant smile pasted across his jowls as he looked them all up and down in a mock inspection.
"Today! Today is a beauuuutiful day, yes it is! What's that I hear? Birds? Singing, no less? They're singing for me, boys and girls, not for your sorry asses. Cause today, your sorry asses are MINE. All of them...." Hannigan breathed closer to Van Leiden; she could hear a slight whistle dribbling from his nose, he was that close. "So! Here's the breakdown of duties. Van Leiden, you're to come with me, we're gonna--"
"Hannigan!" Anderson bellowed from a distance. He was charging over at an urgent pace. When he stopped, he took in a deep breath, then continued talking while trying to regain his breath and not smile at the same time. "Sorry, buddy, I gotta take 'em."
Hannigan's face contorted in disbelief. "But, your damn lieutenant tol' me--"
"I know what he said Hannigan, I was there," Anderson cut him off with strained patience. "But now the orders have changed. Seems our mission has been green-lighted, and I need these boys ASAP. That means now." He looked past the dumbfounded sergeant and motioned over to his team. "C'mon, get ya'll's stuff we head out in the next half hour."
As if released by a spell, Team Viking tore across the base to their barracks to get their stuff ready. Anderson took the time to grin at the other sergeant before leaving Hannigan stranded with fifteen latrines to clean.
"Have a nice day, champ."
~I watched the others hurriedly pack their webbing and rucks with the fluid movements of people who knew exactly what they were doing. Trying to imitate their ease on the outside, inside I was a nervous, panicking wreck. Deep inside, I think I may have rather spent the day with Hannigan huffing and sweating beside me. At that moment I was in a state of disbelief. I didn't want to think about it. I willed myself to go through the motions. I wasn't going to think about it.
God, let me get through this.~
"Here we go, time to boogie boys and girls! Give my regards to Ho Chi Minh."
Team Viking leapt off of Lt. McKay's chopper and fell into the hard green grass. Goldman and Anderson led them into the tree line and they quickly hunkered down as the LT got his bearings.
~It seemed like we were marching for eight days, but it was actually eight hours. That was bad enough as it was; the jungle was teeming with ominous noises, awful smells and dangerous creatures. It wasn't beautiful or peaceful. That's how the Greenpeace people described the Vietnamese jungles whenever they protested against the bombing. It was ugly. Everyone looked ugly, half hidden in the shadows. Already, somehow, a thin layer of grime layered our faces over the camouflage. And all I could think was: I'm gonna break out so bad.~
I was terrified. My terror made me alert, though. Every noise, every bit of movement, the muzzle of my M-16 was aimed there. I looked all around myself; up at the trees, down on the ground. I heard the stories of trip wires and spiked pits. I felt like a trip wire.
They put me between the lieutenant--a skinny, mean looking guy--and Ruiz. I carried the radio. Ruiz carried an M-60. God he was strong. I felt safe. I felt stupid. I felt like a girl. Like a dumb, scared girly girl. I tried not to think.
We hiked up a rather steep hillside that left me panting. Taylor came skidding back down, as we were on our way up. A series of quick hand motions passed between him and the sergeant, too fast for me to understand fully. Something about a platoon, 30 wide and a large bivvie. Oh God.~
Anderson pressed his hand down, palm towards the ground. His team behind him crouched down, and the LT hustled to the front.
"What've we got, sergeant?"
"We got what hasta be a platoon of the 173rd NVA Battalion. No sign of the Major, but that much is obvious."
Goldman swapped away a feasting mosquito. "Great. We'll set up a perimeter here for the night. At oh-one thirty I want you to take Taylor and Percell down there and skirt the place. The Major, according to the...CIA..." he almost spat with distaste, "should be set up in a tent he shares with two gooks. This shouldn't take more than half an hour. Ruiz and the Doc will be ready across the valley here--" he indicated on his map. "Me and Van Leiden will remain here. I want you to come back to me when you find him. We'll devise a way to get him then."
"Lt, I think you shouldn't remain here for too long, they probably got patrols. We passed by a couple of trip wires west of here by one hundred yards or so. When I go down, you take yourself there." Anderson grinned. "Just don't sit on the wires."
Goldman smiled wryly. "Gotcha, Sergeant."
Anderson turned to the awaiting team. "Awright, kiddies, get your food out, we're gonna camp here."
"I'm so hungry, this actually tastes good!"
Taylor leaned over and peered into Ruiz's can. "Man! Ham 'n muthafuckers? You *must* be hungry."
"'Muthafuckers?'" Van Leiden looked questioningly at Percell, who was busy sucking the sticky pound cake off his teeth.
"Lima beans," he murmured after some time. "Don't tell 'em, but I don't think it's half bad. Reminds me kinda of breakfast hash."
"Hey sarge, can we...." Ruiz saw the Lt a few yards away sucking on a cigarette. "Never mind." He took out his pack and lit up.
Van Leiden thankfully did the same, enjoying the blue smoke filtering into her lungs.
"How're you holding up, Ria?" Hockenbury smiled and bit into a salty biscuit.
"Alright. Well, not really. I smell terrible." She smiled jokingly.
Taylor eyed her. "Well, you got every right to feel bad, considering I smell like a dozen roses!"
Ruiz chuckled. "Yeah, think nothing of it, chica. Least you smell like a girl smells. Guys are different."
The sergeant tramped over. "Pack it down, Percell, Van Leiden. Y'all got first watch. Then Taylor and Hockenbury, then Ruiz and me."
"What about the lieutenant?"
"I told him he has the midnight shift with Van Leiden. But you know how we usually work it."
The boys assumed conspiratorial looks. "We gotcha, sarge," Percell said happily. Anderson twitched for a while, then went back to sit with Goldman.
Again Van Leiden looked confused.
"Whenever our team is an odd number, we usually let the Lt sleep the night through," explained Percell. "Who wants to get up twice?"
"Yeah, and who wants to spend their second shift with the officer?" Taylor interjected. "In the morning, we just tell him that we extended our shifts a little longer, and we didn't really need to wake him up."
Ruiz laughed softly. "Then he yells a bit at the sergeant, but not too much. I think he likes his sleep more, anyways!"
~The lieutentant and I moved a little to the west later that night, where we had to step over three trip wires before settling down. Christ. I knew they were there, I've seen trip wires before, but I was so paranoid. What if a loose bootlace got caught on one of them? What if there was a fourth trip wire? What if?
He didn't say anything to me. He seemed a little on edge. Imagine how I felt.~
After twenty-three minutes, Goldman spotted a flurry of shadows moving towards them.
"Halt," he whispered harshly. "Hotel."
"Alpha," came the reply to the password. Anderson and Percell carefully made their way up to Goldman. "LT. We got a problem. We found the Major...but he ain't...who we thought he was."
"Whaddayou mean, sergeant, spit it out."
"He's a prisoner. You should see the things they've done to the poor bastard. I couldn't see that much myself, but it looked bad."
"Okay. Where is he being kept?"
Percell withdrew a small dirty scrap of paper from his breast pocket and handed it to Goldman. It was a scraggly, but readable range card of the bivouac and which tent held the Major.
"Alright." Goldman absorbed the map, then looked up at the sergeant. " I want this quiet, and I want this fast--"
"Then I suggest I go back down with Percell and Taylor. The Major is guarded by five VC, but we got our pistols-"
"No. No VC is to get hurt. That's our instructions." Goldman noticed the look on Anderson's face. "I don't like it anymore than you do, Zeke, but orders are orders."
"Sarge," Taylor piped, hidden in the darkness, "There was only one of the gooks guarding the east side of the tent. We can get around that way and cut open the tarp."
"Yeah, I can hold him silent while you and Taylor get the Major, sarge," Percell added. "I can keep him quiet."
"Okay. In the meantime, LT, I think you and Van Leiden should move a little closer to the bivvie. Ruiz and Hockenbury can come 'round the west side of the bivvie and alla you can make a distraction of some sort--"
"I'm already with you, Anderson. I'll inform Ruiz. You and the men get yourselves postioned." Goldman whapped Van Leiden on the back as he scrambled up. She clamoured up as well and followed, trying to concentrate on her footing and not on the three men hiking back down into the NVA encampment.
~It seemed like a good plan. In fact, I think it was a good plan. They were smart enough, they had gone on enough of these kind of missions. The sergeant and the lieutenant worked on some sort of level of understanding that is rarely seen between coworkers. The men obeyed without question and with much efficiency every order they were given. I mean, I was scared, sure, but they all acted with such certainty and such competence I didn't think anything could go wrong. Then the Lieutenant began to hear voices, coming our way.~
Goldman's keen ears picked up the distinct gutteral Vietnamese language close by and he froze. Van Leiden pressed her small face closer into the soft dirt, closing her eyes, scared that they might see the whites of her eyeballs. Goldman smelt the tang of cigarette smoke. The voices got louder, then carried off into the night. They heard nothing more.
Hesitantly, Van Lieden touched Goldman's arm. He looked over at her, hoping she wasn't crying or in need of comfort or something.
"Lt...I heard what they were saying," she whispered so quietly he had to strain to hear her. "They said the major isn't--"
Bright, flashing pop of ignited gun power suddenly flittered across the length of the base. Van Leiden heard a VC scream at the top of his lungs:
Goldman leapt up and skittered down into the encampment, Van Leiden close on his heels. They almost ran into Anderson, Taylor and Percell, who had the major slung across his back. A trip flare flew into the sky and lit up the radius. Ruiz and Hockenbury came tearing through the trees at an alarming speed, paying no heed to the bright spotlight in the sky.
"Okay we got everybody letsgetOUTOF HERE!" screamed Goldman.
~We ran for miles. It was horrible. I didn't know whether the VC were behind us, how far, if we were running in the right direction. All I could think of was what I didn't get to tell Lt. Goldman. And at this moment, I was running too hard to say anything coherent. But the major was unconscious. It could wait. That's what I thought.
We paused long enough for Goldman to call an immediate dustoff at the given grid reference. Then we ran some more. It seemed like everyone was tired, but it wasn't as if we had a choice. I kept hearing distant gunfire behind us. Then suddenly--~
Shots whizzed past their heads and everyone immediately collapsed onto the ground, spinning themselves into the direction of the enemy fire. They were a klik away from the LZ. Goldman swore he could see the chopper flying in behind the mountains.
Percell, Taylor and Ruiz spent no time getting themselves into the prone position and returning fire. Anderson scanned the area, trying to find the VC in the bushes, trying to see how long they'd have to fire, trying to figure out the best time to get up and run. Goldman was screaming over the radio.
~Almost paralyzed with fear, I watched the others shoot for all they were worth. I had my weapon aimed, but I didn't shoot. I didn't see anything to shoot at. Despairingly, needing to belong and be useful, I switched to automatic and fired, ignoring the recoil slamming over and over into my shoulder bone. The adrenalin was rushing, and I didn't care if I lived or died. I just wanted to be like them.~
Over the volley of bullets, Anderson heard the distinct beat of helicopter roters.
"Alright everybody, move it up and run for all you're worth!" He got up and gave cover for his men as they ran towards the helicopter, which was coming into sight. Myron pulled Van Leiden up, screaming at her to stop shooting. They ran, helter-skelter towards the huey. Van Leiden fought hard to stop the tears from flying, from blurring her eyesight as Myron tugged her towards an anxious McKay.
The VC fire had stopped suddenly as they climbed aboard. Van Leiden and Goldman approached the bird as Percell hauled the Major into the chopper. He was still unconscious.
They arrived back at base quickly, quietly and very very tired. It was a tough mission, and nobody said anything during the flight. They just listened to McKay jabber on about what he did while they were gone. Thankfully, they eventually landed back in camp.
"Get these men in the showers, sergeant," Goldman said, slipping out of the chopper, "You come with me. We'll take--"
A single, hard shot flew out of a pistol and into Percell's chest.
~I watched Percell fall out of the helicopter. I watched the others stare in confusion. But I knew what happened. I knew what I happened. I knew what happened, and I forgot to say something.~
"LT!" Van Leiden swung her rifle over her shoulder and fired three bullets straight into the Major's head, as Jessup fired another round. Jessup's head absorbed the bullets, then in a split second splattered blood and brain across Taylor and Van Leiden. The handgun slipped from Jessup's lifeless fingers.
~I fell onto my knees next to Percell. Don't die, Specialist Percell, please don't die--
Major Jessup. He was pretending to be a prisoner. He was a traitor. The VC guard spoke about it. Jessup wasn't who Goldman thought he was and I forgot to tell.~
Pvt Van Leiden curled herself around Percell's inert, bloody body and began to wail for all she was worth.
"LT? Can I come in?"
"Sure. Pour yourself a drink."
"Percell's doing okay. It was a close call LT. We nearly lost the poor boy. Percell."
"I know, Zeke, it's terrible. Zeke--the girl--"
"Jessup's second shot, it got her in the gut. We didn't realize until Percell was rushed off to the infirmary. She didn't even realize it until we got there. Probably in shock or something I don't know. Anyways, she...she hemorrhaged...and she didn't survive."
"Jessup wasn't a prisoner. He was pretending. Damn! I should have known, I should have trusted what those agents--"
"Don't do this to yourself, LT."
"Zeke, I don't know what else to do."
They sat together for hours. Neither spoke. Both hated the war.