'Doc' Lee looked up at the Sergeant and removed his fingers from the prone pilot's throat.
"This one's dead too, Sergeant." Doc stood up and wiped his blood-stained hands on his pants absent-mindedly.
"Right. Go tend to the living, then, Doc." Sergeant Anderson motioned over to Spec. 4 Horn, who lay cradled in Spec 4 Taylor's lap. "Horn's leg...." Anderson mumbled vaguely. He had now turned his focus away from the dead pilots and onto his Lieutenant, who was speaking gravely with Corporal Percell. Anderson slung his weapon on his shoulder and moved over.
"...and there's nothing salvageable from the chopper, LT," Percell was saying in his pleasant, husky voice. "I did a small recon a few hundred metres from the chopper." Percell took a deep breath and showed Lt. Goldman some fresh fishbones he grasped in his fist. "VC movement. Mobilized troops passed by not even two, three days ago."
Lt. Goldman bared his teeth and placed his hands on his hips, scanning the area. On their way to a small operational aid for 2nd Squadron, his squadron's helicopter was hit by a grenade launcher. Russian issue, no doubt, thought Goldman. It was mid-morning now and the sun was beginning to unleash its full fury. They had minimum supplies--what they kept in their rucks--a good seventy-two hours' worth of rations. As for water...each man carried two canteens, but that would only last a day in this heat.
The Sergeant approached Goldman. "So whuddyeh think, LT?" Percell surreptitiously moved away to join the other NCOs.
Lt. Goldman tipped his head and squinted at Sgt. Anderson thoughtfully. His large brown eyes belied a quick decisiveness, a tactical and strategic competance that Sgt. Anderson had rarely seen in young officers. Their different methods of decision-making had clashed at first--Anderson being unconventionally resourceful and Goldman insisting on theoretical by-the-book actions--but the Sergeant had, after a few months of working with the Lieutenant, found a way to compromise. Now they worked in synch, pitching ideas off each other and respecting the other's opinions.
This was especially useful, both men found, when faced with a senior officer's impractical decisions. "Ganging up" against a senior CO (proving to be right was the bonus) gave both sergeant and lieutenant a common thrill and, consequently, a deepening bond.
"The men set up a perimeter?" Lt. Goldman asked, assessing the situation. Sgt. Anderson nodded. "I got Baren and Baker in the bush." He turned suddenly and motioned to Percell and Taylor, who lingered in concern beside Horn. "Don't stand 'round, boys. You go the other side of the perimeter to form up. Horn'll be fine!" He waved his hand sharply and Percell and Taylor took into action, crouching comfortably in the trees a few metres away.
Satisfied, Anderson turned back to Goldman. His face became grave as he caught a flash of worry cross Goldman's face. "How is Horn?"
"Doc said it weren't too bad," the Sergeant replied. "Big gash in the leg, but nothin' he couldn't walk on with a crutch or somethin'. Tol' Baker to take charge of the radio."
"Place is crawling with dinks," Lt. Goldman blurted out. "Percell saw fresh tracks." He removed a map from his shirt pocket and Anderson moved in closer to take a look. The intimate proximity was more than comforting to the nerves of both the worried men. "He said they were up *there*..." Goldman pointed on the map, "...now before he told me, I was intending to move us up to this clearing before radioing in. But that means we just may come in direct contact with VC. Mobilized VC." He shared a look with the Sergeant, on the understanding that that plan was scrapped; "--what ideas could you share with me, Sergeant?"
"The men need water, LT." Anderson licked his own lips as if for emphasis. "They've already gone through one'a their canteens and now I can't blame 'em. So what say we travel down this valley here," his huge grimy finger stabbed a certain part of the map, "--down to the Yan Phoa river. Hopefully we can ford it and move up the other side here to this plateau."
"It'll take longer, but they do need water," Lt. Goldman conceded. He looked up. "I'm a little thirsty myself."
"I promise you, LT," Sgt. Anderson broke into a smirk, "when we get back to Ladybird, I'll personally treat you to a swig of whiskey from the officers' liquor cabinet."
Lt. Goldman couldn't help but grin. Anderson's wild cheeriness was infectious.
Usually Baker didn't like walking through water (he'd never admit this to anyone, though, for it would surely bring on ridicule); this, however, was rather refreshing on his sticky, sweaty legs. Even after drinking two canteens and getting five minutes of rest, Pvt. Baker still felt like he was overheating. But what was new about that, in Vietnam.
"Hey, Baker." Taylor slowly waded his way over to him, face spread in a toothy grin. "Look at that tree there. Now what does that make you think of?"
Baker didn't need to look for long at the curvy tree with its upstretched branches and the two spread roots to know. "Man, we've been in the field waaaay too long." He paused, then got playful. "Huh. Looks like a blonde."
"Naw, man!" Taylor's voice raised in excitement. "Definite brunette. And check out the size of them--"
"Whut're you two talking for?" Sgt. Anderson charged up behind them, looking like a crazed water buffalo. "Lookit what's in front of you, not at damn trees!"
Upon finishing his reprimand, the Sgt. retreated back to his rearward position. The two junior NCOs were silent for a while. Then:
"How do they know?" Taylor lamented, this time in a whisper.
Ahead of the two, the Lieutenant smiled to himself. The Sergeant certainly had many talents.
Five hours after fording the river, they reached atop the plateau. Everyone was very tired. Horn, despite the morphine packets Doc had put into him, was still in considerable pain. Lt. Goldman instructed Horn to settle down by some scrub at the edge of the plateau. After some protests, Horn grumpily did so.
Lt Goldman wandered over to Baker and picked up the handset from the private's shoulder.
"Heard anything yet, Baker?"
"Haven't hadda chance to call in, sir," Baker huffed between breaths. His face was red from exertion.
Lieutenant Goldman grinned. "Maybe if you turned on the radio, you'd have heard something." He gently reached behind Baker and turned on the radio. Immediately, static emitted and they vaguely heard traffic being passed. "Re-check the frequncy and move to an area where you can transit. Once you get a hold on Tac Hel, come get me."
"Yessir," Baker began slowly moving about the plateau. It took a little while, but eventually he got comms. "LT!, I got--" Baker was cut off as a bullet zoomed past his upstretched hand.
"Everybody DOWN!" Anderson screamed. "Incoming fire!"
The squadron all hit the ground and shots volleyed back and forth.
"They must've picked up and the transmission and triangulated our position," Anderson panted as he rolled over to Goldman. The enemy fire was getting heavier and was forcing the squadron to the edge of the plateau. A grenade thrown amidst the GIs split them apart. Anderson and Goldman, to avoid the brunt of the explosion, rolled down the edge of the plateau. Percell lobbed a grenade towards the enemy in return, but the attack was getting out of hand.
"RUN!" Percell and Baker heard the sergeant yelp in the distance. "GetbackgetbackGETBACK! OP Point, now!" The OP point was down by the river, a place designated a meeting area should they come under attack. Baker saw another grenade go off in the area where he heard the sergeant's voice come from, but Percell and Taylor were already tactically withdrawing and he had to cover them.
Taylor was the first to reach the OP point, followed quickly by Percell and Baker. Finally, the Doc reached the riverside. He was limping and holding his side, which looked ominously damp.
"Where're the others, man?" Taylor demanded, panic rising in his voice.
"Horn stayed put," Baker informed. "Hopefully the gooks won't find him in the bushes."
"Baren's gone," Percell spoke quietly. "Saw 'im blown to pieces in front of my own eyes." Blood was splattered all over Percell's uniform and he was suffering a slight head injury.
"The sergeant and LT...." Doc blinked and shook his head. "Last I saw of them they were running. Then a grenade exploded and blocked my view."
"Damn!" Taylor ran up ahead a little, toward the plateau. "We gotta go get 'em!"
"Houl' on houl' ON!" Percell jumped up in front of him. "We should wait out until the VC clears out! We don't know how many of them're up there! Doc's injured and the three of us can't face up to an assault like that, not yet! Now, Horn has the sense to keep himself hidden and...and...if the sergeant and...well, maybe they'll hide from the VC too."
Taylor was torn but he could see the sense in Percell's words.
"Ten minutes," Baker said, slumping down against a tree. "We wait ten minutes, then I don't care how many dinks're still up there, we're going back."
In silence the other three agreed.
Water. Water trickled down his face and into his neckline. It felt soothing and cool. Water was good. Had to get water to his men. They needed water. Water....
The Lieutenant blearily opened his eyes, surprised at himself for falling alseep at a time when his men so desperately needed water. He slowly looked around. Where was he? This wasn't the river. Where were his men? Where...? Goldman's eyes focused on a body lying beside him, or rather, on top of him. Sergeant Anderson. Still unconscious. The Lieutenant tried to push him off, but, as he expected, that effort was futile. Water. The water he felt was the rain; fat, heavy drops spattering on his face.
"Sergeant...." Goldman croaked. He shook the unconscious man with his free arm, his other being pinned down by Anderson's solid weight. "Anderson...Zeke...." Despair overwhelmed Goldman. He remembered now what happened; Anderson had thrown himself on the Lieutenant to protect him from the grenade attack. And now here they were. Now Sergeant Anderson was not moving. Now he didn't even seem to be breathing. Now...now.... Hot tears joined the raindrops streaming down Goldman's face. He started shaking Anderson, breaking down eventually to desperately stroking the sergeant's arm, his hair, his face, his lips. He put his hand around Anderson's neck and down his back; the slimy damp there made him suddenly withdraw his hand in knowing horror. His hand was covered in blood. Anderson's back was a crisscross of bloody wounds.
Now Goldman's tears came unabashadly. Zeke. He was just getting to know and understand the unruly, heartfelt man, and now...Zeke gave up his life to save me, Goldman mourned. And not through any sick need to prove his bravado, like that rock star did, but because...well, because--
"Zeke? Zeke?!" The Lieutenant frantically shook the sergeant, resorting eventually to slapping him in the face. "Sergeant! Are you okay?"
"Do I still got m'legs?" Anderson mumbled against Goldman's chest, not moving. The Lieutenant closed his eyes in immense relief, relishing the feel of his sergeant's lips against his skin. He was alive.
"Yes. Yeah, you got your legs."
"Then I can walk," And with that, Anderson shifted his body off of his Lieutenant's and pushed himself to his hands and knees.
"Whoa there," Goldman scrambled up into a crouching position, slipping an arm around Anderson's waist. "No one said you were fit to walk, sergeant. You're--"
"Permission to get up offa my hands and knees, sir?" Goldman saw that familiar smirk creep across Anderson's face.
"Not without my help, soldier," the Lieutenant encouragingly grinned back.
"I found Horn," the Doc knelt beside a half-conscious Horn, who had pushed himself deeper into the scrub brush when he heard the tactical withdraw called. "He's okay for now."
"I radioed in for a chopper," Baker said, coming back from a quick recon where the VC had fired on them. "No trace of the gooks 'cept for shell casings and some drag marks made by bodies. Must be far away from here by now." Baker shook his head and scratched at it. "Maaan. I'll never understand how those gooks operate, they're all cuh-razy," He paused in his social commentary, suddenly looking uncomfortable. "Uh...I, uh, I also didn't find the--"
"Look!" Taylor pointed off in the distance opposite Baker. "Down there! I see 'em! Ha-haa! I knew one ol' gook grenade couldn't kill them!" He joyously went tearing down the plateau to meet up with the Lieutenant and the sergeant. The two of them were carefully making their way towards the plateau.
"Sergeant! LT! Glad you could join us, goddammit!"
"Hell, son, I just figgered y'all can't get along without us. We jus' hadda come back." Andserson gave a glazed smile. Goldman, who was behind him, motioned frantically at the condition of Anderson's back to Taylor. He heard Taylor say those words he was hoping to hear in response:
"We got a chopper coming, LT," Taylor provided, catching on to Goldman's signals. As the sergeant passed him, Taylor stared in alarm at his torn back and glanced at the Lieutenant, who nodded knowingly. Anderson was still completely oblivious as to the condition of his back.
By the time they reached the top of the plateau, the chopper hummed into view.
Anderson lay on his stomach in barracks thinking of nothing. The shrapnel injuries on his back had giving him two weeks in MIR, Ladybird's hospital, and a month (he had haggled it down) of light duties. It did hurt still, especially since he refused to take the morphine perscribed to him.
I'm not going to go through that ordeal again, Anderson thought, remembering the first time he got injured in his first tour. Now he stayed away from the painkiller whenever he could.
"Evening, Sergeant," Lt. Goldman ducked into the module and proferred a canteen cup of steaming liquid. "Your favourite: hot chocolate, coffee and all the whitener and sugar I could muster from the other's dinners. "
"Hey, thanks LT!" Anderson carefully sat up and moved over so Goldman could settle next to him. "How the boys doing?"
"Terrible," Goldman groaned. "I just don't strike fear and immediate obedience in their hearts as well as you do. Buncha slackers. Didn't get tasked out for anything important while you were in here."
"Oh don't you worry, sir. All I've been doing is thinking of a million ways I can get them to dig up five million trenches when I get out," Anderson chuckled.
"Listen, Zeke, I know I already have, but I gotta thank you again for saving my life. I was...it was...." Goldman was at a loss for words and he looked at Anderson for help.
Anderson eventually noticed the Lieutenant staring and gently met his gaze. He looked a little closer at Goldman's eyes, those melting chocolate eyes Anderson loved to look at. He had realized this after the many times he had shared meaningful glances with the LT, sometimes in exasperation, sometimes in comeraderie. Goldman's eyes gave a quirky, if embarassed smile. The sergeant tore his eyes away and focused on the canteen cup.
"You gotta know, LT, I admit, I wouldna done that fer just anybody. Like, my men, yeah, cause they're just like my responsibility and all. And you...well, hell, you're just like my--"
"Your sidekick." Goldman cut in mischieviously.
"Hey! You're not--"
"Gonna order you around anymore!" Goldman enjoyed their banter.
"I like taking your!...orders. Sir." Wild-eyed, Anderson gulped the scalding liquid and broke into an apologetic grin. The connotation in that comment was a little too overt for his liking. They were both silent for a while. Voice lowered, tentative, Zeke then mumbled: "I guess what I'm trying to say is--"
"The same thing I'm thinking." Goldman lowered his eyelids.
"I'm a lieutenant, Zeke, I know."
Grin. "'S why I like taking your orders, sir."
The coffee chocolate concoction, sadly enough, got cold.