1. There's a Calm Before the Storm
"I'm so borrrrrrred, man!"
Ruiz's whine rose into the humid, heavy air of the barracks, above the pattering pounding of the rain outside, drowning out the drone of mosquitos and Dusty Springfield on the radio.
"We know, Roo," Taylor moaned, covering his head with his pillow, slim black arms like bands across its soft whiteness. "That's only the fifteenth time you said that for today!"
"Look, with the rain coming down like this, we're not going on any missions anytime soon," Doc Hockenbury pointed out reasonably, squinting a bit to concentrate on scooting his glasses further up his nose and sewing Percell's combat shirt pocket back on.
Percell, relaxing on his bunk, agreed. "Hell, Roo even the gooks ain't gonna bother fighting in this weather! They're probably all back at home, eating fishhead soup and watching TV."
Getting up, Ruiz paced the barracks like a diminutive tiger, running his hands through his hair and puffing on a cigarette at a rather alarming rate. "I just can't stand being cooped up in here all day! We get this whenever there's a big rainstorm, and in Nam that means every other week! I tell you, Marcus " he plopped down on Taylor's bunk and began whapping the pillow under which Taylor's head was hiding, " I'm gonna go loco, brother."
Taylor's head emerged just long enough for him to boot Roo off his bed before returning to its pillowy depths. "Find something to do, Roo," came his muffled voice, more than a bit annoyed. The only thing worse than being stuck indoors for days on end was being stuck indoors for days on end with Ruiz. "Clean up your trash! Clean your rifle! Repair your combats! Just leave me alone!"
"Huh." Ruiz prowled a bit more, casting an envious glance at Percell, who was contentedly gnawing on a toothpick, his big, folded arms behind his head, lazily tracking a small green lizard's progress across the ceiling. Addressing Hockenbury without taking his eyes from Percell, Ruiz wondered, "Howcome you do all of Danny's sewing, Doc? You his mother or something?"
"Noooo," Hockenbury drawled, good-naturedly. "You could say, since I'm a medic, I know how to sew better than any of you. And Danny's great at scraping all the mud and grass and cowshit offa our boots. So it's a fair trade, right, Danny?"
"Sure thing, Doc," Percell murmured, shifting his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. He slowly rolled over and got off the bed in a crouch, moving quietly and smoothly to the wall over his locker.
"Whatcha doing?" Hockenbury asked, his needle paused for a moment.
"Shhhhh." Percell continued carefully towards the wall, then froze, then lunged for the little green lizard that had ventured downwards instead of trekking across the ceiling. He managed to pinch its tail between his fingers and, with a whoop of triumph, was about to pick it up when the lizard promptly dropped its tail and scurried back up to the ceiling and outside.
Percell stared at the disembodied tail flicking and twitching in his fingers before dropping it with a disgusted noise. "God DAMN!" he said, at a loss for what else the situation called for.
Rolling all over a now extremely annoyed Taylor, Ruiz pointed with one hand and held his stomach with the other, laughing fit to bust a gut. "Haaaa! Danny, you shoulda seen your face, man! When that lizard left its tail and ran off I thought you were gonna cry!"
"Yeah, funny, huh Ruiz?" Percell stooped and scooped up the now motionless little lizard tail. "Here, let's see how you like it!" He lobbed the piece of lizard meat onto Ruiz's shoulder, and the short soldier went into a frenzy trying to get it off.
"Ow! That's my leg you're doin' the tango on, Roo! Get off!" Taylor removed the pillow from over his head and began fighting the squirming Ruiz off his bunk and off his legs.
"Hey, guys " Johnson bounded into the barracks, dripping extensively, and skidded to a halt at the sight of Ruiz and Taylor tussling vigorously while Percell hollered encouragement (to either one, really) and Hockenbury, cross-legged and docile on his own bunk, smiled and sewed industriously.
Rolling his eyes, Johnson began shaking the water off his poncho before settling down on his bunk and unloading a double armful of packages. "Guess nobody wants their mail, then," he said loudly to himself.
"Mail?" The magic word was repeated varyingly by four other voices before Johnson was attacked.
When the hubbub cleared, they all retreated to their bunks to sit and go over their booty. Percell unwrapped the brown waxed-paper from his package with the utmost care, opening the pink-and-white tin inside and taking a deep whiff. A drowsy smile of utter content spread across his face, clear blue eyes slightly glazing over as he whispered, "Peanut butter-chocolate chip."
He took five out and passed the tin on to Hockenbury, who dipped out a couple while opening a large manila envelope and shaking out the contents. A fat letter on cream-colored paper, a roll of Necco wafers, a sheaf of photographs, and various multicolored buttons scattered out onto his bedsheet.
"Looky here!" Hockenbury crowed, sorting through the buttons. "Here's one for you, Marcus "
Taylor caught the button that the Doc saucered over to him and grinned. "'Sex Machine.' That's me all right!" He pinned it to his collar as Hockenbury distributed buttons to the others as well.
"Okay, so now we've got Marcus 'Sex Machine' Taylor, Alberto 'I Want My Mommy' Ruiz, Marvin 'Check it Out' Johnson, Danny 'With the Program' Percell, and ..." he paused to affix one to his own shirt, "... Francis 'All You Need is Love' Hockenbury!" Pleased, Doc went back to his bunk and tore open the paper on the Necco wafers, picking through them and tossing the black ones out the window before settling down to crunch one occasionally and read the letter.
"So who sent you these buttons, Doc?" Ruiz asked, trying to read his, upside-down on his pocket, rather like a dog chasing its tail.
"Huh? Oh, my best friend Cynthia. We went to college together. She always writes me these huge long letters " he held up and flapped the six-page letter for emphasis, " about the state of the nation, politics, TV, everything. Well, as much as gets past the censors, anyway. I guess I talk about you guys so much in my letters she decided to send you all buttons."
"Sounds nice," Ruiz said politely, although he really didn't think so at all. Snooty college girls weren't his type they all seemed to be like Danny's war-hating rodeo-queen ex-girlfriend from Missoula, or that bitchy blonde they'd met in Hawaii on R&R who'd called them baby-killers. Not his type in the least.
One of his own letters, on thin, onionskin paper, was from the woman Ruiz did like, very much indeed. Susanna, of the soft brown eyes, chocolate-brown hair, toffee-colored skin. He called her morenita Little Dark One just for the way it made her smile. Dios, he loved that sunshiney smile.
Maybe his mama wouldn't be too upset when her hijo Alberto brought home a Mexican girl ....
"'Nother love-letter from your nursey-mama, huh, Roo?" Taylor's voice broke into his reverie and Taylor himself tried jokingly to snatch the note from Ruiz's hands.
"Awww, leave him alone, Marcus," Doc said, passing Ruiz the tin of cookies. Ruiz managed to fend off Taylor and grab a couple, retreating to his bunk in offended silence.
"Yeah, man. You're just upset that Roo's getting love letters and you're not. Give me a cookie." Johnson held out one long, slim-fingered hand for the cookies that Taylor dropped him before settling down on his own bunk with the rest.
"What you slandering me for, Johnson? You know Sandra only stopped writing because the thought that I might get killed was too much for her! And Terri and Janine both work, man they don't got time to always be writing letters."
Johnson chewed thoughtfully on a cookie for a while, then snapped jubilantly. "I got it! What about that other girl you were always going on about, the one who wrote you every two weeks on the dot and who you told you were just about ready to get promoted to Colonel? What's her name again? Does she still write? Tell your mom these are really great cookies, Danny!"
"Thanks, Marvin my mom'll be real pleased to hear it. An' her name's Clarice. How 'bout her, Marcus?"
Glaring at them all as he bit viciously down into a cookie, Taylor threw himself onto his stomach and hugged his pillow protectively before answering. "Clarice wanted to get married."
"You're kidding!" Johnson sat up, excited.
"Yeah, why would anyone wanna marry you?" Roo joked.
Giving Ruiz a mock reprimanding look, Johnson prodded Taylor's shoulder to get him talking again. "Why didn't you say yes?"
"What, and lead her on? I ain't ready to get hitched, 'specially not while I'm in this hellhole! Marcus Taylor has to be free to play the field, y'know what I mean? Why deny all the little Vietnamese mammas the best thing to come outta Detroit since Motown?"
"All right, okay." Johnson backed off, mostly because he could tell Taylor really didn't want to talk about it and that his reluctance went a lot deeper than saving face. Probably still hung up on that lady lieutenant, was Marvin's guess but he wouldn't ask about that in front of the guys. Blow his best friend's famous 'Mr. Coffee' rep? That just wasn't right.
He leaned back onto his own bunk and sorted through the short stack of slippery comic books that had arrived in his package. "New 'Wonder Woman', Danny, if you wanna borrow "
Percell vaulted over Taylor's bunk and snitched the floppy book out of Johnson's fingers before he even finished the sentence. "Thanks, Marvin!" he gushed, collecting the cookie tin from Taylor on the way back.
"No problem, man." Johnson lay back and opened an 'Amazing Spider-Man' with satisfied anticipation, tapping his feet against the wall to the beat of "Hello, I Love You", which was streaking from the radio.
The placid quiet lasted for about half an hour, at which point everyone was finished reading their mail or their comic books or whatever, at which point Marcus Taylor said, "This is bringin' me down, bros. Let's go get some beer and play pool."
At which point the trouble began.
2. It's Been Coming For Some Time
"Come on in, Sergeant."
Anderson pushed open the door to Goldman's quarters, mildly off-kilter, and stood dripping on the floor. "Expecting me, sir?"
Halting his fingers, which were tiredly hunting-and-pecking over the typewriter keyboard, Goldman rested his elbows on the table and ran his hands through his soft hair, leaving it in corkscrewed tufts.
He gave Anderson a lopsided grin from behind his arm and sighed. "No, I just know what your knock sounds like by now. Nothing urgent or life-threatening, I hope?"
"Nossir." Anderson stood awkwardly where he was, and Goldman could tell that his arms were twitching like mad under the slick drab poncho. "I thought I'd come see if y'needed any help with the reports and all, since I ain't doing much else that's of use to anyone."
Goldman leaned back in his chair, gesturing for his sergeant to sit down in the matching one that cornered his desk. Anderson took a moment to shake himself like a dog, shoulder out of his poncho and slink over to the chair, gratefully accepting the glassful of whiskey that the Lt poured for him.
"I know how you feel, sergeant," Goldman said, after a long pull of liquor. "This goddamn rain ...." He stopped there, craning his neck from side to side and then dropping his head back to hang limply. "The only thing I can do in this weather is paperwork," he continued, voice coming strained from his stretched vocal cords. "And the brass is making damnsure I've got tons of it. My shoulders feel like I got punji sticks rammed through them."
"Heh." Anderson smiled slightly, his bright eyes darting restlessly over Goldman's frame a few times. "Jennifer used to rub my shoulders sometimes when she said I was more knotted up than a hundred-year-old pine. I bet I could do it too, if I tried ...."
The Lt opened one eye and stared at Anderson. "Y'think? God, Zeke, if you could "
Anderson rose from his chair and came around to behind Goldman's, his thick, heavy hands hovering over the Lt's thin shoulders for a moment as he got his bearings, tried to remember just what it was that Jennifer used to do that felt so hell-bent good. He squared his shoulders, set his jaw and dug his thumbs in between Myron's shoulder-blades, the fingers along his collarbones pressing with rather more enthusiasm than was necessary.
Yelping in surprised pain, Goldman scrambled about in his chair, trying to squirm down from the probing fingers. "Owww! Jeez! That hurts!"
"Sorry, sorry," Anderson mumbled, lightening up on the pressure. "I just haveta get into the ... uh ... groove of it."
"Well, don't be so barbaric," Myron ordered sulkily, calming himself.
"It won't work if you tense up, Lt," Zeke sternly admonished him. "It'll hurt more."
Goldman gave a peevish snort, but obeyed nontheless. Tentatively, the sergeant applied more judicious pressure to the hard, long muscles of his young lieutenant's back, feeling the fibres soften and the knots unwind as his fingers got accustomed to the feel of it, the rhythm of it. It felt good to be doing something active and useful; after becoming accustomed to spending stretches of time in the bush, every nerve tensed and every bone primed for action, this forced inactivity was wearing down his stamina worse than a five-day siege.
"Ohhhh yeaaaaaah ..." Myron gushed, melting under Anderson's hands and drawing his attention back. "Sergeant, I have half a mind to give you a commendation for service above and beyond the call of duty ... oh that's sooo gooooood ...."
The lieutenant's sleepy encouragement warmed Zeke, who began paying attention to a particularly bunched-up spot along Myron's right shoulder and up the back of his neck. "Lt," he said musingly, "maybe we oughtta do some training exercises with the men."
"Training exercises? Zeke, it's pouring more water out there than ... than Niagara Falls. The whole camp is one bit mudpit McKay tried to walk to the PX yesterday and it took half an hour to pull him out of a puddle!"
"Yeah, I know, Lt, but it's better for the men than being holed up in their barracks like ticks in a dog's ear."
Goldman grimaced at the simile and sat up a little straighter, craning his neck to look at Anderson. "What did you have in mind, Sergeant?"
3. Yesterday and Days Before
Sliding through shin-deep mud was nothing new for Marvin Johnson.
You learned a whole lot about dirt when you grew up on a farm in Mississippi, dealing with the rich brown, bracky-smelling earth that was deposited by the river, trying to coax substance from it every day of your life. You learned to respect the waters of that deep, snakey lifeline that ran along the border, separating you from Louisiana and Arkansas, a living thing, sometimes beneficent and sometimes vicious. You learned that the Mississippi never took prisoners; it racked up casualties.
Most of all, you learned to go on no matter what.
"Come on," guys," Johnson urged, pausing in his trek to look over the others, struggling on behind him.
Taylor and Roo, of course, were stuck and cussing up a blue streak city boys that they were, they'd never dealt with this sort of thing before. Percell was getting along okay, bulling his way with sheer strength and then reaching back to give Doc a hand, helping him slough through the sucking mud.
This was taking longer than any of them had anticipated, and it looked like the lull in rain that they'd decided to take advantage of was going to end any minute.
"Dios!" Ruiz yelped right before his footing gave and he went down, short legs splaying up and arms pinwheeling desperately. He lay in the mud, winded, while the others did their best to choke back their laughs and failed utterly.
"I hate this," Roo moaned, making no attempt to get up. "Let's just go back to the barracks, man!"
"No way, Alberto." Hockenbury waded over and, planting his feet apart, leaned down to grab Ruiz's elbow. "Now, you were the one complaining about being stuck indoors, so you gotta get up."
The laid-out soldier whapped him away, huffing, "Just lemme lie here for a minute, okay?"
Hockenbury backed off and Ruiz stared at the sky, calming himself down. Stars. He'd look at the stars.
Growing up in Brooklyn especially the part he grew up in Alberto Ruiz had never cared much about the sky, or the stars, or anything except making it from day to day, dodging the knives and the bullets and the fists. He had two great fears in his life; one, that somebody would hurt his mama, and two, that somebody would jack up his car. His mama and his car were his reasons for living.
And why not? What better thing was there waiting for him? College? University? Maybe a nice job down in Manhattan Central, or up in Westchester, or in Chelsea?...
Yeah, right. A Puerto like him? Washing windows, maybe, if he was real lucky. But then the United States Army had come along, and Alberto Ruiz found his place in the world.
Which, as it happened to be, was flat on his back in seven inches of mud, staring up at the night sky he'd never seen in Brooklyn.
"Okay," he said quietly, and Doc leaned over to once again patiently lever Ruiz to his feet.
"You done whinin' yet, Roo?" Taylor scowled. The mud was seeping into his boots and squidging between his toes, a feeling Taylor hated and didn't want to prolong. The lukewarm beers at the EM club were seeming better and better for each minute he stood out here; at least the rain was in one of its five-minute intervals, giving them a narrow window of relative dryness in which to get to the bar. And here was Roo wasting that time.
"Screw you, man," Ruiz said as they started moving again.
Beer, sex, and horses.
Those were some of the most important things in life, according to Daniel Percell. At least back on the ranch in Montana, they were. He tried to explain the concept once to the guys, and had barely finished saying "horses" before they all exploded into laughter. It had taken weeks to live down the sniggers and chortles; every beer was offered with "Fresh from the stable, the way you like 'em!", and every girl was presented with "Couldn't find you a filly, Danny, but we figured she'd do!" and variations thereof. Weeks. For weeks he'd had to endure it.
But it was God's own truth. Percell was never happier than when he was throwing back an icy cold one, taking all day in bed to make love to a woman, or saddling up a palomino and going out for a gallop across the fields.
'Course here, in the Nam, the beer was warm, the women charged by the minute, and the only horse you'd run across was served with rice. Still better than nothing.
He wrapped his fingers around the necks of a half-dozen bottles and whisked them back to the table where the others were sitting, scraping mud off their boots with an old pack of playing cards. They were so inebriatedly intent on cleaning themselves (with the exception of Ruiz, who was face-down on the table) that they didn't even notice Percell distributing the fifth round of bottles and settling down himself.
"Oh, hey, Danny," Hockenbury said eventually, tossing a mud-full Jack of hearts on the table and picking up his beer. "Thanks."
"Well, at least one a' you guys has manners," Percell said, mock-glaring at the others and grinning chummily at Doc, who smiled and pressed his mouth to the bottle.
"So says the fella who was raised in a barn," Taylor sniped absently, working a seven of spades around the heel of his boot. If there was anything he hated about being in Vietnam, it was the dirt. Spending days hunkered down in the bush, getting dirt and shit and all kinds of nasty things stuck under your nails, embedded in your skin, rubbed into your combats ....
Back in Detroit, you never saw Marcus Taylor without a natty collar, his prized ostrich-skin shoes, and a smile so dazzling it could blind ya, baby. He was the man you needed to know if you needed to get. Gold watch for your daddy's birthday? No problem. Diamond ring for your sweetie's finger? All cool, my brother. The world was an enormous marketplace, just waiting for a righteous cat like Marcus to set up the trade.
But that was all back in the day, man. Now he was lucky if under his fingernails wasn't the same color as his skin.
"Quit doing that, Taylor," Johnson said, leaning forward with a vague gesture towards Taylor's boots. "We're gonna have to go back out there eventually, anywhaaay."
Taylor raised an eyebrow. Marvin's drawl always came out when he was drunk that, or upset. And from the way he was a-grinning like a damn fool, he sure wasn't upset about nothing.
"So I'll get Percell to clean 'em when we hit the bunks," he shrugged. "He cleans Doc's, he'll clean ours. Right, Danny?"
"Hey now " Percell made a giant effort to sit up straighter and succeeded after a few minutes, his face flushing bright red from the exertion. "Now, I jus' do that 'cause Doc sews up alla my rips an' tears, right dontcha, Doc?"
"That's rraaaight, Dayyynny," Hockenbury slurred, and Taylor shook his head. There was a whole lotta Memphis in the Doc's voice right about now, probably due to the whole lotta beer in his belly ... damn Southerners. You'd think they could hold their liquor more decently.
"You should clean mine because I'm the one who makes you mooks look good," Taylor said, appropriating his beer and lighting up a cigarette. "If I didn't what you doing, Doc?"
Hockenbury paused momentarily in picking up the dirtied card Taylor had tossed onto the table. "Ain't nothin', Marcus," he mumbled. "Jus' gonna throw these here cards out ...."
"I still want mine," Taylor objected. He grabbed a corner of it and tried to pull it back, but Hockenbury had a good grip and was as stubborn as only a drunk could be.
"No, I'm gonna pitch 'em in the trash," he insisted.
The two of them tug-of-warred for a while as Percell and Johnson placed bets and cheered them on. Then, tiring of the game, Taylor let go, causing Hockenbury's uncontrolled arm to snap back. The mud caking the cards and one of the cards itself the Jack went flying across the room, over to the bar, to land wetly on the ear of one of the burly soldiers drinking there.
"Oh, shit," Hockenbury gasped, eyes going wide behind his glasses. The bespattered soldier rose, slowly, and came over to the table, a raspberry flush of pure anger washing up from his neck.
He stood over the Doc, who stayed seated in a miserable mute bid for peace, and growled, "And just what the FUCK do you think you're doing, you pathetic asswipe?"
"Listen, man," Hockenbury crooned soothingly as the rest of Team Viking looked on, fascinated, "it was an accident, and I'm willin' t'make it up to ya ... lemme buy you and your buddies the next round, 'kay?"
He was midway into a friendly, let's-be-pals grin when a large, knobby hand scrunched itself into the front of his shirt and raised him off his seat, even as his friends' chairs scraped back, all of them getting to their feet.
This wasn't the first time Francis Hockenbury had been in this situation.
Well, maybe the locale wasn't the same, but when you got down to it there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of difference between the rednecks in Tennessee honky-tonks and the rednecks in Vietnam bars.
It was his mouth, and he knew it. He always ran his mouth off way too much and way too loud in these kinds of places and had ended up staggering home with bloody lips and black eyes more times than he could remember. And always the same response from his prim, Southern-belle mother "If you're going to fight, Francis, couldn't you do it serving your country?"
Didn't matter how many times he explained to her that it wasn't some drunken brawl, it was a fight over freedom of speech and liberty of morals and opinions didn't matter one bit to her, and definitely not to his father. Even worse to say that he tried not to fight back, because in their eyes, that made him worse than a good ol' boy bar brawler.
It made him a sissy.
The incensed soldier "Gaffney", his nametag said was snarling something in Hockenbury's face. It took a moment to register and sort out the sounds ... what was he saying?
"... Won't carry a gun ... little mama's boy ... get us killed ... sissy ... sissy-boy ...."
Balling up one of the hands that hung limply at his sides as he dangled, Francis Hockenbury took a swing that would have made his daddy proud.
4. Through the Circle Fast and Slow
Zeke Anderson shook his hands at the sky as if expecting a reply from God, perhaps a burning bush or streak of lightning.
Neither of these things happened, so he went back to pacing up and down in front of his men, glaring at each one in turn as the mud sucked loudly at his boots.
"Why," he repeated in a more moderate tone, "must you all get into a fight every time you've got some down hours?"
"Not every time, Sarge ...." Johnson's token protest trailed away as Anderson charged over to him, snorting like a buffalo with a migrane.
"Johnson!" he barked. "Sergeant Marvin Johnson! You should be setting an example for these knuckleheads, not leading them into temptation!"
"Yes SIR!" Johnson straightened his spine, hoping the sarge would stop yelling at him if he behaved. He breathed a sigh of relief as Anderson loped over to Ruiz, whose eyes immediately began darting nervously around.
"Who started this fight?"
"Uh ..." Roo gulped and glanced at the others for an inkling of what he should do. All down the line, eyes stared straight ahead, offering him no assistance.
"Eyes FRONT, Specialist! Are you gonna answer me or are you dying that much for an afternoon running the perimeter in the RAIN?!"
"Sergeant!" Hockenbury broke rank and stepped forward, stiffly at attention. "It was me, sir. I started the fight."
Anderson slowly turned his head, staring incredulously at the skinny medic. "You, Hockenbury?" he repeated, voice piquing upward with disbelief. "Son, I heard tell that Gaffney got treated for a broken nose, and you don't look like you could knock the stink off a skunk!"
Hockenbury stood firm, pressing his lips together decisively. "That may be, Sergeant, but I still busted his nose pretty damn good."
He stood there for a while, sweating and breathing rabbit-fast as Anderson regarded him with those pale blue eyes, searching the cuts and bruises on his thin face for clues to the truth. Then, finally, he moved closer.
"Hockenbury, son, you got more guts than I thought."
"Thank you, sir."
"But," Anderson stepped back and raised his voice, rocking on his heels with utter satisfaction, "don't think this lets you guys off the hook! If the best use of the time that Mother Nature has gifted you with is beating your fellow soldiers up in drunken hoo-haws, then the Lt and I have got something better in store for you!"
"C'mon, Taylor, let's see some hustle out there!" Goldman clapped his hands briskly as the lanky black soldier went past.
Taylor staggered a few more steps, spitting out the rain that was running into his open mouth. "I can't run no more, Lt!" he howled. "This dummy weighs a ton!"
"Hey!" The dummy came abruptly to life and thumped Taylor's side. "Consider yourself lucky, man! You coulda had to carry the Sarge!"
Ruiz pointed to poor Johnson, who was slipping and sliding while Anderson, slung across his back in much the same was Roo was across Taylor's, shouted a constant string of orders.
"Quit bitching, you guys." Goldman pointed over to Percell, who was making pretty even time carrying Hockenbury across the deep mud of the obstacle course. "Percell's doing fine! If he can do it, you can!"
"Yeah, I'd be doing fine if I had to carry scrawny Doc, too." Taylor readjusted his burden before setting off at a trot. "Do me a favour, Roo?"
"Lay off the burritos, okay? You're breaking my back!"
"Apple pie and ice cream."
Ruiz paused to fire off a few rounds before taking up his turn. "Mustang convertibles."
An appreciative murmur went up and down the line as Team Viking slithered on their bellies in thick, viscous mud that felt more like swamp slime, clutching their weapons and peering into the darkness for their targets. Hockenbury crawled along with them by virtue of being part of the team; if the gun-carrying men had to do it, Goldman had decreed, the medic had to as well.
"The Beatles' 'Sergeant Pepper' album," the medic piped up, wincing as something sharp embedded in the ground probably a stick scratched along his chest. The game was having the desired effect of keeping them awake and alert, but it was also making them homesick.
"Lace brassieres," Taylor hooted, sighting down his rifle and putting bullets through one of the targets, which had just gone by. The Sarge and the Lt were tossing the little stuffed sacks out every now and again, from different directions, aimed directly at Team Viking not overly dangerous, if you didn't count the fact that some of them were attatched to det cord. They'd missed a couple in the beginning round of the exercise, and discovered the hard way that if any of the sacks lying around wasn't peppered with bullet holes, it would blow up courtesy of Sgt. Anderson.
"Awww, don't bring up boom-boom, Taylor," Percell groaned, wiping rain from his eyes. "You're gonna make me cry!"
"Heads up, guys," Johnson held up a hand to quiet them. "We're nearly at their base point. You guys know what to do." It was a statement, not a question; Marvin knew them well enough to be able to count on each of them to do his job.
Lining up along the built-up crest, Team Viking waited patiently in the pelting rain as the sacks came down, some of them almost at the lip of the trench. Finally, one of them fell that had a long, dangerous tail back to its source.
They all held their breath, weapons ready, waiting, waiting ....
The pellet of C-4 in the sack blew, briefly lighting up the area above the trench they were hunkered down in. Rifles ready, the soldiers threw themselves on the slope and fired at the small lean-to from which the sacks had been thrown, keeping low even though they were relatively hidden in the shadows of the flare of light. They emptied their magazines, refilled, and kept shooting, ignoring the recoil and the smell and the mud, minds on their objective.
"Cease fire! Cease FIRE!!!" Lieutenant Goldman's familiar squall rose above the rat-a-tat of gunfire and the tap-tap-tap of rain, and Johnson held up his fist.
The Sergeant and Lieutenant came cautiously out of the now decimated lean-to (behind which they had been semi-safely riding out the hail of fire in a foxhole), looking more pleased than they had all night. Getting up out of the mud, Team Viking lined up wearily for inspection, water rolling tracks through the sticky dirt that slicked over their fatigues.
"Ya'll done us PROUD!" Anderson bellowed, grinning madly and shaking Johnson with glee. He moved on to thump Percell's arm and Goldman took his place, curling his lips back in what may have started out as a smile but was warped by his chattering teeth.
"Good job, guys. Any of you wounded?"
"Nossir," Hockenbury said, shouldering his medbag and remembering with a wince the deep scrape across his chest, knowing that the other guys had their share of them too. "Nothing that'll require stitches, anyway."
"Okay." Goldman surveyed them all, hands on his hips, and nodded. "Sergeant Anderson's right you guys did us proud. Make sure you keep it up and try not to get into any more fights, huh?"
"Yessir," they all chorused, ready to troop to the showers and fall thankfully into their bunks.
Starting to pick his way through the mud over to Anderson, Goldman paused and said, "Oh, by the way ... we've got a mission tomorrow. I want you all ready by oh-eight-hundred. Dismissed."
He left them staring speechless after him and the sergeant as they headed off.
"Damn!!" Taylor finally exploded. "After all that?!?"
Shaking their heads, the others began trailing back to their barracks. "Part of being in SOG, man," Johnson said reasonably. "We gotta go when we're needed."
"I guess so." Taylor sighed, then murmured, "Sleeping in."
The others chuckled tiredly, their voices fading under the still-falling rain as they left the training course:
"Breakfast in bed "
"Fresh cigarettes ...."