There was no recoil as the Browning fired. The recoil was absorbed by the fixed tripod attached to the top of the Ontos. I’d never fired such a weapon. In training I’d fired a short burst of an M-60 but it had been a stuttering jerky experience fired standing in the offhand position. I eased back on the trigger, as the tracers bit into the mid-part of the jungle running along the base of the hill. The gun was smooth, the explosions multiplying upon one another from the barrel, more pleasing than loud.
For some reason I had not expected the operating handle to cycle back with each shot, but it did. Somehow it was an odd but strangely reassuring series of movements. I looked down into the ammo box the fabric belt was feeding rounds up out of. I paused for a few seconds, wondering if Jurgens, Fusner and the others knew enough to make their break under the cover of my fire. I waited a few seconds before pulling on the little trigger that stuck out of the back of the gun’s receiver. I smoothly guided the line of yellow tracer lights up the side of the hill, again letting the bullets pour out in short but consistent bursts.
I had to pay close attention to the end of the belt, as it pulled from the can and dangled up the left side of the gun. I’d have to open another can, quickly flip open the lid on the top of the gun and then feed another hundred and fifty round fabric belt across the receiver, right behind the entrance to the barrel’s chamber. I understood why it took more than one man to crew a machine gun effectively. I glanced toward the black tendrils of smoke rising from where Tex’s truck had to be. I saw figures running. It had to be Jurgens and the rest of them.
I used up the remainder of the belt and rushed to drag a second box up, open it and then lay another belt across the open gun. I flipped the hinged top of the receiver down, clicked it into place, pulled back twice on the operating lever and opened up again. How long would it take to run the several hundred meters across the open ground? I had no idea. The Browning was beginning to smoke a bit, as I laid fire up and down the side of the hill. I weaved the snake like fire back and forth from end to end. The Browning ate bullets like mad, but I didn't have to reach down and bring up another box. Tex climbed up, inserted himself into the turret of the Ontos, turned, and then pushed a box up to me. In seconds I was back at it, stitching the jungle with everything the Browning would put out until the turret of the Ontos moved.
“I think I’ve got it,” Tex yelled up out from the machine’s interior.
I only heard part of what he said, between bursts from the gun and my diminished hearing. Thank goodness I plugged my ears as the 30.06 rounds were louder than 7.62, or the sharp cracks of M-16 fire.
The turret rotated under me. I stopped firing to keep the barrel from swinging violently about. I was shocked. I hadn’t realized that the strange ‘pyramid’ shape of the turret would allow it to turn. I looked up again to see my mixed together team run across the concrete. Jurgens led, with Fusner, Zippo, Pilson and Nguyen not far behind. Abraham Lincoln Jones loped behind the group, constantly looking back and obviously providing what he could in lone rifleman security, as he was bringing up the rear with his chest high M-16. For some reason, I’d expected to see Stevens, but then remembered that he’d stayed back with the Gunny and the rest of the company.
I reloaded the Browning. I felt the comforting pack of morphine, what I had left of it, in my pocket. Then I laid another band of ammo across the breech of the gun. If we had any 106 rounds in our guns, and if Tex got them working, I didn’t want to be deaf for days. In training, the sergeant instructor of the tripod mounted gun set it off with a laugh in front of a whole class of officer candidates, while he had ear protectors on. The external explosion of hot gases that drove the recoilless round blew out with incredible noise and flame. I wasn’t even sure my position, a bit forward of the gun’s exploding vents, was angled far enough away to keep me safe. But I had no choice. I pulled the operating lever back twice and aimed at the side of the hill again.
“Fire in the hole,” Tex yelled through my earplugs. Before I could pull the trigger on the machine gun my little world atop the Ontos blew up. Hot gas sprayed across me on the left side and a great billow of hot air billowed all around me, and then was gone. I rocked back.
“Did you fire all six?” I yelled downward through the back hatch.
“Nah, that was just one,” Tex shot back. “Pretty loud. I think we’ve got five more. Can you see where it went? I don’t know how to aim the fifties, but I can aim the guns."
I looked up at the hill, my finger itching to pull back on the Browning’s strange, seemingly hand-made, trigger. I saw a wispy plume of smoke rising up from the center of the hill’s elevation out about one-third of its length.
Jurgens and my scout team rushed around the Ontos and clustered around the rear of it just below where I and the machine stood facing the hill. And just as the enemy fifty caliber opened up again. I saw the tracers reach out for me, but there was no time to squat down or duck before they came screaming in just a little high, but dead on in deflection.
“Shit,” Tex yelled. “Is that their stuff?”
“Fucking ‘A,’” I replied, yelling back. I knew Tex was having trouble hearing me too.
“Can you spot for me?” Tex asked.
I thought for a few quick seconds, knowing another spray from the fifty would be coming and probably better aimed. Tex wasn’t artillery. He’d never been through Sill and he’d never been in combat. I couldn’t spot for the Ontos like I would for a well trained and equipped battery.
“Give me a little to the left and a little bit higher,” I said, crouching down away from where I thought Tex might fire the next round.
Tex fired one of the guns on the other side, having made the slight changes in gun elevation and turret deflection I’d asked for almost instantly.
I stuck my head up. The second 106 round went home with a bigger explosion, followed by two smaller ones.
“Supplementary hits, Tex,” I yelled, wanting to pump my fist but not doing it. “Give me the rest,” I ordered. "One up a little, one down a little and then back and forth on each side.”
My spotting orders were so simple as to appear ridiculous, but with Tex’s untrained mind and a bit of raw talent it was working. The four rounds left the barrels one after another. A small area of the jungle blew itself into the sky. I thought I saw a long black object spinning with it but wasn’t certain. We could do nothing as long as the fifty stayed in play at the higher elevation. The Ontos could endure fifty caliber rounds, as long as they weren’t of the armor piercing variety, but we could not recover the company and get it across the river with a heavy machine gun targeting the entire area all around us.
I went back up to the Browning and aimed it at the hill. I realized that I liked shooting the gun but I had no real target. The smoke from the 106 rounds was clearing.
Except for the ceaseless sounds of the moving water in the swollen river, and the faint whisper of valley bottom wind there was nothing.
Two Skyraiders came out of nowhere to overfly us. I looked up behind me at the waning sun and knew we had to get to work if the whole company going to get across. I jumped down from the Ontos to join the men. Immediately I went into to a squat and motioned them down and around me.
“Jurgens, you take Jones and get the rope,” I said, forming a rough diagram of our position in the mud before me with my right index fingernail, which was too long, but I had no clippers.
“Where’s the bridge now?” I asked Tex, my finger still in the mud after tracing the course of the river and planting a small rock to indicate where the tank was located.
“That’s the tank,” I said, hoping he’d heard about our run in with that tracked vehicle.
Tex stuck one finger into my mud map and ran it across the river. “Here’s the airfield we’re at and here’s the bridge,” he said, tracing both in. “There’s no cover or concealment on the other side but where I drove it in, bogged down as it is, our end’s protected by a good elevation of the berm and some bamboo and jungle growth.”
I ducked down, as the Sandys came in low for another pass, not firing but definitely looking for prey.
“Let’s move,” I said, pointing at Jurgens' chest. “We need the rope now. Can you throw far enough to clear the gap, because I think the current's too great to cross that distance and swim it in.”
I knew I could make the swim, but I hadn’t forgotten the crocodile or any of the other exotic fauna the valley floor provided. Once again it was hot enough to make the idea of going back into the cooler waters of the river attractive, but I knew we had to act fast and then get under cover for the night. The cave we’d found wasn’t big enough for a full complement of men.
“Fusner,” I motioned, “find out if resupply is coming and where they’re going to land. You reported in yet?” I asked pointing over at Tex.
The big man looked down at the diagram I’d drawn in the mud for a few seconds. “I lost my men,” he whispered.
“You didn’t lose shit, Tex,” I replied, taking the handset Fusner was about to use and holding it out to Tex. “The A Shau took your men and everybody in the rear knows that. That’s why we’re alone down here if you haven’t noticed. In fact, why are you here?”
“Advance party for the ARVN firebase,” Tex answered, waiting for Fusner to dial the radio knobs to reach Army engineering command.
“Advance party,” I whispered to myself, more than the men around me. “Without infantry? Did they just send a few guys with a bridge, an Ontos, and a truck? Who the hell did you piss off?”
Tex stood up without answering my question. He talked into the Prick 25 handset and began his report, walking back and forth behind the cover the Ontos provided, Fusner following, connected to the man by the long curly cord.
I got up and moved toward the river. I eased my .45 out while I walked, bending slightly to stay as low as possible in the river grass that was only about thigh high. It wasn’t high enough to provide concealment without crawling but even that was all but useless with an enemy occupying the high ground of the hill up behind us. My .45 action seemed in good shape, which made me feel better. Jurgens' presence nearby without the Gunny around still made me uncomfortable. I didn’t trust him, no matter how sincere he’d seemed after the loss of Barnes and my rescue of him from the middle of the raging river.
I laid down across the top of the berm, nestling under a broken layer of jungle floor. The position was close enough for me to see the bridge. The whole thing was visible out in the water. The extended fork, or whatever they called the bridge part, was fully out, although the rig was slightly canted away from the current. The slant gave me a bad feeling. If the thing went over with half the company crawling across it, then our losses would be huge. The Marines who could float or barely swim certainly couldn’t do that loaded down with equipment, even if they were light of supplies. I brought up my binoculars and examined the river and both banks.
“I think he can make the throw,” I said to nobody in particular, as Tex was still some distance away talking to his command and Jurgens was off getting the rope with Jones.
The Skyraiders came in low again, waggling their wings. I had to talk to Jacko and see how long they were going to remain on station. In spite of the quiet and gentle-seeming afternoon without much rain or mist, I knew we had to move lightning fast to get the company across.
Tex came back to lay beside me, as Jurgens showed up with Jones and the coiled rope. When I’d first looked at the bridge scene I’d known that getting the company across was going to take longer than I’d hoped, simply because the water crossing would take time and then running the Marines over the bridge in fire team size only would add to that. But it was possible, and not that difficult. Hard work and time-consuming work, something almost all Marines understood as a matter of normality. Jurgens came panting up with the coil of rope. Jones was wet, like the rope, so I presumed that Jurgens only carried if for the last few meters.
The rope was totally water-logged. I picked up one end. The thing weighed about a pound a foot. I knew immediately that nobody was going to throw the thing across the open water. It was a hemp braided rope, not made of polypropylene or any modern substance. The distance between the canted end of the bridge and the soft bank on the other side looked more to me like it was thirty feet, and then there was the extra rope needed on both ends to consider. The rope was long enough but it was also too heavy to throw it the distance we needed to get it.
We’d have to find another way, and quick, I realized. I examined the Ontos.
“Will this thing make it across?” I asked. “Not like we have any more ammo for it, anyway.”
Tex looked at his rig and thought for a few seconds. “Nope,” he finally said. “Maybe, but look what that water did to the bridging vehicle, and it weighs ten times what this thing does, not that we know how to drive it. Those guys are dead.”
Nguyen went to work on the rope. He sat with his bare feet holding one end while he worked away taking the rope apart. In seconds the Montagnard had ten feet of the rope broken down into three strands. I asked him what he was doing but he ignored me and kept on working. He took one strand, separated it from the other two, wrapped it three times around, then three times perpendicular to the first three, and then carefully threaded the end three times through those last three. He took out his vicious looking curved knife and cut off the remaining bit of strand sticking out. He held out a knot, almost perfectly round and the size of a large orange. I balanced it in my hand. I’d seen the knot somewhere in my background but couldn’t remember what it was called.
“Monkey fist,” Pilson said, pointing. “It’s an ancient knot for throwing lines. You throw the knot attached to a smaller lighter line and then thread the big one over after.”
Nguyen held out a section of the rope he hadn’t work on toward me, both arms spread. He waited.
I realized that the solution to our problem was right in front of me. The rope was ten times stronger than what we’d need to guide men across. I nodded at Nguyen, looking into his inscrutable eyes. Without hesitation, he went to work breaking the rest of the rope down into three strands.
I backed up to where Fusner lay, nearby.
“Get me the Gunny,” I said, watching the Sandys sweep up from another run. “Then call Cowboy and find out how long we’ve got them for.”
The Gunny came right up on the radio. I was relieved to hear his voice. In spite of my plans, calling artillery and being gifted in map-reading, I knew I lacked the Gunny’s savvy and experience at surviving what we were going through. I couldn’t wait to get him back, and wondered what he’d say to my appointment of Tex as company XO.
The Gunny and the company were ready. Fusner handed me the AN323 headset, with Jacko already on the line. I went back and forth on the two radios for five minutes, trying to get our air cover coordinated with resupply that had to be on the way, and then there was the river crossing. I finally set the radios aside and looked at the dying embers of the sun, getting ready to slip down below the eastern ridge that rose up to contain our part of the A Shau on the near side. That’s when I saw Tex and Nguyen on the bridge. I brought my binoculars up.
“Oh no,” I said, not even knowing that I’d spoken until Fusner asked me what I was talking about.
“What in hell are they doing?” I asked. “Where’s Jurgens? He’s supposed to be throwing the rope across.” I looked around but Jurgens was nowhere to be seen.
Tex stood balanced at the end of his bridge. Nguyen was laying flat, half-hidden in a crease of the thing’s construction with the pile of rope coiled next to his shoulder.
“Jesus Christ,” I cursed, my breathing coming in gasps.
Tex stood like a big cowboy, rotating the monkey fist knot in a great circle over his head, like it was a lasso. I dropped my glasses and ran back toward the Ontos. The belt I’d laid atop the Browning was still as I’d left it, with the bolt cleared home. The weapon was ready to fire. Before beginning to fire I dragged another box of ammo from inside the Ontos and quickly opened it.
I aimed the gun at the hill. A single shot rang out, and then I began firing. I used up the whole belt, firing in twenty to thirty round bursts. I opened the hot breach, cleared the weapon and laid another cloth band of ammo down. I pulled the charging handle back twice and got ready to fire again, when the Sandys came in low and began spraying the hill with their twenty millimeters. My little .30 caliber was like nothing. I jumped down from the Ontos and ran toward where my team was half-hidden, but only partially covered at the berm.
“He got it across,” Jurgens turned and said, lying next to Fusner, exactly where I’d been before running to the Ontos.
“Thank God,” I breathed out, falling to the ground next to Fusner. He handed me my binoculars without saying anything. I took them but caught his expression. I looked at the other men. They all wore the same expression, and it was a bad expression I’d seen so many times before.
I stared out at the bridge. There was no one on it. I could see the rope tied off on the far shore, the rushing water of the river causing it to buck and heave as it was bounced about.
“Nguyen is one clever son-of-a-bitch, I’ll give him that,” Jurgens said. “He made it out of there like a snake crossing a hot frying pan.”
I wanted to ask where Tex was but I couldn’t. I kept looking.
Nobody said anything as I looked.
“It was just like Barnes,” Jurgens said. “Perfect sniper shot at that distance."
I dropped my binoculars in front of me, rose to my feet and took out my Colt. I didn't point it at Jurgens. I thumbed off the safety, hearing its strange mechanical click like it was the single chime of a distant church bell.
“Get up,” I said softly to Jurgens, “We’re going for a walk.”
I took in everyone around me, as Jurgens slowly rose to his feet. His face showed no expression. He made no move to pick up his rifle.
I was among Marines. Marines I’d sought to join, be a part of, and work closely with. But I was alone among them. Once again.