Jurgens stood where he was, arms slightly outstretched, but he made no other move, his expression unreadable except for a faint tick arching his left eyebrow up slightly every few seconds.
“We are the same,” Jurgens said, splaying his fingers out, like his statement was more self-evident than any discussion might need to explain.
I didn’t move. I was perfectly relaxed. He blinked and then I blinked. Again, in a kind of hypnotic sympathy. We stood, ten feet apart. He had no weapon. His life was mine, and both of us knew it.
The drums. The drums that had only vibrated up from the valley once before, began to beat their deadly foretelling doom from the walls of the valley, skipping back and forth to reverberate in resonance with themselves. Jurgens and I were standing, while the team was down among the waist high foliage atop the sandy mud of the ever-moving river bed. We were exposed, and the drums were beating their message about that very fact for everyone to hear.
Jurgens slowly moved to his knees, only his half-raised arms, shoulders and head above the field of ferns that grew up from the sandy mix of loose-rooted foundations. I went to my knees with him, and lost the connection to his very being. It was gone. The moment was past. Jurgens was a future problem, once again.
The drums beat louder. We’d taken the fifty from them again. They’d taken Tex in return, but his loss was not enough. The jagged beating had nothing to do with music. There was no trilling syncopation, or rhythms and chords. The drums beat a message that was clear and possessive. The valley belonged to them, just as the vibrations filling the fetid air also filled our ears and our lungs.
I went flat to the floor of the jungle, and crawled my way back to where I’d dropped my binoculars. The company was gathering on the other side of river to make the crossing, while the Skyraiders screamed back in, so low their props blew tiny bits of jungle debris into the air with their passing. I rotated to see them hit the hillside again with their monster machine guns. They didn’t fire many rounds, since their loads of the heavy ammo were severely limited, but their presence and their deadly potential reminded anyone dug in on that hill that death was ever present and ready to claim any that might be identified or revealed.
I watched the company advance toward the tied-off end of the rope secured on the bank of the far side of the Bong Song. I slowly moved my binoculars where I didn’t want them to focus, until I could see the place beyond the tank where the river bent slightly west. Tex’s body lay face down, half out of the water. I worked the poorly designed focusing knobs with my muddy fingers. Tex’s head was on its left side, his face pointed downstream. His lower legs bobbed in a small eddy that rose and fell, raising his boots half out of the water and then back in again. I could see no wounds on his back or lower torso, or any damage to the part of his head that I could see.
But I knew the swirling water would have washed away almost any evidence as the round or rounds that hit him had not been from the big fifty. The weapon had to be a 7.62 X 39mm. The Chicom round of the communist invented and baselessly vaunted AK-47. The round packed only half the power of the American NATO rounds used in our own M-60. The M-16 rounds produced about the same muzzle energy but were much more effective at close or far range. The AK’s were also notoriously made of stamped metal that would cut unprotected fingers to shreds unless great care was taken with their selection levers, trigger guard and more. The AK round damage would not be visible if Tex had been hit in the back, and the river washed away the blood.
I put the binoculars down in front of me. I was thinking about rescuing him as if Tex was laying there wounded. The man’s body gave no evidence of that. He’d been hit hard, gone into the water and drowned if the wound hadn’t killed him first.
“Is he alive over there?” Jurgens asked, moving to lay next to me.
I looked over at him, only a few feet from where I was. The man’s eyesight was terrific. To my unaided eyes, and I saw twenty-fifteen, Tex’s body was only distinguishable on the other bank because I’d seen it in the binoculars and now knew where it was. My mind roiled with clever responses but I didn’t answer. I simply wanted to kill Jurgens at the first opportunity, and never speak to him or hear from him again. The air came out of my lungs. I’d been holding it ever since the rottenest noncom in the entire corps had lain down next to me. I inhaled deeply, and then could not stop myself from commenting.
“You were supposed to throw the fucking rope,” I accused, my anger seething out.
Jurgens smiled a cold smile.
“He may still be alive over there,” he said, without any emotion in his own tone.
“It should be you,” I hissed.
“And if it was, you’d be laying here with him, regretting it was me who took the round?”
I wanted to shout “no” at the top of my voice but didn’t. I hated the man down in the very core of my being. I hated myself because he was also right. I’d have felt nothing but relief if it was his body was laying over there, and we both knew it.
The drums continued their beating. I tried to place where they might be hidden, but the dull thumping came from everywhere. The drums had come in the middle of the night before but they were just as intimidating in the day.
“They’re pissed off,” Jurgens observed, as Nguyen crawled up and across the berm to slip in beside me. “He’d tell you that, if he was the talking kind,” Jurgens went on, pointing vaguely toward Nguyen.
The Montagnard ignored the sergeant like he wasn’t there. I handed the binoculars to Nguyen. I knew where he was looking and what he was trying to see.
“They get really pissed off when we hit them hard,” Jurgens continued. “They do the drums when they’re mad about losing, which means the Sandys probably finally took care of their fifty, which is good news, indeed.”
“I ordered you to throw the rope,” I said, not wanting to listen to the man become rational, and spouting cultural knowledge I knew I needed but didn’t want to hear from him.
“No, you ordered me to get the rope across,” Jurgens replied with his voice level and calm, in contrast to my own. “I asked him if he’d make the toss because he’s, or he was, tall and looked like he could throw a hundred yards if need be. He thought it was a great idea.”
“He’d never been in combat,” I replied, my own voice going equally as low as his own, but still filled with strong emotion. “You knew or guessed that. You didn’t happen to mention to him that he’d be standing on that bridge exposed to every sniper in range.”
“We send FNG’s to the point, Junior, and you allow it when it happens,” Jurgens replied, his flat delivery making me all the angrier. “He was an FNG, and it was him standing up there or me. I picked him.”
I reached my hand back toward Fusner, and he automatically filled it with the command handset. It was hard to believe I hadn’t called artillery in almost two days. Air power had worked, sporadically, to keep us alive at critical points but there was nothing like on-call artillery for some sense of continuing security. We’d have to move at least ten clicks up the valley to get Ripcord or Cunningham’s fire, though. I got the Gunny on the line almost immediately. He was still referring to himself as the six actual, which wasn’t bothering me much anymore.
“I’m coming across before anybody moves our way,” I said. “When’s resupply due, and did you order 106 rounds for the Ontos?”
“ETA is forty minutes from you know where,” the Gunny came back. “Why are you coming the wrong way?”
“Tex got hit on the bridge throwing the rope over,” I replied, understanding that he was telling me resupply would be heading down the valley, probably from either Hue or Ripcord itself. Army firebases were equipped and supplied with many more war toys and supplies than Marine outposts.
“Who’s Tex?” the Gunny asked.
“Army Engineer lieutenant who brought the Ontos down 548 to bail us out,” I said, stretching the truth in order to gain the Gunny’s favor in what I was going to say next.
I knew Tex was much more the advance party for the building of the ARVN firebase, our original mission than he was sent to save us or even get us across the river. The engineer battalion wouldn’t have had time to put together a rescue and get it all the way down the valley in as short a time as they had.
“His body’s down near the curve up on the bank, not far from where the tank is, but it’s in defilade. You probably can’t see it,” I informed the Gunny. “I’m coming over to recover it with Nguyen and Jurgens. Have Stevens get down there with a corpsman just in case.”
Nguyen pushed the binoculars back at me and pointed up toward the end of the bridge.
I put the handset down and focused the glasses.
“God damn it,” I whispered. The company was crossing, one Marine at a time, with at least five in the water, and some scrambling up onto the bridge’s metal tines levered out over the water.
The drums beat faster. I felt them between my shoulders and between my eyes. I wanted to put my head down and hold it with both hands, or maybe at least put the sound deadening rags back in my ears. But there was to be no avoidance. I watched the careful and slow struggle of the Marines to get across the river. The current dragged at them piteously, pulling their lower bodies downstream while they hung on for dear life, moving hand over hand with their packs and gear somehow secured to them. They looked like huge flopping turtles. There was no enemy fire, only what Jurgens described as the angry drums. I knew immediately that there was not going to be a party of men going the other way, and if a party did cross after the company came over then they’d be on the other side with no infantry support except what could be provided from this side of the river. The Gunny had thought about my plan for only a few seconds before blocking it and substituting one of his own.
I knew the company move would be explained away as a natural result of the forward attack to accomplish the mission if the subject ever came up later. I looked back at Tex’s body. Not one Marine was working his way down the bank toward where he lay, invisible from the company but obvious to the rest of us. I wasn’t angry about the Gunny’s clever countermanding of my order but my insides, where not affected by the awful drumming, were inflamed with white-hot anger at the Gunny’s failure to order Stevens and a corpsman to risk moving across the open area to get to Tex’s body.
I fought to control myself, taking some time to scan the river, up and down its length. Tex had gone in from the end of the bridge. He’d hit the water and, probably without taking a stroke, ended up inside the bend where the river curved slightly, as it flowed around the heavy tank’s body, before recovering itself and rushing downriver.
I came up with a plan. It was personal. If I was to tell anyone about it then Fusner would no doubt declare it the “You’re on Your Own” plan.
I handed the binoculars back to Fusner, along with the radio handset. I knew I should be checking with the Sandys to see when they’d be departing. I looked at my Speedmaster. I had thirty-five minutes before resupply would be coming down the valley, no doubt with at least two, and maybe more, Huey Cobra gunships. Without the enemy fifty coming back into battery, and with the air support hopefully available, the company might likely get safely across the river, occupy the area near the old airstrip, and have a pile of resupply, with food, ammo, water and 106 recoilless rounds waiting. Tex figured out how to fire the guns on the Ontos, and I prayed there was someone else in the company who’d served with the weapon or had similar natural talent.
“Forget about the crossing,” I said to my team. “They’re already crossing this way. I want Abraham Lincoln and Nguyen out on that bridge waiting for me. I’m swimming over and coming back on the rope.”
“I should be here for my platoon, anyway,” Jurgens said, quickly. Fusner, Pilson, Jones and even Nguyen turned their heads to look at him, along with me when he got the words out.
“What?” he whispered. “I’m a platoon commander.”
“Tell the Gunny I’m coming across to relieve him,” I ordered Fusner, ignoring Jurgens. I glanced at him once and caught the look in his eyes. I knew he got the message. We would deal with one another later.
“What does relieve him mean, sir?” Fusner asked, holding the handset to his chest.
“He’ll know,” I said, before stripping down to my utility blouse and trousers. I would not surrender my boots again or my .45. My pack, my canteen, my helmet, and liner, however, would all stay with the team.
“You’re going to swim over, sir?” Jones asked, getting ready to leave his own stuff and move out with me.
“Not exactly,” I replied. “Float over’s more like it.”
I crawled away on my belly, after checking the Colt to make sure the strap was secure. I couldn’t afford to leave the gun and I couldn’t afford to lose it. Another unreasonable and dilemma decision, I thought, wondering if the drums were driving rationality from my brain. I had to go. I would not spend whatever was left of my life wondering if I’d left Tex to die slowly by the side of the Bong Song River.
I got to my hands and knees and pushed through the final low brush barrier between myself and the bank of the river where the bridging tracks were mired deep in the mud. I heard Abraham Lincoln Jones right behind me, but Nguyen was nowhere to be seen or heard. I peered at the bridge, already dotted with Marines struggling to carry their stuff and get across the open flat steel to cover on our side.
There could be no more crawling. I got up and ran, moving as fast as I could and not bothering to zig zag. Any sniper would be close enough with a high powered weapon not to have to lead me, anyway.
I made it to the rear of the bridge and threw myself up to the flat surface. Jones was fast and agile, as he came from behind, diving and sliding right by me. I looked out across the surface of the dull green metal. There were two parallel tracks laid down, each about three feet from the other. The tracks themselves were about five feet wide. The surface tracks were roughened and rusted but looked steady and sturdy. The Marines were crawling toward us on the upriver track but there was no one on the downriver metal surface, except a figure lying down at the end.
It was Nguyen. How in hell the Montagnard had gotten so far ahead of us without my seeing him, was astounding.
He looked back at me, as I crawled across the rough slightly painful surface. In spite of the interrupted treads on top of the flat structure, I felt it was too slippery to try running on. Going into the river in the wrong spot might well cause me to be dragged past the tank on the wrong side, and then into the vortex of the unknown jumbled waters downriver. I crawled as fast as I could, more worried about the swim than sniper fire. The drums drove me on, those and the image of Tex’s boots bobbing up and down in that small eddy.
I got to a point only ten feet or so, from the end of the bridge. It moved gently up and down with the rushing water putting pressure on its suspended and unsupported bottom. The last ten feet of the extended tine was of painted flat metal. Nguyen gripped one raised runner on the inside of the protruding end, which was slightly slanted down to the rushing water below. I knew it was slippery because I had no time to prepare my entry. One second I was sliding down the metal surface and the next I was plopped head first into the water. I surfaced as fast as I could. I was okay, except I’d not had a chance to tell Nguyen why I wanted them at the end of that bridge. I treaded water lightly, my boots a drag on my ability to stay high above the current, but no threat in dragging me down or impeding my ability to make some progress using the breaststroke. It was all going just as I planned until I slammed into the side of the tank. The water heaping up to go around it had masked its presence.
The air was pounded out of me with one crushing blow, and then I was around the iron mass and trying to stay afloat. I tried to relax, knowing my diaphragm would recover, but would it do so before I passed out? Finally, I sucked in the first vital breath of life-giving air, before I grounded on the far shore. The bank was cut by the passing water. The edge ran deep but the speed of the current was so great it heaved me atop the bank in the middle of the curve I’d seen from the other side. I lay on my back with my feet in the water, like Tex’s. I turned my head and looked at the big man’s body, not five feet away. I looked into his open eyes and saw death until he blinked. I blinked and then stared. He couldn’t possibly be alive. He blinked again.
I rolled to his side and saw the small hole in his back. He wasn’t bleeding. How could he have a bullet hole through his torso and not be bleeding, I wondered?
“Tex, you’re alive,” I said, hovering a few inches from the ground next to him.
I didn't want to touch him, as if my touch alone would cause him to be dead.
He coughed, very gently and I saw blood. He was bleeding from the mouth, but his mouth kept falling into a small pool. The blood washed away with his every small movement.
“Hello,” Tex rasped out.
My mind went into overdrive. Everything changed with Tex still being alive. I hadn’t brought Fusner with a radio. I had no communications and nobody had come down the bank to join me, although the Gunny had to have seen me, and my own team had to have witnessed my arrival at Tex’s side. I sat up and started pumping my right arm up and down. It was combat sign language for double time. It meant run, and the faster the pump the faster the person getting the sign was supposed to run. My arm pumped at the same speed as the drums beat, and I found that somehow satisfying. Like there was some good use for the drums. I looked down at Tex, and smiled, but kept pumping my right fist to beat of the enemy music.
I reached for my .45, and thought about firing a few rounds to get everyone’s attention in case nobody could see me. My Colt was gone. The strap dangled. The snap hadn’t held. The impact with the tank. I’d taken the brunt on my right side. My hip hurt where the .45 had been strapped into its holster. I was unarmed.
In only seconds I saw three crouched-over bodies running down the bank toward where Tex and I were. The Gunny himself was in the lead, with Stevens and a corpsman following. I laid back down.
“Man, you’re going to make it,” I reassured Tex. “Medivac is like minutes away. I lost my .45 getting to you, but it was worth it. You’re going home to the land of round eyes. Purple Heart, some medals and you’re out of here.”
Tex tried to say something, but I shushed him with one hand, patting the side of his head. I knew he had a chest wound. There was no way he should talk, and I didn’t want him to try.
Slowly, Tex pulled in his right hand from where it’d been splayed out on the muddy surface of the bank. He moved his hand to his hip, then lightly patted it.
I reached down to where his hand was. I touched a holster. Tex had a .45 too, I realized. He was an officer. I hadn’t noticed the weapon on him earlier. I pulled the holster up a bit from the mud under him. It was one of those new-fangled canvas things camouflaged with the same pattern as Tex wore on his Army fatigues. It had a flap, unlike my own. I couldn't have a flap on my holster because it’d take too long to get the weapon out if I needed it, the way I saw it. I pulled up the flap and eased the Colt out.
I stared at the chunk of machined steel. It wasn’t like my combat .45, the one I’d lost. It was blued instead of gray, and it had neat letters and numbers carved into the side of its slide. Tex had somehow brought a custom .45 to the combat theater. I’d heard of that being done by some officers but hadn’t really believed it was possible.
I looked at the gun, and then down into Tex’s eyes. I held the Colt in my right hand, feeling the custom fit of the personalized butt. I pointed at my chest with the index finger of my other hand, and raised my eyebrows.
Tex nodded, ever so slightly. I knew he had to be in great pain. I watched him try to force a smile but he couldn’t quite form it. I looked up to see the Gunny approaching. I knew morphine was out of the question. The last thing Tex could do with a chest wound was relax or fall into unconsciousness. He had to fight for every breath from the one functional lung he had left.
“He’s alive?” the Gunny asked, although he was looking right into Tex’s eyes when he framed the question.
The corpsman rushed around Tex’s body, and pushed me aside.
“Sucking chest wound,” he declared in seconds. “Got to get some plastic on both holes. He can live a long time, but die later if too much blood accumulates in the lung sacs.”
Stevens helped the corpsman, while the Gunny and I crouched nearby.
I checked my Speedmaster. The resupply was due in fifteen minutes. There was no way we were going to get Tex up and across the river, much less five clicks or so upriver to where the old runway was located. Resupply would come and go and Tex would die.
“Where’s your radioman?” I asked the Gunny, putting aside my anger over what had happened with the crossing.
“He’s across. Almost everyone’s across,” the Gunny replied, with a frown, I watched his expression as it began to dawn on him that he might have caused Tex’s death by delaying getting help to him.
There was only one thing to do.
“I’m going back right now,” I said. “Hold right where we are. I’m going to redirect a chopper right into this position. I hope they bring the gunships.”
I got up and ran, jamming Tex’s .45 into my holster, and snapping the leather strap shut with a slight click as I moved.
I was at the rope in seconds. I had no gear so I leaped into the water and grabbed the hemp line. The rope was good for what we were using it for because it was thick. There were no Marines in front of me. I went hand over hand across the top of the water. In the Basic School I’d set a record for the rope climb, floor to ceiling in an aircraft hangar. I went over the water like a spider crossing its web. When I got to the end of the bridge I didn't’ have to climb out.
Nguyen hoisted me right up and then Jones grabbed me around the torso, and pulled me onto the slippery metal surface. He didn’t let go until we were both down on the rusty treads further along.
“We gotta get to Fusner,” I said. “We gotta get a chopper over to the other side. Tex is still alive.”
All three of us got up and ran. The drums stopped drumming while we were running, but we didn’t reach the other side before finding out why. The two Skyraiders came screaming downriver, barely fifteen feet over the water. Behind them, a bit higher up and on both sides of the valley, were four Huey gunships split into two squadrons, one flying on each side. The Skyraiders flew over, and I ran, elated with their support and toward the other end of the bridge. The two gunships closest to the nearby cliff dropped down and opened up. On us. I dived from the end of the bridge and scrambled across the mud and sand to the edge of the piled jungle debris. I burrowed in. Our choppers thought we were the enemy. Jones was barebacked and Nguyen was a Montagnard, and God only knew what the gunship crews thought I was.
I burrowed and moved, burrowed and moved some more. I heard more choppers, too far down the valley to be landing at the old airstrip. I didn’t know what was going on, but I had to get to Fusner and I had to call off the friendly air before they decided that the Gunny, Stevens, the corpsman and Tex were the enemy too.