The Sandys came sweeping down the river, obliterating all other sound, the roar of their engines and propellers lifting my spirits in spite of my being trapped at the tank with a dead good kid and a living bad noncom.
I hugged the edge of the tank’s right tread, the metal warmer than the cool water slowly dropping my body temperature into one of discomfort. I knew the intensity of my fear would allow me to function no matter how cold I got. Jurgens had managed to maneuver around me to place my body between him and the crocodile. The reptile hadn’t move a millimeter since the fifty had opened up again. The Sandys hadn’t seemed to bother it a bit when they came over, nor the thunder of their twenty millimeters when they opened up again. The planes gave me hope, particularly when their remaining bombs fell into the nearby jungle again. Maybe they’d get lucky and put a five hundred pounder right on top of the fifty.
And then they were gone. Except for the sound of the water, things got quiet again. My hearing was half way back, because I heard Fusner, from over on the bank, trying to yell and whisper across the water at the same time. I stared into the eyes of the crocodile, pushed up against the track of the tank not six feet away from me. I slowly removed my .45 from my holster, gripping the butt hard for fear of losing my only weapon to the powerful current swirling around us. I could shoot the animal from under the surface. The Colt would function, and not too much energy would be lost by the bullet’s short travel through the water. I could also clear the weapon above the water to fire, but I’d have to make sure some of the water filling its barrel didn't remain. A partially full barrel would explode, with devastating results for any flesh and bone nearby. I decided to hold the gun under the surface, pointed at the crocodile’s head from below. I stared for a full ten seconds into its unblinking eyes, until I noticed it had a smaller third eye.
“Oh, thank you God,” I whispered, moving a few feet closer to the animal while awkwardly replacing my .45 in the holster, making sure to snap the thin leather thong over the hammer tang. I carefully pushed Barnes’ dangling arm and smiling head back up over the mildly arced edge of the tank’s sagging treads, as I moved, never letting my eyes leave the reptile for more than a second.
The crocodile was dead. It’d taken a single round right between its real eyes. The thing’s eyes never blinked because there was no life left to blink them. Barnes had fired. I hadn’t heard his 16 go off, but the evidence was floating there right in front of me. The hole between the reptile’s eyes was small, about the size a 5.56 or .223 caliber bullet might make. Barnes had gotten one round off, and thereby saved Jurgens and my life, or at least taken one very deadly risk out of our life or death equation.
“Thank you, Barnes,” I said out loud looking upward, before turning to face Jurgens in the dying light. Although the crocodile was out of play, Sergeant Jurgens and I were still stuck in the middle of the river, growing colder by the moment. Had the .50 been silenced for good or would there merely be another momentary respite before the NVA got it up and firing again? The night was on our side. The NVA couldn’t see in the dark, even if their big gun was up and working. First Platoon couldn't cross the river in the night either, so there would be no reinforcements from our side.
Fusner called out again from the closest part of the river bank in his barely suppressed yell. The team had brought the other end of the rope down river, having no need for the angle necessary when Barnes and I’d gone in.
The sound of the Sandys was dying off in the far distance. They’d been wonderful to have on station, although bombing and shooting down into triple canopy jungle was always a poor toss of the dice when it came to hitting intended targets.
“It’s dead,” I said to Jurgens. “Barnes took it out with one round between its eyes,” I waved at the crock’s body pressed into the side of the tank behind me.
“Thank God,” Jurgens replied, “can we pull it over to the bank so the guys can see it tomorrow?”
I looked up at the outlined form of Barnes' body, the falling sun glinting off the wet surfaces all around it. I pushed my anger at Jurgens down into the depths of my heart. I knew, in some way, his cold objectivity and total selfishness were advantageous to survival in the circumstances we’d been thrown into. There was no place inside the man for sympathy, compassion or honor at all, but he was alive when many Marines were not.
“Nope, that’s not going to happen,” I said, moving around to the very edge of the tank’s body, where the current angled by most powerfully. I fought to hang onto the rope and the steel track surface, squinting my eyes to see Fusner leaning out from the bank over near the flow of passing water. Zippo and Pilson were barely visible down and behind him at the very edge of the jungle undergrowth.
I couldn’t free up a hand to cup it against the side of my mouth in order to be heard better, so I yelled over to Fusner at the top of my voice.
“When it’s full dark. I’ll shoot the forty-five. Pull us across.”
Fusner waved back in assent. Our best chance would be to make the attempt in the dark, I knew. I wasn’t going to risk being taken apart by the .50 if I could help it.
The image of what had happened to Barnes was so vivid it superimposed itself vaguely over everything I saw, and worse when I closed my eyes. I could only hope the image would fade quickly over time. I didn’t want to think about the night problem ahead. How were we, a very small under-armed patrol, with no supporting fires and cut off until morning, supposed to survive along the edge of the river alone? We also had to be occupying a position known to just about every NVA soldier in the entire area. Every minute that went by made it more likely that some NVA patrol would be dispatched to reconnoiter and report back, or even to simply attack upon contact.
I stared over at the bank and noted that Zippo and Pilson were building some sort of barricade, no doubt to fortify the terribly vulnerable position. Nguyen was nowhere to be seen. I presumed he was somewhere inside the jungle area nearby, probably posted to make sure no one came out of the bracken by surprise.
I turned to see where Jurgens was, as I no longer felt him at my back. I felt the rope, gripped tightly in my left hand, jerk spasmodically.
Barnes’ body fell from the top of the tank into the water between where Jurgens and I cowered, the head of the crocodile bobbing up and down gently just behind Jurgens' back. Jurgens was bending over, working on the knots I’d used to tie the rope to Barnes’ waist.
It started a heavy rain again. Heavy dense sheets of impacting drops swept from upriver right down into us. I couldn’t see them coming in the near dark, and they came in predictable waves. Fifteen seconds of heavy rain, so dense it was hard to breathe, and then about half a minute of misting blowing light stuff. I watched Jurgens work, Barnes body being jerked around and under the water like it was going to disappear under the tank’s body. Jurgen’s back was to me, as he worked and I noted that his M-16 was nowhere to be seen. Had he lost it somewhere along the way or was it stuffed into some crevice among the tracks?
Another dense wall of the rain came down, obscuring my view, but I didn’t need to see any more. I didn’t have to see to know what Jurgens was doing. In spite of my order, he was detaching Barnes' body and was no doubt intent on tying the rope either to himself or the crocodile so he’d have a trophy to show his buddies in First Platoon the next morning. I’d told him that that was not going to happen, either event. I waited for a misting wave of rain to follow the thick stuff before carefully taking my .45 out and pointing the slide and barrel downward to get rid of as much river water as possible. It was almost full dark, but I could still see what was going on.
I moved forward two or three feet, having to lean under the taut rope, almost submerging my upper body in the water, but holding the Colt clear. I stood, bent forward and placed the .45 near the left side of Jurgens' head. I made sure to pull the automatic about six inches back, and then about four inches from his left ear, before I quickly clicked off the safety and squeezed the trigger.
Jurgens leaped upward, left hand instantly clutching his damaged ear.
I waited for him to turn to face me, but something else happened first. The rope pulled, throwing me off kilter so I had to use all the strength of my one hand to hold on. I stuck my .45 into its holster with my right without having time to strap it properly down. I grabbed the rope with both hands, as the rope was pulled away from the tank, dragging me out into the current with Barnes' body sliding along behind me on the surface. I’d forgotten about my order to Fusner about shooting the gun. The guys at the bank were pulling for all they were worth.
Jurgens screamed from behind me. Without looking back, I figured it was because of the damage the shock wave had done to his eardrum, until he shouted.
“Don’t leave me!”
I looked over my shoulder, but couldn’t see him because of the night, and another dense falling sheet of monsoon rain. I turned my attention forward, realizing what had happened. Jurgens had clutched his ear, and let go of the rope he’d been trying to untie. The guys had pulled at the sound of the Colt going off, and almost instantly Barnes and I had been jerked from behind the tank and out into the current. We were being pulled across the raging current without Jurgens, who was still trapped behind the tank, just like before.
There was really no need for the scout team to pull at all, once our bodies got out into the current. We swept downriver, the other end of the rope acting as a fulcrum to the point where we automatically skated along and then slid right onto the low berm of the river bank.
I laid at the bank, my body rolling slowly back and forth for a few seconds. The Moses plan had gone wrong, just like the one, I’d put together to occupy the downriver side of the hill earlier.
I heard Jurgens' anguished scream again. In spite of being a perfect asshole, the man was a Marine, a Marine in my company, and a Marine in serious trouble. I crawled up on the bank, as Fusner leaned down and grabbed my upper body to help me to my feet. The mud and sand covering me was cloying, but the rain was coming down so hard I knew if I just stood in one place long enough I’d be clean again. The river had been a wonderful relieving bath, if not a whole lot more.
“Untie Barnes’ body, or cut the rope, and get him situated up to the edge of the jungle. We’re moving upriver so we’re going to have to leave him until morning.”
“What about Sergeant Jurgens?” Fusner asked as Zippo and Pilson worked to free Barnes' body.
Jurgens screamed his plaintive call once more, as if on cue. “Don’t leave me, Junior. I’m so sorry.”
My first responsibility was to the patrol. Jurgens was going to get a lot more anguished before things changed for him, but that couldn’t be helped. I didn’t think I’d lose much sleep over Jurgen’s demise if that was to be the eventuality of what was happening.
A short period of driving mist replaced the driving rain.
“Give me the Gunny,” I said to Fusner.
“The radio’s under plastic, sir,” he replied. “Come on.”
I followed Fusner in the dark, back to the semi-hooch/barricade area they’d been trying to make something livable out of. We couldn’t stay where we were, however, and live through the night. The weather was awful, but the enemy would be implacably worse.
I stuck my head under the plastic sheet Fusner was using to cover the electronics and held the handset to my ear.
“Gunny, it’s Junior,” I transmitted, holding the little button down before quickly releasing.
Although the advanced Prick 25 was a two channel radio, with the transmissions on the same frequency were separate for sending and receiving. However, if a sender transmitted at the same time the receiver was trying to do so the power of the instrument would blow out the receiving signal. It was still necessary to use the word “over” to effectively and curtly communicate. Not that it mattered when nobody was following such effective procedures.
“Jurgens still out there,” the Gunny came back.
“First attempt failed,” I replied, wondering what else to tell the Gunny, what with the whole of First Platoon probably listening to every word. “Barnes bought it.”
“No shit,” the Gunny replied, his tone indicating sarcasm. Obviously, the entire perimeter had seen everything that transpired behind the tank. Or almost everything.
“We’ve got to reposition for the night,” I said. “I’ll be back for Jurgens in a few hours.”
“Like before, it’s your call, sir,” the Gunny said.
Sir. He’d called me sir. That stopped me for a second or two. And then it came to me. He was laying the responsibility for Jurgens' likely death at the feet of the conveniently and newly labeled company commander. Me. There was nothing else to be said, so I shoved the handset back toward Fusner.
“You’re coming back?” Fusner whispered, his voice so quiet no one nearby could hear.
I instinctively felt he wasn’t asking the real question on his mind. Was I coming back to save Jurgens or had I lied to the Gunny about that?
“Think it through,” I replied, before going on. “Let’s get our shit together and get out of here. We’re heading up river to just beyond the old airfield. We should be able to find that even in the dark. Unlimber the Starlight scope Zippo, and we’ll stop along the way and see what we can see between the bouts of heavy rain. Where’s Nguyen?”
“Here,” Pilson said, pointing into the jungle.
I looked up, as Nguyen appeared as if summoned by Pilson’s response.
We all got strapped into our packs. I was wet through. I knew I couldn’t move far with my utilities rubbing away my skin, plus the added weight the falling rain added to everything. I walked over to the rushing water, which had to be rising again to higher levels with the return of the rains. Jurgens had to be out of his mind with worry, and he had every right to be.
I cupped my hands to yell toward the tank, which was only visible because the current heaped up and splashed white foam around it a bit…which I knew it hadn’t been doing only moments before.
“Jurgens,” I yelled across the water.
“I know you’re there,” Jurgens yelled back. “Fucking Junior blew off my ear. I can’t hear. Are you coming?”
I wondered how he could hear if he couldn’t hear, but it really made no difference. He was stuck where he was until I got back to get out there and rope him in, again, unless he did something stupid. Or I did. I could have placed the .45 round in a better place, but my own anger at the man had overcome me. I moved upriver to join the team, waiting for me twenty yards away.
When I got to them I motioned for Nguyen to join me. I explained to him what we were looking for. Something close to the old airstrip yet easy to fortify for the night. We couldn’t use flashlights because the enemy had to be about. I knew, without saying anything to the men, that if the enemy was up there ahead of us in force then we were dead men no matter what we did. Our chances were far better if the enemy had to figure out where we were, and then find a way to engage us. The NVA didn’t necessarily know our patrol had no supporting fires of any use.
We moved slowly, walking fast for twenty meters, and then stopping for a full minute or so to wait and listen. It took a good hour and a half, according to my Speedmaster, for us to reach the cleared surface of the airstrip. Once onto the hard flat concrete, there was no point in moving slowly or stopping at all. Nguyen disappeared earlier at a loping run only to reappear once we were halfway across the exposed, but mercifully dark, expanse. The moon was nearing full so shone just enough light through the heavy invisible clouds to see him point back toward the direction he’d come from, which was back from where the river bent around the airstrip. The water went partially under the lip of the overhanging cliff on the far side.
I led the team behind him without checking the Starlight scope. We’d tried to use the scope three times along the way, but the momentary respite of the misting breaks had not been long enough, and I didn’t want to risk the thing shorting out completely. Another ‘layer’ of rain poured down and all moonlight was lost. We bent forward and forced ourselves through the heavy density of pounding water. The concrete under our feet was running two inches deep in water by the time we got across. I noticed that the water coming down was as cold as the river had been. But the air it was coming through was hot. Hot air and cold water together. I’d never have been able to imagine such conditions, much less experience them, back home.
Nguyen led us down a steep defile and into a sort of grotto that had been carved out by the river before it changed its course. The living snake of a river roared a short distance away before it dropped crashing distantly down and under the cliff. Going in the river at that point, I knew, would be almost a certain death sentence. I worried that the river might change course again, but there was little to be done for it. That danger was minimal, I thought, compared to the hunting NVA in the night.
“Stay off the radio,” I ordered Fusner. “I want no chance that the gooks will pick up any traffic. I’m going back with Nguyen for Jurgens. Everyone else stays here. We don't need to be pulled back over. The rope, secured to a tree, and the heavy current, will take care of that.”
“You’re leaving me here, sir?” Fusner asked, in surprise.
“You’re my radio operator, not my wife,” I replied, wanting to make sure the kid didn’t follow us out of loyalty. “You stay put with Pilson and Zippo, and get some waterproof hooches built so we can get out of this shit.”
Fusner didn’t reply. Instead, he gripped the wrist of my utility jacket and pulled me toward the airstrip we’d just come down off of.
“Your flashlight, sir,” he said, letting go after a few yards.
I dropped my pack and pulled out the little light. I had to take the tape from its lens, as the batteries were all but dead. I pointed it ahead turned it on, and lit up a cave. I marveled, staring. For twenty feet or so, the concrete had been eaten away, forming a perfect cave about six feet in height. The bottom of the man-made cave was rough packed sand. The gaping hole looked to me like a five-star hotel room. I turned the light off and put it back to into my pack.
“Get us situated while I’m gone,” I ordered. I thought of sleep, and almost passed out when an instant wave of fatigue swept over me. I breathed deep and got control. I stripped off everything I had except for my crummy green undershirt, trousers, belt and boots. I kept the morphine, just in case. It was waterproof. Nguyen was at my side when I stood up.
“Nguyen and I are going back to where we left the rope. I’ll go in and he’ll stay on the bank. We'll pluck Jurgens off the tank, get him in and then get back here.”
“You should take a radio,” Fusner replied, his voice very quiet, as if he was pouting.
“This is a quick one shot deal,” I said. “Either we’ll be back in a couple of hours or we won’t.”
I turned and took off at a run, not waiting for an answer or to see if Nguyen was following. I’d left Jurgens in the middle of the river that ran through the bottom of hell. I was going back for him I knew, not for him but for me, and for Barnes. Barnes had saved the two of us, not just me.