Nguyen moved ahead of me, as we departed the perfect overhanging concrete bunker-style encampment the others would be preparing behind us. The mild wind, rushing water of the nearby river, and the mud sand under our feet would all be pushed into the background once we returned, either with or without Jurgens in hand. The rain came down, pushing at our backs, when it pressed down in sheets, and then suddenly stopped for a few seconds to merely blow past the sides of our bodies, like a fine garden hose spray.
It was going to take longer than a few hours, even if Jurgens had been overwhelmed by the strengthening current of the storm-driven river water or died of hypothermia because, over time, the human body could not take immersion in cold water, even if that water, as the Bong Song next to us, was only running at about sixty-five or so degrees. The distance we had to cover, back and forth in the night was great. Another factor was the storm. I considered the time and hypothermia factors after we were a full half hour into our difficult traverse through the night. The stronger the rain, the quicker it would gather and flow down the streams from high up in the mountains that fed the river. Although the temperature of the air had to be in the nineties, the water was growing colder because it was taking less time to get to the bottom of the valley. Nguyen stopped abruptly, pointed at the sandy mud at his feet, and then slunk down into a native squat. I joined him immediately, wondering why we’d paused. I knew it wasn’t because of the darkness, because Nguyen moved in the night almost like he did in the day. His night vision had to be incredible, compared to my own.
Nguyen pointed back toward the way we’d come. I turned back, slinking lower down into the mud, in preparation of facing some new threat. Fusner and Zippo came out of the night like they were coming from behind a curtain.
“What the fuck?” I whispered, the words coming out of me unbidden.
“It’s us, sir,” Fusner said, unnecessarily, both men going to the sand right beside me.
“No shit,” I replied, almost asking them what the hell they were doing there against orders, but then realizing I already knew.
“You won’t be able to see Jurgens out there without the scope,” Zippo said, using the Starlight scope as their weak excuse for coming along. We would probably not be able to use the thing because of the rain, anyway, and both men had to know that.
“The company’s spread across the other side of the river, sir,” Fusner said, like somehow that was new unknown information. “You’re going to need to talk to the Gunny about what they might be able to do if we get in trouble.”
I stared at the sixteen-year-old, his eyes wide with excited wonder, as if he was on some nineteenth century jungle expedition, instead of in deep deadly trouble at the bottom of a valley that was doing everything within its power to kill him. Trouble. We might get into trouble.
“In case we get into trouble,” I breathed out in exasperation, although I was unable not to feel an internal glow of emotional warmth kicking inside my seemingly dead heart. They cared enough to be there, even against orders.
“Where’s Pilson?” I asked, having decided I wouldn’t mention my previous orders or how flagrantly they’d been disregarded, again.
“He’s building the hooches,” Fusner replied. “That place is so cool. Our own bunker at the bottom of the dreaded A Shau Valley,” he went on.
I stood up, without replying. We were a long way from being able to lay down on soft sand under the concrete runway overhang.
“We’re about an hour out,” I said, turning toward where Nguyen stood, but he wasn’t there anymore. He’d heard the conversation and was moving down the bank of the river before Fusner’s last words were out.
The rain changed from mist to a near solid form, making blinking and breathing hard, unless I tipped my head down and my battered helmet took the abuse. I knew we’d arrived when I ran straight into Nguyen’s back. I careened off to one side and went down onto my right knee, glad there were no rocks on the old flat remains of the former river bed. I thought I saw a small smile flash across the enigmatic man’s face, from my lower position, but he turned to look out over the river before I could be certain.
There was no sound making its way across the top of the rushing water to our position on the bank. Jurgens was not screaming. The tank was difficult to make out because the whitewater formerly visible even in the dark was no longer there. The water was going right over the bulk of the heavy metal beast.
“Is he out there?” Fusner asked.
I didn’t answer because there was no answer to be given without more information. I motioned to Zippo. Although the misting was heavy, our position laying down on the sand just back from the very edge of the river bank was fairly protected.
Zippo’s excuse for their coming along might prove to be more valid than I’d first thought.
I settled the scope across Zippo’s poncho covered back, pulling my own wet poncho over my head and the instrument before removing its front and rear caps. I switched it on, listening for its comforting, but annoying whine to build up like it was powered by some sort of tiny turbine instead of a battery.
“Okay,” I whispered, knowing that Zippo knew the drill. I waited a few seconds, until he stopped breathing, to peer out across the water. Jurgens wasn’t behind the tank, and the crocodile’s body wasn’t there either. The rope was there, still visible in green contrast, bobbing up and down atop the tank. I knew it was tied to the downriver track. The attempt to save Jurgens was a bust. I almost pulled the scope off Zippo’s back when I saw strange movement on the side of the tank, protected from the direct current. A roundish object bobbed upward and then sank down again. Zippo breathed, and I had to wait a few seconds.
“Jurgens,” I said out loud, knowing that the river was covering any possible voice tones unless they were shouted at the highest level.
Nothing was coming from Jurgens. He was bobbing his head up above the edge of the tank every half a minute, or so. It took a few seconds to figure out that the sergeant was trying to breathe. The water in the river had risen. It was now coming over the top of the tank. The downriver side of the iron beast had to be a roiling mess of white water, even though I couldn’t see it from my slightly upriver position.
“What’s he doing?” Fusner asked.
“Bobbing up and down to stay alive on the other side of the tank,” I replied, trying to figure out why Jurgens had gotten himself into that position.
The water traveling across the top of the tank didn’t seem deep enough to have shoved him up and over it. I looked upriver and down, but there was nothing else to see. I swept back to take in Jurgen’s position again. And then it came to me. He’d gotten on the tank in order to untie the rope so he could, with luck, swing back to the other side of the river. He’d fallen off the tank and was stuck on the downside of it because of the current. I slowly shook my head, as I watched him bob his head up and down. How the man had survived as long as he had, what with the cold water and the tortured mess of a situation he was in, was beyond me. The nasty hard Marine was made of true grit and old shoe leather.
“I’ve got to get out there in the next few minutes or Jurgens is a dead man,” I said, pulling the scope from Zippo’s back.
Zippo rolled over and took the heavy object from my hands, but my hands didn’t remain empty for long. Fusner pushed the Prick 25 handset into them.
“You’ve got to talk to the Gunny so he knows we're back,” he said. “They might shoot us thinking we're the enemy.”
I called on the command net and asked for the Gunny. Fusner was right. There was no chance, in the rain and mist, that anyone from the company was going to see me go into the river again and make my way down to the tank. But if the enemy from our side of the river opened up for some reason, and the jungle edge was only a few meters away, then the company might catch us in a deadly crossfire. The Gunny came up on the radio.
“We’re back, Gunny, and Jurgens is still out there,” I informed him.
“First platoon will be happy to hear that,” the Gunny replied. “What are you going to do?”
“Leave him there to rot or drown like a rat,” I replied, not absolutely certain I was kidding.
“So you’re going in to try again?” the Gunny asked as if I’d not said a word of what I’d said.
“Got to before dawn,” I replied. “They can’t see shit in this shit but by dawn, if Jurgens is still out there, then they’ll use him for sniper bait. If that happens then what can we do?”
“We’ll stand by,” the Gunny finally said, as if he was consulting others which I didn’t think he was. “Not much we can do from here in this weather shit until morning though. You’re right, we can’t leave him out there as sniper bait. We’ve got to go get him.”
The NVA were famous for wounding a Marine in the open and then using that wounded Marine to draw others out to pull him back. The snipers would then wound the rescuing Marine, and so on. If nobody came out to help the wounded Marine, then they’d keep shooting the one they’d started with. It was an impossible position for any Marine commander to be in, because if the wounded Marine was cared about by those around him, then the commander’s quite reasonable and required orders not to send anyone out, could have devastating consequences inside the entirety of the company itself. In Jurgens' case, First Platoon would probably go nuts if he became bait out in the middle of the river in front of everyone, as dawn broke. There was no “we,” as the Gunny had mentioned, to go out into the river. There was only me. I looked at the black rushing water in front of m and thought about the crocodile Barnes had saved us from. The river had to be filled with the beasts, or so I thought. Swimming out to the center of the river wasn’t a problem. I could do that in seconds. Catching the tank, as I went by in the swift water, was not going to be as easy as it was the first time. There was almost no light. The white water was now on the far side of the tank, not heaping up and around its tracks on either side. Once in the water, and being rushed down the river, the tank would be all but invisible until I was past it.
I gave the handset back to Fusner. There was no point in further discussion with the Gunny. His ending comments indicated that he was, indeed, speaking to me with others present. There was no “we.” There was only my small band of scouts on this side of the river, and nobody but me was going into the water to retrieve Jurgens, if that was possible. I’d thought of calling in some 175mm illumination rounds but then remembered that the 175 only had high explosive rounds, and nuclear. Nuclear wasn’t likely to get clearance, even if there were any of those rounds within five thousand miles of Vietnam, which I doubted.
“Zippo, get the rope from where we left it by Barnes,” I ordered.
Zippo, with Nguyen in the lead, started crawling toward where we’d left the body earlier.
“We’ve got to tie the rope off upriver, pace down to where the tank is along the riverbank, and then go back upriver to slip me in. If I get to the end of the rope and haven’t caught hold of the tank, then I’ll just coast back in and we’ll do it all over again.”
“Yes, sir,” Fusner replied.
I knew there was nothing else for him to say so we waited for Zippo and Nguyen to retrieve the rope. My shoulders hung down as I sat with my butt flat on the muddy sand. Fatigue was overpowering me. My plan to get to the tank again was good, but terribly flawed. I didn’t have more than one go at the thing left in me, and I wondered about that. I hadn’t had what passed for sleep in so long I couldn’t remember when I’d last gone down. My hands rested on the mud next to my hips until a big leech tried to attach itself to the outside of my right palm. I didn’t jerk away. I was disappointed to discover that I was becoming accustomed to the things. I brushed it away before it could attach and pulled my hands out of the muck. There were no leeches in the fast moving water. I’d been shocked to see the crocodile, since I would have guessed that such large lumbering reptiles would be holed up waiting for calmer waters.
It took half an hour to accomplish the preparations necessary for me to enter the water again. The first time I’d gone in willingly, with a bit of relief at being able to swim and get somewhat clean again. This time was different. I squatted at the side of the rapidly passing water. I calculated that swimming a bit further out toward the middle of moving mass would almost assure that I encountered the tank as I was pulled downriver. I just had to make sure I could grab on as I went by, and then maneuver around the beast’s upside down body to grab Jurgens. I sent all three members of the scout team back downriver to lay in wait. Fusner would watch the action through the Starlight scope on Zippo’s back. When I had a hold of Jurgens all three of them would run back up the bank, untie the rope, and then pull the two of us to shore, rather than gamble that Jurgens and I could push off from the tank and have the current sweep us in.
I waited to make sure enough time had gone by for them to get in place. I watched the water, for once glad of the misting rain. The sheets of near solid stuff falling earlier, making even breathing difficult, hadn’t returned. I hated my new plan. It was a mismatched mess of impossible-to-confirm conclusions followed by poorly observable speculations. Would Fusner be able to see me at the tank when I got there, and conclude we were ready for extraction? Would the batteries on the scope last that long? Would I be able to access the tank, as I was swept by, and then grab and hold Jurgens, and then wait long enough to be pulled away again?
I pulled off my boots and what was left of my socks. I pushed them up the bank with my battered helmet and liner. I last parted with my web belt, my .45 and canteen attached. I shoved the K-Bar combat knife down into the front thigh pocket where the last packets of morphine rested. I was just too beaten down to be able to make it, laden with anything except what was rapidly becoming my scrawny thin body. There was simply no time of convenience in combat to do much of anything, including sleeping and eating. Every Marine in the company reacted. We only acted in accordance to what came at us, and so much came at us it was almost impossible to do anything but race from one vital response to another. I got myself ready. There would be no signal. I had to go out there, but I didn’t want to get in the water. Checking the knot around my waist one last time, I stood up, breathing in and out in big deep breaths, like I was going to stay submerged for the whole swim. After a dozen breaths I dived out flat onto the surface of the flowing water.
As soon as I hit the water I felt much better. I was moving instead of being still. Anything was better than being still and enduring the frightful waiting. I used a frog kick to push myself forward, breast-stroking out into the main flow. I felt the coldness and the power of it, and both felt good. There was no treading water to wait. In seconds I slammed into the body of the tank, and was pushed upward and over the top without my being able to do anything about it. I slammed down into the water on the other side, and had the air jerked from my lungs. I was at the end of the rope. Our measurements had been almost exact, I realized.
I had no immediate thoughts about Jurgens. The mass of water coming over the tank was heavy and smashing down upon me. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get the rope loose. I had used two square knots to attach the rope end to my waist. I reached down as my body squirreled around trying to fight the waterfall whooshing down onto my exposed head and upper body. There was no standing in the cauldron of roiled water pool formed on the back side of the tank. I knew I would not be getting the knot loose in that mess. I worked to get the K-Bar out of my thigh pocket to cut myself loose. I was better off taking my chances of being flung downriver on my own than I was to stay trapped behind the tank like Jurgens had been, to die of hypothermia or drown. And where was Jurgens? The thought no sooner crossed my mind when, suddenly, what seemed like a giant leech attached itself to me. It was Jurgens. There was no possibility of speaking under the effects created by the tank waterfall of mind-bashing river water. No communication was necessary, however, from his standpoint. Jurgens was clutching my body like an abandoned baby attaching itself to its mother.
I tried to disentangle myself, but it was no use. The man wasn’t letting go and I couldn’t talk to him over the sound and jumbling mash of the powerful falls.
I pushed my hand deep into my right thigh pocket and got hold of a morphine syrette. I pulled a small tube out, wondering if I’d lose the others in the roiling water. I realized I didn’t care and it didn’t matter if I was dead. Jurgens' panic was going to kill both of us. I pulled off the syrette’s small plug, and then punched the small needle point into his side and squeezed. I fought to breathe.
The rope was saving our lives only because we were at the end of it. We bobbed up and down automatically, Jurgens and I melded into one. Jurgens hadn’t been bobbing up and down on purpose, I realized. He was at the end of the other rope. I went back into the pocket and pulled out my K-Bar, discarding its covering sabot into the passing water.
The K-bar was sharp. Getting the knife’s edge under the rope around Jurgens' waist, however, was harder than I thought, with both of us being bounced about, and his clutching terror. Finally, I got it in, or hoped I did and began sawing away. The rope parted almost immediately, at the same time as I lost hold of the knife, and Jurgens went limp.
I almost panicked myself. There was no way I was going to get out of my own rope, what with the pressure of the water pushing down and around our swirling bodies. We were trapped together to die in a strange fatal embrace.
And then we were out of the charnel hole and into the river. My relief was so great I almost loosened my hold on Jurgens. They’d been watching. I’d forgotten about my team, and the scope on the bank. They’d seen what they could of the action, made guesses, and then gone back to the other end of the rope and were pulling us in. I hung on to Jurgens and let myself be powered away from the tank. Jurgens and I moved together downriver once again, like I had before, with Barnes attached. I knew we had to be angling in toward the side of the bank.
What sounded like a huge drum began to rapidly beat, as my feet found purchase on the sandy bottom. But I knew it was no drum. The fifty was back, and the reason was fast becoming evident. The protection we’d enjoyed from the night and rain was passing. I could seek the shadow-like figures of my team pulling away on the line, like members of a rope-pulling contest. My eyes swept back out toward where the tank lay, now visible because of the white water falls created on its lee side, and also by the gouts of white water spewing up, as fifty caliber bullets impacted all around it.
The enemy was coming alive in the dawn, but they didn’t know where we were. I dragged Jurgens through the shallows, Zippo running to pull him onto dry sand. I’d given Jurgens only one syrette of morphine. He couldn’t be unconscious from just one, I thought. We had to move or we were dead, and we couldn’t move carrying anyone. Barnes was staying where he was. If Jurgens couldn’t be brought out of his stupor then he was staying with Barnes. Fusner worked on getting my knots untied while Nguyen dragged Jurgens all the way to the edge of the jungle, and laid him out next to where the dark hump of Barnes' body lay. The light was fast coming and only movement could save us before detection and death.
I crawled toward Jurgens, who lay sprawled on his back. Before I got to him Fusner got to me.
“They’re calling Flash, Sir”, he said, trying to get the headset of the air radio onto my head.
Hope reached into me like a hot poker thrust into my chest. Cowboy and the Sandys were back? Could God be that kind? The fifty opened up again, and I shrank back down, the front of my body flat in the sandy mud. Cold terror joined the warm hope roiling around at my very center.
“Cowboy?” I whispered into the mic, hitting the tiny transmit button. “Is that really you?”
“Five by five,” Jacko replied, his voice crackling with its usual expressive abandon. “Thought you boys might like a little breakfast fire.”